At the moment, there's a great deal of nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s. For a lot of folks of a certain age, movies like Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Aliens, The Breakfast Club and The Princess Bride (all fine films, to be sure) more or less represent the pinnacle of great cinema. Hey, I get it: the stuff we grew up with is always going to push our buttons in a way that nothing else really can. When I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, the joy I experience is rooted in both the film's remarkable craftsmanship and in the pleasure of reliving one of the films that defined my love of movies. However, nostalgia can be a double-edged sword, as it's also capable of blinding us to a film's failings. We're unable to see how mediocre large chunks of Caddyshack are, or what a mess the first half of Return of the Jedi is, or how sloppy The Goonies gets on occasion. Yes, let it be said that The Monster Squad – a Spielbergian slice of monster-themed mayhem that is now regarded as a cult classic in many circles – is not a particularly good movie.
If you're a kid, it makes perfect sense that The Monster Squad seems like the coolest thing ever. It's a kids movie, yeah, but way more violent and action-packed than most other kids movies. It's not just a monster movie, but the ultimate monster movie: Dracula (Duncan Regehr, Zorro) AND Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan, Synecdoche, New York) AND The Creature from the Black Lagoon AND The Mummy AND The Wolfman (Carl Thibault, The Garage) all in the same movie! And they're fighting a bunch of kids! And the fate of the universe is at stake! And one of the kids wears a shirt that says “Stephen King Rules!” And the kids get to shoot guns! And there are all kinds of crazy special effects!
The problem is that The Monster Squad is a good idea for a movie that somehow never quite turns into a good movie. Conceptually, it looks like a blast, but the monsters themselves are a bust: I've seen an awful lot of monster movies over the years, and I don't think I've ever seen a duller Dracula than the generic Halloween party version this film offers. The same goes for just about all of the other fearsome foes in the film, with the possible exception of Frankenstein's monster (whose most memorable scene involves the creature accidentally taking a photo of a nubile young woman getting undressed). The monsters consistently look great, but the movie doesn't know what to do with them. They're just... well, a bunch of monsters.
The screenplay was co-written by Shane Black and director Fred Dekker. Black's quippy dialogue has enlivened quite a few movies over the years, but much of the banter in The Monster Squad seems to be trying way too hard: “Son, I love you dearly, but put your basic lid on it.” Admittedly, it's refreshing to see a kid-centric movie that doesn't sand all the rough edges off the worlds these kids live in: the kids employ the sort of profanity and sexual innuendo and unfortunate slurs that kids their age actually use, which is nice. It's just a shame that the film's unsanitized atmosphere isn't matched by interesting characterization (the stereotypical chunky sidekick has a big moment when he shouts his name with pride, but up until that climactic moment, he's just “Fat Kid”).
Let it be said that not all of the movie's appeal can be chalked up to mere nostalgia. At a quick 82 minutes, the film moves at a considerably faster clip than most vfx-driven blockbusters, and the breakneck pace adds to the film's youthful energy (if the film were made today, it would likely be pitched as the prologue to a vast shared cinematic universe). Bruce Broughton's old-school symphonic horror score does a fine job of setting the tone, and there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment involving a prominent supporting character (Scary German Guy, played by Leonard Cimino) that's far more moving than anything in this movie has a right to be. Dekker's action sequences are fairly well-staged, too, even if they rely far too heavily on coincidental strokes of luck.
Before you burn me at the stake, let me make a confession: I didn't grow up with The Monster Squad. There was a window of time in my youth when I probably would have loved it, but I never caught it during that time. I saw it for the first time as a far-too-cynical adult, and it didn't do much for me. Maybe if I had seen the movie when I was ten – if it had made that indelible first impression it's clearly made on so many others - I'd be finding more reasons to sing the movie's praises. But you know what? If The Monster Squad brings you joy, don't let me rain on your parade. We all have things we love in spite of their flaws, and as much as we'd like to think we're being “objective” about everything we see, a host of unique factors can dramatically alter the way we respond to a film (including - but not limited to - how old we were when we first saw it). We love what we love, and The Monster Squad just isn't for me.
The Monster Squad
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 83 minutes
Release Year: 1987