Wednesday, July 25, 2007

MONSTER SQUAD-A-THON: 'Something to do with art'

The above quote, made by Duncan Regehr (Dracula) in a documentary on The Monster Squad DVD, is an attempt to capture just why the movie works so well. This quote struck me -- not just because it's similar to one of my favorite Once Upon a Time in the West lines ('something to do with death') -- as it's about the best way you can sum up all the tight-rope walking done by director Fred Dekker and his crew that went in to making The Monster Squad something that gets better with age. On the surface it shouldn't work, just trying to make sense of the plot and point out all of its holes and detachments from reality would take up most of this page, but it damn well does -- and it mostly has to do with art.

Art, imagination and a specific time in Hollywood when this kind of movie was able to get greenlit. The Monster Squad was riding the horror tidal wave in Hollywood, which would see the genre inundated with slasher movies and also atmospheric fantastical journeys. It would be just a couple of years before the MPAA started cracking down on all the bloodshed, and the CGI revolution would focus on more sci-fi/adventure flicks. But in 1987, horror was what brought teens and young adults to the screens. Despite this fact, The Monster Squad bombed. In the documentary, Dekker and his producer recount that it fit into a niche that didn't (and still doesn't) exist: too scary for kids, but too juvenile for adults. But for a generation that enjoyed it as kids on HBO or VHS and are re-living it now after the long-awaited DVD release, The Monster Squad is wonderful in the fact that there still is nothing else like it, and it remains pure genre-defying entertainment.

Dekker says in the documentary that he wanted to make The Little Rascals Meets the Universal Monsters, and that's exactly what The Monster Squad is. Don't come to the show expecting a revolutionary plot (or even a plot at all), all you need to know is that the classic horror monsters come to Anytown, U.S.A., and a group of kids are our only hope against complete destruction. When I say Dekker and crew walked a tight rope with this movie, what I meant was there are so many opportunities for The Monster Squad to enter 'hey kids, this is funny, right?' mode or even 'gosh aren't horror movies dumb!?' satire. Dekker never lets his film enter either nether-region, as his respect for classic horror and comedy is always on display. Everyone plays it straight, especially Regehr as a terrifying and maniacal Dracula who never tries to be Bela Lugosi.
The Monster Squad checks in at a skimpy 81 minutes, but it never feels lacking in any of the essential departments because there's no time wasted in the gang trying to get parents and police to believe their story and save the day. Nope, the members of the Monster Squad know from the beginning this is their fight, and the adults largely stay in the background. This is the best Little Rascals element of the movie, as the kids' friendship and knowledge of horror monsters are played up as their greatest strengths. Dekker and screen writer Shane Black (who also wrote the Lethal Weapon series and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) were wise enough to The Monster Squad the structure and pacing of a classic horror film -- with the best action backloaded to the final act and a story that gradually builds by giving each villain a grand entrance.

Solidifying the movie are the flawless Stan Winston creature effects and the cinematography by Bradford May. Winston's crew was faced with both a challenging task and a great opportunity for imagination: remaking Universal's monsters. Since Universal passed on The Monster Squad, the film's monsters needed to be different enough from the studio's properties so as not to incur the studio's legal wrath. The result was not only believable, never hokey monsters, but also designs that in many ways were stronger than Universal's. The Wolfman in particular looks much more menacing than Lon Chaney, Jr.'s version, with a more canine facial structure and a transformation that ends up as a working man's An American Werewolf in London. 'Gillman' (the Creature) is simply a triumph, replicating all the best features of the original amphibious beast with a more terrifying face (done beautifully with animatronic eyes and jaw). Mummy, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster are similar, adding modern macabre and menace to the classic core monster elements. May's photography adds a luxurious touch to the film, and as a result it never looks low-budget or campy. There are several scenes where May's hard work produces rich rewards, my favorite being Sean's discovery of the amulet: the room is flooded with the object's shimmering green light, which is framed by the silhouettes of anti-Dracula crosses and strands of garlic.

When there is genuine satire in The Monster Squad it never infringes on the film. To me the funniest part of the movie is simply the story we're supposed to swallow without any mind to the countless questions that go unanswered: how did Transylvania become Anytown, U.S.A. after Van Helsing's failed battle with Dracula? Why does Dracula need the other monsters' help? Why did the Mummy go from the swamp to Eugene's closet and then summarily leave? Why is Dracula intent on killing Sean? Why does everyone have easy access to dynamite, and how was Sean's dad able to buy fresh sticks of it so close to midnight? Why was a B-17 carrying crates from Transylvania, and where was Dracula's hurse parked that whole time?

Luckly, Dekker never gives you enough time to really ponder any of these questions, and no one in the movie has the sense to seek the answers. The kids and their family have accepted that their nameless Southern town has attracted the classic horror monsters and now they have to destroy them, simple as that. If you need to wonder why, well you wouldn't be admitted to the club in the first place.

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