Sometimes, the most enduring movies are the ones with the simplest premises, and it doesn’t get simpler than The Monster Squad. “Clever children fight the Universal monsters” is about as good as it gets and it’s a waste of time to argue otherwise. Working from a sharp script co-written by a young Shane Black, Night of The Creeps director Fred Dekker made one of the 80s finest horror films while casually skewering Amblin-era family dynamics with aplomb. It’s ridiculous, heartwarming, endlessly quotable, and rewatchable as fuck.
“The Monster Squad” is a club of pre-teens obsessed with horror movies. There’s Shawn (Andre Gower), the alpha leader, his best friend Patrick (Robby Kiger), the younger Eugene (Michael Faustino), and Horace (Brent Chalem), a.k.a. “Fat Kid.” They’re joined by Shawn’s adorable little sister Phoebe The Feeb (Ashley Bank) and the older, leather jacket-wearing rebel Rudy (Ryan Lambert). This being the 80s, it’s easy to whiff heavy Goonies vibes from the crew’s dynamic, but where those kids were a product of Steven Spielberg’s particular brand of optimism, this gang shares more DNA with the jaded, cleverer-than-thou pulp admiration that would later become Shane Black’s entire brand.
Spielberg is most closely associated with an eye twinkle-inducing kind of nostalgia, as evidenced in his influence on recent phenomenon Stranger Things, but Black, even at this early juncture in his screenwriting career, has a particular knack for balancing cynicism with a more realistic depiction of love and closeness. The kids in The Monster Squad aren’t as precocious as Amblin kids. There’s a scene early on when Fat Kid is getting bullied and one of the kids repeatedly calls him a faggot. On repeated viewings, the dialogue induces more and more cringe, but in some ways, it grounds the events in our world. Real life bullies are fucking shitty. Being a kid was terrifying. This is a movie that plays fast and loose with monster movie tropes, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the intrinsic drama of childhood.
There’s a moment when Shawn’s dad Del (Stephen Macht) has to deny him going to see a movie with the other guys because it’s date night and Shawn has to babysit Phoebe. But it’s not a fun outing Del and Emily (Mary Ellen Trainor) have planned. It’s seeing a marriage counselor. Del is a prototypical Shane Black protagonist, failing at quitting cigarettes and letting his job on the force keep him from being a more present husband and father. When a call takes him away from their appointment, it somehow transcends the cliche of the absent cop dad, cementing a resonant portrayal of suburban dysfunction. Later, Del comes home and sits on the roof with Shawn, watching the drive-thru movie through binoculars while sharing fast food. It’s a touching moment all the more sweet for the underlying sadness that drives it.
That’s why we get to see Shawn’s parents struggle to avert an impending divorce. The world is an imperfect one, so it’s clear to us why these kids would hole up in a clubhouse and argue with each other about the best ways to theoretically kill a werewolf. In fact, it’s that juxtaposition that makes the horror elements of the movie such a blast by comparison. The Stan Winston-designed takes on Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon are striking, sure, but they’re not exactly inventive. They work because they feel like a wish fulfillment fantasy brought to life, like the collective passion of these kids has brought a palpable, storybook threat to unite their friends and family against an external conflict.
A bunch of children trying to prevent an evil apocalypse is a little goofy, sure, but when you’ve got an 80s montage of a kid writing the military for help fighting monsters, or a teenager making wooden stakes in shop class, it’s hard not to get caught up in the rapture. The movie is chock full of iconic imagery, like Rudy wrapping a piece of The Mummy’s tattered rags around an arrow and shooting it at a tree from a moving car. There’s a cartoon flourish to the action and the scares, particularly in The Wolf Man’s telephone booth-shattering transformation sequence, that captures a comic book style of storytelling few legitimate superhero movies have matched since.
The absolute height of the film’s transcendent pathos lies in Tom Noonan’s performance as Frankenstein’s Monster. His curious friendship with Phoebe brilliantly reverses one of Frankenstein‘s most recognizable scenes, and his wounded innocence marks the perfect midway point between the flawed humans we’ve followed and the pure evil they’re set up against. Somehow, it complements Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino), the pie-sharing old man in the neighborhood who is so adept at helping the kids fight movie monsters because he survived real ones in the Holocaust.
The Monster Squad is a largely silly film, but its peppered with so much realness that the more radical departures from reality function even better than they would in a movie less colored by inconvenient truths. It’s a movie that appeals to the youth without lying about the world they live in. It’s a shame they don’t make them like this anymore.