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Ready for ‘Player One’: Fred Dekker’s ‘The Monster Squad’ is great kids’ horror

In anticipation for the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, we’ll be taking a look back at various inspirations for the film’s author, writer Ernest Cline, and also seeking out other ’80s-related delights for your entertainment.

When modern productions attempt to evoke ’80s nostalgia by putting a group of quippy kids on their bicycles in search of an adventure, they’re often trying to evoke Richard Donner’s The Goonies, or at least their memories of that particular film. More often than not they wind up evoking Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad, a 1987 family film which is magnitudes less cacophonous and shitty than that film (even though producer and Ready Player One filmmaker Steven Spielberg might disagree) while also being a half-hour shorter and a great deal more fun.

You won’t find any truffle shuffles in this mother, but you will find a scene in which the Wolf-Man gets kicked in the balls and one in which Dracula gets burned by an overly garlic-y slice of pizza, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that we prefer it. Dekker is an under-heralded genre filmmaker, especially given that he directed Night of the Creeps, which is one of the decade’s premiere in-on-the-joke genre films, one of my favorites, and a film that compares favorably to any of Joe Dante’s manic work from the era, but The Monster Squad is perhaps an even tougher challenge, given that it’s made for children and not drunk and raucous midnight audiences looking to get their kicks from alien brain slug kills. And I’d argue that it succeeds for the most part, being a charming and well-intentioned genre romp for its intended audience and also their parents.

The Monster Squad is, well, about The Monster Squad, a group of kids in a suburban town who are obsessed with the Universal Monsters of lore: Dracula (Duncan Regeh, a bit reminiscent of Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows), The Wolf-Man (Carl Thibault), The Mummy (Michael MacKay), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr.), and, of course, Frankenstein’s Monster (a wonderful Tom Noonan), which, the kids will point out to you, is most definitely not named “Frankenstein.” They’re in that perfect adolescent sweet-spot where these characters are still very, very real to them, but not enough that they’re afraid or humorless about their hobbies. The ostensible leader of the group, Sean (Andre Gower), has a loving family who, despite that they might be ripping apart at the seams because of the policeman dad (Stephen Macht) being constantly overworked, supports him in his interests, even if they’re a little frustrated that he won’t let his little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank) play with him and his friends.

One day, he’s given a weird book in German by his mother, who picked it up at a neighborhood garage sale, which ultimately turns out to be a diary by Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim). Helsing attempted to send Dracula into a void that opens up only once every one hundred years as a way to ensnare and defeat the ultimate evil, but he failed. And now, one hundred years later, the monsters will make their way to the suburbs haunted by the Monster Squad, in an attempt to reclaim the diary and a mystical amulet that holds the key to the void.

It’s prime time to mention that Dekker’s friend Shane Black wrote the film with his friend, the same year that Black happened to have a little film called Lethal Weapon hit theaters, and as such, the dialogue is full of the quips and barbs that make that master’s movies pop. Black’s humor skews a bit on the adult side — I can imagine a ton of really awkward rides home in which younger viewers demanded to know why the kids had to get a virgin to read the incantation contained in Van Helsing’s diary — but it feels authentic for this particular moment in adolescence. Raunchy jokes start to take over at a certain point, and Black and Dekker (lol) nail them with the right mixture of goofiness. The kids do a damn solid job with the jokes, the standout being Horace (Brent Chalem), ostensibly the Chunk of this group, who gets the film’s best line (the immortal “Wolf-Man’s got nards!”) and a dope-ass hero moment near the end of the film. And there are oddly touching moments throughout, like when Sean’s dad returns home early from a night out working and relaxes with his son by watching a slasher movie — one playing at the drive-in theater nearby, so they have to sit on their roof and watch it through shared binoculars.

The same goes for the Squad’s interaction with a neighbor that they dub the Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino), who turns out to be a kindly old man who likes pie and is a survivor of real-world horrors that are dealt with tastefully. The monsters are less effective, given that I’d totally forgotten that the Mummy and the Creature were in this film, but Noonan does a great job as “Frank,” the nickname the Squad gives to the Monster once he proves himself to be a friend. There’s a number of touching allusions to the sweetest moment of the original Frankenstein, reflected in the lumbering giant’s relationship with Phoebe, and their little moment together as Frank is about to exit the picture is touching in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative.

It goes without saying, like most films that I’m writing about this week, that The Monster Squad flopped, barely making back a third of its $12 million budget. After this, Dekker would go on to direct Robocop 3, a project that would push him and writer Frank Miller (of comic book fame) out of Hollywood for at least a decade, when he returned to do some work on the smaller screen as a part of the Star Trek: Enterprise writers room. Despite a sporadic presence since then, Dekker hasn’t totally disappeared from Hollywood, as he’s re-teamed with Black as a co-writer on a number of recent projects, including the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director’s upcoming reboot of the Predator franchise, but one wonders what it would look like if he were to step into the director’s chair once again.

Noonan is still probably the most successful member of the cast, as he’s still working regularly in top form, even making an appearance in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck last year. Most of the children retired from acting within a few years, though sadly Chalem passed away in 1997 from pneumonia. And for a bit, it seemed like the film would genuinely be lost, only being issued on VHS once after its theatrical release, if not for the actions of its dedicated fanbase who, some 20 years after the film hit theaters, managed to get TriStar to release the film on DVD. It’s now readily available for purchase on most video-on-demand streaming services and will occasionally pop up on subscription sites like Hulu around Halloween.

The Monster Squad is pretty much established as a cult classic at this point, and I think it actually deserves a little bit better than that: It’s a really damn good introduction for 9 or 10 year-olds to the world of classic horror movies that doesn’t patronize them, and could be the kind of text that causes them to explore cinema, much like the somewhat contemporaneous Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid did back then or even like Ready Player One might do for kids today.

Featured image via MoviestillsDB.