ABCs of Horror: “M” Is for The Monster Squad (1987)

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ABCs of Horror: “M” Is for The Monster Squad (1987)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

Everything you need to know about The Monster Squad, you can deduce pretty much immediately from Andre Gower’s “STEPHEN KING RULES” tee shirt. Bright red, and emblazoned in school bus yellow font that can be seen from a mile away, it’s the uniform of a 12-year-old character who proudly struts around school in a garment that proclaims his love for an author he’s almost certainly too young to read, but more importantly functions as a neon sign that might as well read “Yeah I’m a nerd, what of it?” Because that’s what The Monster Squad is all about—like The Goonies, to which you can’t help but compare it, the film is about a group of pre-teens who revel in their status as outcasts and refuse to be made to feel awkward about it. YES, they presumably say to other kids in the cafeteria, we do indeed hold our meetings in a treehouse and discuss our love of Universal monster movies—jealous much?

There’s a genuine love for the classic horror/adventure genre here that is infectious and brings an immediate sense of familiarity, even for those who have never seen The Monster Squad. A box office failure in its initial release, it’s a classic example of a late-bloomer, with a reputation that grew steadily in the 1990s and 2000s until the fandom could no longer be ignored. Eventually a staple of genre conventions and reunions (not to mention cable), Gower even returned 30 years later to direct a feature documentary on the film’s fandom, appropriately titled Wolfman’s Got Nards. It’s the same story of cult reclamation you’ve seen so many times before, but in this case it was particularly well deserved—The Monster Squad should have been hailed as an instant Halloween classic from the start.

Short of Trick ‘r Treat, there are few films that evoke the childhood feeling of the holiday with more genuine reverence. The members of the Monster Squad—Sean, Patrick, Horace, Rudy, Eugene, Phoebe—are happy to wile away their afternoons in discussion of the finer points of what might happen in a battle between Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, conducting themselves with an earnest enthusiasm that, although no doubt an idealized depiction of a “simpler time,” is comforting nonetheless. It stands in contrast to modern filmic depiction of pre-teens, in which those characters so often read as simply small adults. Here, there’s no mistaking that these are kids, and gawky ones at that. They’re the perfect bunch of misfits to charge with the protection of a magical amulet that is the key to a monster-free existence.

And oh, the monsters—if there’s one area of the film that even those most cynical can’t deny, it’s the quality of each individual monster. Dracula is the terrifying archfiend, a fitting ringleader to the monster jamboree and an unblinking force of pure evil, while Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man both are to various degrees unwilling pawns in his game—perfectly faithful to the empathetic original portrayals of both characters by Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mummy and Gill-Man (the Creature From the Black Lagoon), meanwhile, are special effects marvels that stand up against the very best horror costuming of the era—absolutely impeccable detail that only Stan Winston (or Rick Baker) could have pulled off with such verve. Watching this film will invariably make you nostalgic for a time when the answer to “how do we depict this killer fish-man?” was “with a costume!” rather than “with a team of overworked CGI artists.” Together, it’s the greatest go-round for the original lineup of Universal Monsters since their pre-war heyday, and it hasn’t been surpassed in the 32 years to follow—not by Van Helsing, and certainly not by Universal’s aborted “Dark Universe.”

The plot, meanwhile, is nothing to write home about—Dracula needs an amulet to conquer the world, and the kids need to keep it safe—but such simplicity also benefited The Goonies, which can just as easily be summed up as “some kids go on a treasure hunt.” Like that film, this one is driven by colorful characters, action and humor rather than detailed plotting, falling back on stock “our gang” tropes—the leader, the second in command, the tough kid, the shrimpy kid, etc. that are instantly familiar and relatable. Its key is tonal balance—it strikes a pitch-perfect blend between genuine peril and monsters that are presented as threatening, countered by moments of physical comedy and running gags. It has that rare ability to balance genres seen in a handful of other films of the era, evoking Amblin-era Spielberg while also hinting at the grosser and more perverse work of its director Fred Dekker in Night of the Creeps the year before. Decades later, it appeals to both kids of the 2010s and those who were children of the 1980s.

If you’ve somehow never seen The Monster Squad, and you find yourself wondering what to throw on the TV during your socially distanced Halloween party this year, consider this film your go-to option for both chuckles and warm nostalgia. There’s a good-natured feel to this movie that can’t be denied, and it’s always ready to win some new fans.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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