Their physical traits define them: dual deformities, fangs, neck bolts, cloth wrappings, transparency, big hair, thick fur, and slimy scales. Their names identify them: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Some were first immortalized on screen almost 90 years ago, when Universal Studios launched their Monster series and forever defined a densely populated corner of the cinematic horror genre. Some are younger (the Creature is looking pretty spry at 56 this year), but this ragtag group of beasts and corpses, doomed bachelors and spurned lovers, has collectively stood the test of time, most recently marking a rather unique anniversary.
The Monster Squad
Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Ryan Lambert, Michael Faustino, Stephen Macht, Leonardo Cimino, Duncan Regehr, Tom Noonan, Ashley Bank, Lisa Fuller, Jack Gwillim
(TriStar Pictures; US theatrical: 14 Aug 1987; 1987)
Back in 1987, writer Shane Black and director Fred Dekker picked a handful of iconic characters from the Universal Monsters gallery and made a movie about informed kids battling the beasts. Many of these creatures are currently pushing 80, but The Monster Squad is turning 25. Dekker had a pile of movies to draw inspiration from, but ended up resurrecting five monsters to do battle with the Squad. Dracula led the pack, followed by the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and Gill Man, a reference to the Creature who received the fishy moniker back in his 1956 debut.
So Lon Chaney, Sr.’s deformed tragic figures didn’t make the cut. His Hunchback and Phantom stand tall and unique as the stars of the only silent movies in the Universal Monster series that they helped launch. Chaney’s personally handled makeup for his portrayals of the hideous outcasts remains the birthplace of essential iconography for Hollywood horror. The images are instantly recognizable and Chaney’s dual performances are very strong, but like the characters at their core, these movies are outsiders, even within their own group.
Chaney’s progeny would later follow in his dad’s footsteps and become heavily involved in the monster series. Chaney, Jr. played a pile of famous monsters in a lot of silly sequels, but it was his portrayal of the Wolf Man in the 1941 movie that gave him a monster role to call his own. The younger Chaney certainly didn’t inherit much of his father’s onscreen talent, though, instead taking after Bela Lugosi, whose iconic portrayal of Dracula remains marred by the Hungarian actor’s goofy celebration of shtick. Like Lugosi, who once played (poorly, I might add) Frankenstein’s monster alongside Chaney’s Wolf Man in a weak entry titled Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (didn’t see that title coming, did you?), Chaney reduced his creatures to simple mannerisms. Arms up, bare teeth, growl growl growl!
But as far as monsters go, Lugosi’s Dracula and Chaney’s Wolf Man are among the most iconic, so it makes sense they made the grade with Dekker’s mash-up movie. For more impressive acting in the Universal Monster series, you only need to look at what the great Boris Karloff did with the wounded creature that is Frankenstein’s monster. Karloff’s performances in Frankenstein and series gem Bride of Frankenstein are fully realized portraits of grief and loneliness as felt by a reanimated corpse. The monster’s desires to connect with others, to find love, to be accepted, and to no longer be vilified are communicated mournfully and movingly by Karloff.
His monster is also able to capture the lumbering contradiction of his needs and wants. He craves to cure his loneliness, but also wants to be free of human scorn. He can’t have it both ways, of course, but his tragedy is that he can’t have it either way. He’s doomed to be alone, because no one can ever love him, and yet he is so feared that people will never fully release him from their watchful gaze. His solution is to request a mate, which results in the brilliant Bride of Frankenstein, a movie that captures the tragedy of the social outcast in poignant, poetic terms. Elsa Lanchester makes only a brief appearance as the uniquely coiffed Bride of the monster, but she leaves an indelible mark on the genre with her look, her scream, and her portrait of a monster who cannot accept even herself.
The monster earned an obvious invite to The Monster Squad, but the Bride had to sit this one out. Dekker gives Frankenstein’s monster a lot of love, though. From using the classic question of “Is Frankenstein the maker or the monster?” as part of a mandatory quiz component for induction into the titular group to giving the monster a friendly, heroic arc, it’s clear that Dekker recognizes and respects the monster’s uniqueness in the grand scheme of Universal Monsters.
So with what is arguably the most famous trio of monsters in the mix, Dekker pulled in a couple of visually interesting creatures to round out the group. The Mummy is a curious character, since the original 1932 movie (another Karloff vehicle, hot on the heels of Frankenstein’s success) features very little of the cloth-wrapped corpse imagery that the character is usually associated with. Most of the Mummy’s screen time is given to a gaunt and tightly wrinkled Karloff, without a single cloth strip in sight.
Years later, in the 1940s, the franchise was rebooted (so apparently that concept was around long before the current blockbuster age, where “reboot” is a word that appears multiple times per year) and several sequels quickly followed. Lon Chaney, Jr. played the Mummy a few times in those movies (he must have been really busy in the 40s) and yet you’d never know since he was actually costumed in the character’s iconic garb, his face covered almost entirely. So the Universal Monsters series did eventually introduce the cloth wrappings and they’ve been synonymous with the Egyptian undead ever since. It’s this look that appears in The Monster Squad and ends up causing some serious issues for the Mummy. No wonder he was reluctant to wear the cloth strips.
