This movie is magical. I have loved it from the first time I saw it probably 20 or so years ago. In a lot of ways, this movie encapsulates one of my most basic philosophies of media: A movie can do anything, as long as it is consistent in the amount of disbelief it asks the audience to suspend. While the monsters in this movie are clearly just people wearing cheap costumes, that’s as a tribute to the old horror movies that the kids in the film are obsessed with. The movie asks you to just go with it because it’s fun, and dammit, that’s enough of a reason to go with it.
So, the Monster Squad is the story of a group of kids who are big fans of old-school monster films, mostly the Universal Monster films from the 1930s-50s and the Hammer films of the 50s-70s. The kids are the Monster Squad, not the actual monsters, despite the monsters also being in a squad. Or perhaps the monsters are the squad, but then the kids also take the name at the end of the movie…. There are many mysteries contained within this film.
So, the movie begins with Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) fighting Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and attempting to cast him into Limbo. However, Van Helsing fails and is trapped within the other world himself.
100 years later, Van Helsing’s diary ends up in the hands of newly teenaged Monster-phile Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower). In what is one of the most unbelievably excellent moments in film history, and one that films regularly skip over, Sean finds out that he can’t read the diary, not because it’s encoded, but because it’s in German (Actually Dutch, but why would Sean know the difference?). You know, the language that Van Helsing would naturally write in, because he’s Dutch in the book. Out of basically every Dracula adaptation, this is one of the only ones that actually bother to point this out when reading his diary.
Sean and the rest of his friends, Patrick, Horace, Rudy, Eugene, and occasionally Sean’s 5-year-old sister Phoebe (Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Ryan Lambert, Michael Faustino, and Ashley Bank) go to see the local Scary German Man (Leonardo Cimino), who, as it turns out, is a kind old man who is happy to translate it from Dutch. Also, he was a former concentration camp prisoner. See, the scary figure actually was kind and himself a victim of cruelty. I wonder if this theme will come back in the film?
The Diary describes an amulet that is composed of concentrated good energy. It helps keep the balance of good and evil in the world. However, one day out of every 100 years, it becomes vulnerable to destruction, which would unbalance the world and allow evil to run rampant. However, on that same day, the amulet can be used to balance all supernatural evil from the world, by casting it into limbo. And, darned if that day isn’t pretty soon. How surprising.
The Amulet was hidden in the US by the apprentices of Van Helsing so that Dracula couldn’t find it, but now, Dracula is coming. He summons his most vicious monstrous assistants: The Mummy (Michael MacKay), The Creature who may or may not be from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr.), The Wolf Man (Carl Thibault), and three school girls (Mary Albee, Joan-Carrol Baron, and Julie Merrill) who are made into his vampire brides. Dracula also breaks into a military plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan), who he assumes will join his army. However, the Monster, being part human, doesn’t like Dracula that much. The monster wanders off into the forest where he encounters Phoebe, who befriends him. The rest of the Monster Squad meets Frankenstein and determines that he is not evil, but kind, misunderstood, and a victim of cruelty. … I feel like I wrote that before.
Meanwhile, the Wolf Man, when he’s human, is also not a fan of Dracula, and he keeps calling the police, who, of course, ignore him for talking about monsters. However, Sean’s father Del (Stephen Macht), is assigned to investigate all of the weirdness happening around town. He doesn’t believe any of it to be supernatural, of course.
Dracula and the monsters actually are occupying the building where the amulet is found, but the room it’s contained in is so littered with wards that no evil being can enter. The kids break in and steal it, and manage to avoid getting caught by Dracula. However, Dracula responds by following them back to their treehouse and… BLOWING IT UP WITH DYNAMITE.
No, really, in what is one of my favorite movie moments, Dracula doesn’t do the traditional “sneak into your home and attack you personally” thing, he just starts chucking explosives. He’s immune to being blown up, why the hell wouldn’t he do this all the time? It’s brilliant. However, it does draw the attention of Sean’s dad, who finally sees Dracula and believes in the supernatural explanation for recent events.
The team have to find a female virgin to read the incantation to banish evil, and it must be on holy ground, so they drive to a cathedral with their older sister Lisa (Lisa Fuller). However, because it’s a cathedral, not a 7/11, it’s closed at midnight. However, they decide to read it on the stoop, as a work-around, since the entryway is technically holy ground. Lisa begins reading, but the spell fails, because Lisa had figured that the stuff she did with one of her exes “didn’t count.” Apparently the universe draws a different line than she does.
So, naturally, they realize that the 5-year-old Phoebe is a virgin, and the German man helps her read the spell. Meanwhile, Dracula and his monsters have come, so the kids face off against the monsters. What follows is a simultaneous invocation of monster lore (like pointing out that they need a silver bullet to kill a werewolf/no one knows the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Weakness) with a mockery/common sense takedown of them (alternate solution: hit him in the groin really hard and blow him up with dynamite. Doesn’t kill him, but slows him down a lot/ Bullets work really well on fish). Eventually, they manage to kill all of the monsters except for Dracula, who arrives late.
Dracula, unfortunately for the kids, doesn’t really screw around, and just starts killing a ton of the police with ease. He finally reaches Phoebe, and threatens her, however, Frankenstein’s monster shows up and spears Dracula with a wrought-iron fencepost as the portal to Limbo opens. Dracula grabs Sean, who manages to stake Dracula through the heart. However, this doesn’t actually kill him, but at the last moment, Abraham Van Helsing emerges from the portal and pulls Dracula in with him.
Frankenstein then goes into the portal willingly, knowing that he doesn’t belong in the world of humans, and the portal won’t close without the monsters being on the other side. Phoebe gives him a stuffed animal to remember her.
Soon, the Army shows up, ready to fight the monsters, but Sean informs them that evil has already been slain, presenting the General with a business card referring to them as “The Monster Squad.” Roll. F*cking. Credits.
What’s crazy is that I love this movie mostly for the reasons that other critics seem to hate it. First, it has a ludicrously high body count for a movie starring kids. Dracula is not the traditional portrayal; here he is decidedly more vicious and ruthlessly efficient. He’s not out to seduce lonely housewives or whatever, he’s here to take over the world, and to get rid of the people in his way. He has super-strength, invulnerability, and is immortal. He just dynamites his enemies, because that’s simpler than having to find a way to be invited in. This is one of my favorite Dracula performances of all time.
Second, all of the monsters look like guys in costumes. Well, no sh*t. That’s what they are. The movie is a tribute to the costumes of the old horror movies. But they’re damned good costumes. Until The Shape of Water came out, this was my favorite-looking Fish-man (Abe Sapien is his own category).
Third, the plot’s generic. Well, yeah, but they use the generic plot to explore within it. And they play around with it enough to make it fun. Plus, the details are actually kind of nice. Van Helsing’s Diary isn’t in English. Cathedrals aren’t open at Midnight during the week. “Virgin” isn’t exactly clearly defined, because they don’t say whose standard it is. Nothing in mythology about the Creature from the Black Lagoon says you can’t just shoot him. These are great things that the movie points out, it’s like they intentionally were trying to avert some of the more common tropes of these horror movies.
Ultimately, I think this movie is underrated. I really do. I like the fact that it’s ALL of the Universal horror monsters together. I like the fact that Frankenstein is portrayed sympathetically. I like the fact that Dracula is just an unstoppable killing machine when he wants to be. I like the fact that the US Government knows enough about monsters to send in a huge number of soldiers and tanks to deal with them. Is it the best movie? No, but it’s damned fun and it delivers exactly what it promises. Honestly, this is one of the best homages to classic horror, and I hope it keeps getting seen.
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