“Two thousand year old horror film franchises do not get up and walk away by themselves!”

Rudy might be the cool kid with a sick BMX and archery chops good enough for Nick Fury to show up and try to recruit him for the Avengers, but good money says he and his fellow Monster Squad members spend the rest of their lives in therapy.

Shane Black (Predator, Lethal Weapon) and Fred Dekker (House, Night of the Creeps), armed with an estimated budget of 12 million dollars (in the early 80s that would buy you a pretty decent movie, and still have enough left over for a solid cocaine budget), SFX by the legendary Stan Winston, and a logline for the script that must have read Our Gang vs. Actual Monsters set out to make a modern “Monster Mash” film in the vein of the Universal classics of days gone by. Abbot & Costello Meet [Insert Monsters Here], with less humor, more horror, and actual consequences for the characters.

The Monster Squad only recouped about 3.7 million domestically. The studio, Tri-Star Pictures, decided to cut bait early and pull it from theaters after a few short weeks. This was a mistake as the film, while not an immediate hit, was finding its audience both here and in Europe. It made its money back, and then some on home video and cable television a short while later.

“He returns from the grave? Shawn, he always returns from the grave! They chopped him up, put the pieces in a blender, mailed it to Norway and he still returned from the grave!… That was part 7, dad.”

The production team originally approached Universal Studios to distribute them film, so that they would have access to the exact likenesses of the classic Universal Monsters. They were turned down flat. Just as well, as even Universal didn’t have the rights to their most famous monsters’ likeness; Count Dracula. It’s the reason most of the Universal Monsters advertising and merchandise that comes out near Halloween features a generic looking vampire in an opera cape instead of a likeness of Bela Lugosi. His image is owned by his estate, currently his oldest son Bela Lugosi Jr., and he resents to this day the way the studio treated his father after the success of Dracula. He essentially blames them for his death, by refusing to give him any kind of work he lost his SAG membership and with it his medical insurance, which forced him to eventually go cold turkey from a 20+ year morphine addiction that killed the 80+ year old man.

While Universal were unwilling to go in on the project, upstart production company Tri-Star Pictures decided to go all-in on a family friendly… horror film. While this sort of mash up had been attempted before, never had it been done with such gusto. The family beats work, and if you even pay a little bit of attention you see that it’s a nuclear family about midway through a total core breach. The monsters are often actually scary, far more so than one would expect with such a well known and somewhat cheesy line up. The Wolfman scenes involve nearly David Chronenburg levels of body horror, the Gillman is genuinely inhuman and very much resembles something that could have been hiding in the ocean depths for eons without discovery, the mummy is well done (as is the clever way in which Rudy easily dispatches him, Green Arrow would be proud), Frankenstein’s creature not only looks the part but actor Tom Noonan puts in a hell of a performance considering the weight of the costume and make up. Dracula (of course) has a trio of brides to act as a distraction/cannon fodder while he sets his final plan into motion.

Which brings us to the Man himself. The Ruler of Walachia, Voivod of Transylvania, The Impaler Prince, Son of the Dragon, King of the Vampires, and leader of this suburban supernatural insurgency; Count Dracula.

“I’m going to step out and… have a bite, while you change into something more, heh, comfortable.”

Dracula is very much the instigator of the major plots in The Monster Squad, a film about a plucky band of pre-teens taking on a collection of ancient evils because nobody will believe that they exist. The film easily could have been a comedy, or a family film, or even a straight horror film of no small merit. Instead it chose to be all of those things, sometimes in the same scene. Others will go from one heartwarming scene to an abrupt change in tone to horror. This film is no doubt responsible for more whiplash than the average strip mall based ambulance chasing attorney. And it all starts with Dracula.

The part of the Count was originally offered to Liam Neeson, but he lost it when a television actor named Duncan Rhegar auditioned and blew everyone away. His interpretation of Dracula was that after 600 years of preying upon humanity for his survival he still maintained the airs and graces of the noble family he belonged to in life. Well dressed, charming, evening going so far as to attempt to purchase Van Helsing’s lost diary through conventional means. All of that refinement and sophistication is however a thin veneer.

Scratch the surface ever so slightly and he reveals his true nature, that of an inhuman predator that has left any pretense of actual humanity behind long ago. His nobility is an act, a means to get the people around him to lower their guard to make it easier to get what he wants from them (property, artifacts, assistance in his centuries-old schemes, their blood, etc.). In short Dracula is by far the most monstrous of the monsters in the film. More than one writer, myself included, has pointed to Rhegar’s performance as Count Dracula as not only a highlight of the film but one of the best on-screen portrayals of the character.

Every scene in which the pre-teen characters, or even the adults, encounter a monster there is a palpable tension. They realize they are staring at something that should not exist and trying to rationalize it. With Dracula its different, the Count makes no pretense about what he is and what he wants. If you are standing between him and his goal your options are to move aside or be killed quickly and efficiently by a 600+ year old predator in the shape of a man (most of the time). Dracula long ago stopped playing with his food.

The other monster with the most screen time is Frankenstein’s monster, who ends up befriending the children and aiding them against Dracula’s nefarious plot. When first we see him with one of the children, its Shawn’s little sister Phoebe, sitting by a river tossing flowers in. A not so subtle non to the original story. The screen cuts away as the creature is revealed and the audience is left with the impression that much like the last time this happened, the little girl ended up drowned in the river due to the creatures limited understanding of the situation. Instead she talks to him, not like a monster, or a servant, but as a person. That small gesture of humanity shown to the creature is something it had never experienced. So it begins to learn, to grow, and eventually grows outside of Dracula’s manipulations. This time the mood whiplash (the scene at the river) is not-so-abruptly resolved as the young girl introduces this creature of legend to her brother and friends and convinces them that despite being a reanimated patchwork of corpses is not inherently evil.

“Man, you sure know a lot about monsters!” … “Now that you mention it, I suppose I do…”

Another example of the rather intense mood whiplash this film is capable of comes from the group’s interactions with “Scary German Guy” – a recluse who lives alone in their neighborhood that pretty much everyone is afraid of. However the Squad needs Abraham Van Helsing’s diary translated and he is the only person they know who speaks fluent German.

After a few hilarious misunderstandings Scary German Guy proves an invaluable resource and the only adult who takes their claims seriously. Its never explained in dialogue as to why he would so readily believe in the forces of evil walking the earth, but is rather shown to the audience as the children leave his home and he closes the door… revealing a slightly faded concentration camp tattoo. Again, a fairly light-hearted scene that ends with an emotional gut punch.

“I told you, only one way to kill a werewolf.”

The Monster Squad is not a perfect film, but it is a highly underrated classic of the comedy/horror genre. There is something in it for everyone who enjoys comedy, family films, or seeing a werewolf get dynamite shoved down its pants then pushed out of a window to explode in midair. Its no wonder this is a must-watch film in my home (and many others) during the Halloween season (along with, of course, The Return of the Living Dead, and others). Despite my love of John Carpenters remake of The Thing, it is not required Halloween viewing. I always save that one for the first real snowfall of the year and settle in with some good company and a bottle of J&B Scotch to enjoy the movie as it was experienced by its protagonist, R.J. MacCready: Surly at the weather and half drunk for the entire duration.

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