Finally, removing the Creature from its beloved Black Lagoon allows Dekker’s movie to gain another physically unique monster specimen. The Gill Man gets a nice update courtesy of creature designer Stan Winston, who accomplished some phenomenal work in The Monster Squad. Taking cues from each of the original iconic designs, Winston’s work operates as both honest homage and rich revision.
Jack Pierce was the man behind the original designs for several Universal Monsters, most notably Frankenstein’s monster, but also the Wolf Man and the Mummy. Monster design doesn’t get much more iconic than the bolts on the neck of Frankenstein’s creation, so considering the nostalgic nature of Dekker’s movie, it’s understandable that Winston keeps the monster’s look in the same realm of physical identifiers. Still, Winston finds room to put his personal stamp on the designs.
The Wolf Man is much, um, wolfier this time around, less of a man with a lot of hair on his face and more of a guy with an actual snarling snout. Winston’s take on the Mummy draws inspiration from Pierce’s designs for the 40s remake and subsequent sequels, giving him room to play with the cloth strips and create a believable and intriguing look for the creature. Winston’s Mummy is small and skeletal, full of classic Mummy iconography and still managing to convey the fragility of its dried frame. For Frankenstein’s monster, Winston takes the least amount of liberties, simply refining the look that Pierce so effectively designed nearly six decades prior.
The nostalgia factor on display in The Monster Squad exists mainly within the realm of the chosen creatures and their specific appearances. The plot is a cute bit of silliness involving a race between Dracula and the kids who comprise the titular group to find a special amulet that will determine the fate of the monsters. Dracula summons the additional beasties to help him out, only to find himself one man (or corpse) down when Frankenstein’s monster befriends a Squad member’s younger sister. It’s a sensible twist, given that the monster is always looking for a companion who doesn’t fear him, but it’s also a sly bit of homage given the fate of a young girl in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein film.
Since the main characters are dedicated monster movie fans, references to the Universal Monsters series are littered throughout The Monster Squad, but the movie is eager to do its own thing as well. It is, after all, a kids’ movie and a comedy, so it’s clearly not attempting to emulate the horror aspects of the classics it draws inspiration from. It does have some dark elements in the comedy, thanks to Shane Black, who is best known for writing R-rated action flicks like Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Black is adept penning some strong, funny lines that are often unrestrained by ratings limitations, but he manages to adapt his voice quite well for the PG-13 rating of The Monster Squad. The memorable line “Wolfman’s got nards” has its own cult following and certainly sounds like something that belongs in a Black-scripted movie for kids. There’s even a pretty shocking moment (well, by kids’ movie standards) where Dracula calls little 5-year-old Phoebe (the aforementioned younger sister) a “bitch”. It’s hard to imagine a family-friendly movie getting away with that today.
Comedy, as a genre, did permeate the Universal Monster series in the late 40s and into the 50s when Abbot and Costello made a few movies where they met up with various monsters. Despite its title, the 1948 gag-fest Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a mash-up that mainly focuses on the Wolf Man (Chaney, Jr., of course) and Dracula (Lugosi again, whose appearance marks the only other time outside of Tod Browning’s original Dracula movie that he played this role in a feature film). Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange this time around) is incorrectly identified (a common recurrence in Universal titles) and then gets top billing here, which doesn’t make much sense given the monster’s lack of screen time and overall participation. I’ll just have to accept that popularity wins out when it comes to getting your name on the marquee.
Following other non-comedy Universal mash-ups like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein signals the end of an era. The triple combo of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man made their final appearances (both together and solo) for the Universal Monsters series in the horror-comedy hybrid. Of course, the characters themselves have quite comfortably survived the many decades since and the Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t even join the Universal Monsters group until the mid-50s, so the trio’s departure didn’t exactly leave a huge void in its wake. But it does represent a suitable passing of the torch and an appropriate bridging of the gap between the Universal series and The Monster Squad. That those guys called it quits in a comedy and were then resurrected for the specifically nostalgic, homage-minded 1987 comedy draws a nice connection between them.
I love The Monster Squad for a few reasons. I can’t separate myself from my nostalgic memories of the movie, so it’s become one of those rare treasures where the sensation of my childhood response to the picture is not lost, but rather bolstered by each subsequent viewing. And as a fan of monsters, I enjoy the idea of a group of fellow monster lovers having the opportunity to put their knowledge and passion to the test. But beyond these personal attachments, I like to think, in cinematically romanticized terms, that perhaps The Monster Squad will catch some young viewer’s eye and inspire him or her to seek out the classics, where they can discover those glorious ghouls that took over the screen so many years ago and helped define a genre. The creatures with the deformities, fangs, neck bolts, cloth wrappings, transparency, big hair, thick fur, and slimy scales deserve and need new fans. Then their monstrous immortality will truly know no bounds.