How Fred Dekker’s underappreciated homage to horror’s golden age found a cult afterlife
In many respects, 1986 was a good year for Fred Dekker since it was the year that he made his directorial debut with zombie alien slug-parasite comedy, Night of the Creeps following the release of Steve Miner’s House in 1985, which was based on a story that Dekker penned. Capitalising on an opportunity to film Night of the Creeps, Dekker went at it hammer and tongs, crafting a hilarious and highly irreverent genre blender that gleefully subverted the po-faced nightmare terrors and slasher gore of the 70s and 80s, whilst also tipping its hat to the schlocky, low budget drive-in delights of Roger Corman’s intimidatingly prolific back catalogue.
Naturally, for a genre flick so far ahead of the curve in terms of its meta-aspirations, the film proved a difficult pill to swallow commercially at the time of release. However, despite sinking like a stone in 1986, the film would subsequently develop a devoted following amongst genre nerds enamoured by its humorous horror, tonal uncertainty and messy postmodern ponderings.
Undeterred by the commercial failure of Creeps, Dekker would bounce back with The Monster Squad in 1987, yet another mischievous, genre-savvy horror-comedy, namechecked in Night of The Creeps when graffiti declaring Go, Monster Squad can be seen daubed on the wall of a men’s toilet. Co-written by future Hollywood screenwriting wunderkind Shane Black, the film would elaborate on the riotous, self-aware meanderings of Creeps, though this time the kids would be a pre-teen gang of ne’er-do-wells facing off against a host of horror legends, as opposed to a band of hormonal teenagers doing battle against rampaging zombies.
Black and Dekker originally conceived the script during a period in the 80s when the pair lived together, along with a group of similarly aspiring writers, in a clapped-out bungalow in West LA. It was this bungalow that would eventually enter into film folklore as The Pad O’ Guys. Essentially, The Pad O’ Guys was a virile geek kingdom, inhabited by the likes of Ed Solomon of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure fame, and Robert Reneau who would go on to pen mildly satirical dystopian actioner Demolition Man starring Wesley Snipes and Sly Stallone.
Wolfman’s got nards!Horace
Whilst writing the script, the duo would pilfer from kids’ adventure yarns popular during the period such as The Goonies, Explorers and Stand by Me for the narrative’s foundation. In the case of The Monster Squad, though, the kids would be up against a gallery of vintage fiends from the pre-Hays code golden age of Universal horrors, as opposed to pirates, aliens or sadistic school bullies.
Essentially the film’s plot is as follows: Dracula travels to America to take up residence in a suburban backwater with his monster buddies, The Wolf-man, The Gillman, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Mummy. Dracula is in search of an ancient McGuffin in the form of a magical indestructible amulet that helps maintain the balance between the forces of good and evil. Once, every hundred years, the amulet becomes vulnerable to destruction. If destroyed, the forces of darkness get a free pass to run riot over the earth. However, the amulet can also be used to conveniently open a wormhole to purgatory, for reasons that are never really made clear, provided a virgin recites a German incantation. When the kids of The Monster Squad find this out, they embark on a quest to acquire the amulet and open the wormhole with a view to sucking Dracula and his evil cronies into limbo, before they can destroy the amulet and plunge the world into eternal night.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why a film celebrating the silver screen heyday of Universal monster mayhem in the 80s struggled to find an audience. The Monster Squad is, for all intents and purposes, a pre-adolescent Amblin knock-off bolted to the back of an Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein homage. Critics, at the time of its release, were less than impressed with the film. Hal Hinson noted for The Washington Post that it “played like it was written with a power tool.” Other critical responses were similarly unflattering.
A closer look, however, reveals that the film is, in fact, an incredibly self-aware and heartfelt homage. Whilst it’s true that it lacks the visual and narrative tidiness that made The Goonies and Stand by Me essential viewing, it is also true that what it lacks in aesthetic appeal, it more than makes up for via an enthusiastic deployment of subversive genre smarts.
Vintage predators, such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, recycled to bloody effect by the likes of Hammer in the 50s and 60s, had been rendered cartoonish by the time the bogeymen of the 70s, such as Leatherface and Michael Myers, made their entrance. By the time the 80s arrived, screen monsters such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Lon Chaney’s Wolfman were all but obsolete. With the slasher genre churning out product and psychological terror movies hustling for their spot in the limelight, werewolves and vampires were decidedly off-trend. In order to remain relevant filmmakers were having to radically remodel the famous monsters of filmland to ensure their continued appeal for a generation of horror geeks nurtured on terror, explicit gore, sexualised violence, and psychological uncertainty.
