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Reviews

The Monster Squad: 20th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)

The juggling act of comedy, horror, and children mostly works because Dekker was able to find a group of kids to carry the film who, while not quite Abbott and Costello, are neither cutesy nor campy.


The Monster Squad

Director: Fred Dekker
Cast: Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Ryan Lambert, Michael Faustino, Ashley Bank, Duncan Regehr, Tom Noonan, Carl Thibault, Jonathan Gries, Michael MacKay
Distributor: Lionstage
Rated: PG-13
US DVD release date: 2009-11-24

The Monster Squad is one of those '80s underdog-adventure movies that's just one Corey shy of being a Saturday-afternoon television mainstay like the most famous of its brethren, The Goonies. Like The Goonies, the film features a ragtag group of under-supervised pre-teens who suddenly find themselves responsible for saving their community. This time, a club of junior-high monster enthusiasts, lead by Sean (Andre Gower) and his best friend Patrick (Robby Kiger), find themselves the best-equipped to step in when their town comes under attack from an equally ragtag group of classic Universal-style monsters: Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, a wolfman, a gillman, and a mummy. Of course, along the way, they also have to deal with personal issues such as bullies, parents in couples' counseling, misunderstood concentration-camp survivors, and not really knowing what a virgin is (which, obviously, is important for stopping monsters).

While this all seems like a strange jumble of ingredients, the disparate elements of the movie mainly work to balance each other out rather than compete with each other. Fred Dekker, a self-professed fan of both comedies and monster movies, describes the blueprint of the film as "What if we did a Little Rascals movie in which they meet the Universal monsters?" His goal, as he explains in the Blu-Ray's 90-minute documentary about all things Monster Squad, was to create something along the lines of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.The juggling act of comedy, horror, and children mostly works because Dekker was able to find a group of kids to carry the film who, while not quite Abbott and Costello, are neither cutesy nor campy.

The members of the Monster Squad aren't fully realistic -- especially designated "cool" kid Rudy (Ryan Lambert), who achieves his level of hipness by looking like a greaser straight out of the '50s (and he has no clear motive for being in the Monster Squad, anyway). But their combination of crassness -- even Sean's five-year-old Phoebe (Ashley Bank) calls the rest of them "chickenshit" -- and mélange of personal problems keep them from being overly sentimental.

The movie also avoids over-relying on their friendship, and doesn't mine it for a saccharine emotional core. (Instead, that comes from Phoebe's surprisingly sweet relationship with Frankenstein's monster.) The friends aren't even particularly nice to each other, seeing as they call one of their members "Fat Kid". (His name is Horace.) Instead, it does an expert job of quickly establishing the kids behind the Monster Squad and then getting out of their way so they can go off and fight monsters.

The monsters, however, could have used a little bit more meat and grit to them. Sure, the audience is told of a looming threat that will tip the universe's balance between good and evil towards evil forever. But other than that, the monsters don't really get to showcase their powers of villainy. The Gillman and the Mummy barely get to do any menacing, and Frankenstein's monster switches allegiances to good pretty quickly (though the kids' English lessons, teaching him how to call things "bogus," puts him in the same amusing category as all the historical figures transplanted in another '80s capering classic, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure). The monsters all look the part perfectly, but few of their characters are paid off.

All of the monsters appear to be acting under the will of Count Dracula, who appears to pose the most threat of the monsters, given the he hurls dynamite at people and attempts to strangle a five-year-old girl. In fact, Dracula pulls off the movie's sole, proving-the-stakes kill. (Unfortunately, adhering to one of the worst horror-movie clichés, the person who is fatally dynamited is the only African-American character.)

Still, with his ruffled shirt and lack of intensity, this is neither the scariest nor most alluring portrayal of Count Dracula that the world has seen. He's also not even the most vampiric Count Dracula, as evidence of any vampirism mostly happens off-screen. On screen, he could be any moustache-twirling villain, and doesn't really live up to the icon of Dracula. During the thorough behind-the-scenes documentary included on the Blu-Ray, it's mentioned that Liam Neeson read for the part, and it would have been interesting to see his take on the character.

You can tell that director Fred Dekker and his crew have a both a genuine affection for monster movies. In one of two commentary tracks on the Blu-Ray, Dekker explains that they included a shot of an armadillo in Dracula's castle because the Béla Lugosi Dracula had armadillos in it. They also made a near-exact replica of Lugosi's ring for Dracula to wear.

Fans of classic monster movies can find lots of little homages to the Universal pictures throughout the film -- Frankstein's monster meets the Monster Squad by befriending a little girl next to a lake, for example -- and that extra layer rewards both parents watching the movie with their kids, and fans who remember the film from their childhood and revisit it when they get older. In fact, that may be responsible for the movie's steady growth into cult fame, earning the Monster Squad a deserved place a monster conventions and cult-classic film screenings for years to come.

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