The Films That Matter : The Monster Squad
The horror genre is special to me. My house décor revolves around the history of the genre, both in print and on film. My fiancée has been particularly open-minded about the miniature gravestones, the bleeding skull candle, and the various photos of ravens perched upon skulls. After every Halloween, I scour the department stores for clearance Halloween items worthy of being showcased in my home 365 days a year.
On my fireplace mantle, tucked in between family photographs, I have three framed drawings from a local comic book convention. The prints depict Bella Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Cheney’s Wolfman, and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster. While these particular “family members” are classics of the genre, I first met them through a movie that is more of a cult classic than a piece of cinematic history.
In 1987, HBO released The Monster Squad. I would have been 8 years old at the time, my prime formative years for tastes. I immediately related to the protagonists, a bunch of middle school kids who defend the world from the onslaught of Dracula and his evil friends. I can’t tell you how many times I watched The Monster Squad growing up, but the VHS tape that my sister and I recorded it on could barely hold vertical tracking by the time we were through. If you are old enough to know what vertical tracking is, then you are probably old enough to remember The Monster Squad.
Last year at Crypticon Kansas City, a local convention for the horror genre, I had the opportunity to watch the movie again with about a dozen other horror fans. As an added bonus, several of the film’s stars attended the convention. I had some concerns going in to the viewing. I hadn’t seen the film in years, and so many of the movies that I loved when I was a kid are total garbage. They are awful films with horrible acting and terrible special effects. I am happy to say that The Monster Squad is not one of them. It aged very well.
The Monster Squad isn’t just a good kid’s movie. It’s a good horror film. The special effects are on par with everything else in the genre at the time. The creature make-up is top of the line. The human characters are fun. The dialogue is sharp, and the writing is solid.
The monsters included the usual suspects of classic Hollywood creatures. Dracula led the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy as they pursued a sacred amulet that could either destroy them or ensure their ultimate victory.
The boys and girls in The Monster Squad manage to handle the monsters in a way that their parents fail. They had power over the monsters because they accepted their existence. As a kid, there are few things more empowering than believing that kids hold the fate of the world in their hands. I ate it up.
I was a very naive kid. I have no recollection of scary monster movies prior to The Monster Squad. I had no idea who Stephen King was. My fiancée, who saw the movie for the first time at Crypticon pointed out a logical flaw that had never occurred to me. Why are the boys seeking a virgin to use the amulet when realistically, every single one of them were virgins? I didn’t know how to answer that. Honestly, I’m not sure I knew what a virgin was the first time that I watched the movie. Much like the kids in The Monster Squad, I was in way over my head. As they learned to use Van Helsing’s diary to activate the amulet and save the world, I learned about the horror genre. I got to know its various tropes, and they are widely used.
Many of the scenes are just as frightening as anything you would see in an adult horror film. To this day, I have never been able to shake the fight between the police and the desperate Wolfman in human form. The ending is still nerve-racking, as Dracula grabs the little girl Phoebe and lifts her from the ground by her face. Many a policeman, the redshirts for this particular movie, are killed bloodless, yet gruesome ways as they stand between the monsters and the amulet. Lightning. Dark dungeons. Strange books and artifacts that open portals to other dimensions.
The movie might as well be a primer on the horror genre. Other horror tropes included: the three vampire sisters, Van Helsing, scary next door neighbors, a ghost hearse, creepy phone calls, and actual discussions on how to kill vampires and werewolves. Sean, the main protagonist, even wears a shirt proclaiming that “Stephen King Rules.” This movie has everything, and it lays it out in a quick-fire form that is perfect for absorption by young brains. By the end of the film, I felt as if I could go take on the monsters, armed with the knowledge that The Monster Squad gave me.
Maybe that is exactly what I did. I became a horror writer to meet the creatures head-on. Like the children, I would love them. I would accept their existence and learn to understand them. I would know how to beat them when the time came.
Isn’t that what the genre is about? Horror writers accept that evil exists. They expose it to the light of day and see how our characters react. They show the world how to deal with its monsters.
These days, I spend a lot of time chasing monsters on the page, and I take great pride in it. After all, it’s like Rudy says right before dispatching the vampire sisters. “I’m in the goddamn club, aren’t I?”