The Monster Squad, therefore, was somewhat of an anomaly. Coming out at a time when the odds were stacked against it, the film opted for adventure over scares, and nostalgia over reinvention. It made no attempt to modernise its monsters, barring a few aesthetic tweaks by legendary effects guru Stan Winston to avoid copyright infringement. Instead, it lovingly pastiched the horror classics it sought to re-introduce to cinemagoers, utilising them to challenge popular genre standards of the period with a view to fostering an appreciation of horror cinema’s rich Goth history for fans who’d grown accustomed to teenaged slaughter. Whilst the film would play for laughs, it would not skimp on the violence. Standout scenes include Wolf-man getting a hefty kick in the bollocks, an explosive incident involving Wolf-man and a stick of dynamite, a scene in which the kids use a garlicky pizza to inflict third degree burns on Dracula’s smug face and an amusing unravelling involving a mummy, a bow and arrow, and a speeding vehicle.
In terms of character development, a holocaust survivor played by Leonardo Cimino, who is listed as Scary German Guy in the film’s closing credits, is the nearest the film gets to an adult of substance. Mostly the grownups in this film are pantomime villains in heavy makeup or clichéd authority figures who radiate scepticism.
Thankfully, the diminutive monster hunters are likeable and amusing. They may be less congenial than the kids from The Goonies, but their rough edges and spiky personalities are what make the audience root for them. Black and Dekker’s canny subversion of the saccharine coming-of-age character archetypes favoured by Disney and Amblin elevates the film considerably. The Monster Squad needed a feral group of kids at the helm like E.T. needed Drew Barrymore and a flowerpot crammed with wilting geraniums.
Where the hell am I supposed to find silver bullets? Kmart?Rudy
However, whilst this approach served to differentiate the film from mainstream kids’ adventure movies by depicting its youthful cast as sweary outsiders obsessed with nerd stuff, not all of the rebel beats were amusing or palatable. Young kids jokily slinging homophobic slurs at each other makes for awkward, offensive viewing. Then there’s the showdown, which is irresponsibly handled on the part of the filmmakers, who seemingly think it’s acceptable to have children handling firearms. Finally, a deeply discomforting side-plot in which Peeping Tom Bad Boy Rudy makes use of compromising photos of girl next door Lisa to blackmail her into assisting the squad fight evil, is as unnecessary as it is sleazy. No matter which way you look at it this is not the sort of behaviour you want from young male role models, whether the fate of the world hangs in the balance or not.
Overall, though, despite a number of tonal hiccups and a slew of questionable narrative choices, the film emerges victorious. Black and Dekker’s quickfire dialogue and juvenile sense of humour ensures that the film makes it over the finish line. When “Fat Kid” Horace asserts himself by declaring to the school bully after shot-gunning Gillman to death ‘My name… is Horace,’ it’s hard not to feel mildly elated. The scene acquires an additional poignancy when you realise that Brent Chalem, who played Horace in the film, would die tragically in 1997 of pneumonia aged only 22.
The Monster Squad was released in theatres in August 1987 and played for two weeks before sliding out of view. Like Night of The Creeps, it tanked at the box office spectacularly, managing to claw back a paltry 3.8 million USD on an estimated budget of 12 million USD, all but killing Dekker’s career prospects into the bargain. Many blamed the film’s inability to fixate on a specific demographic for its demise, with the film playing too mature for younger filmgoers and too young for more seasoned horror fans. However, the reviews probably hurt it too given that for the most part, at the time of its release, critics savaged it.
Time, however, would prove kinder to the film, which amassed a cult following via its VHS release and subsequent TV screenings. Successful fan showings at the Alamo Drafthouse in 2006 further ignited interest in the movie so that by 2008 there was talk of a remake that continued up until 2014 when it was confirmed that it wouldn’t happen. Black and Dekker toyed with the idea of a TV show after being propositioned by Paramount in 2019. However, due to the similarities with nostalgia fest Stranger Things, the talks stalled with neither Black nor Dekker willing to commit. A documentary, Wolfman’s Got Nards, made by original cast member and squad leader Andre Gower, was released in 2018 to general acclaim. The documentary recounted how the original film managed to rise from the ashes of unmitigated failure to become a retro classic, reclaimed by genre fans in thrall to its cheeky charms and creature feature delights.