I watched The Monster Squad endless times as a preschooler when it was in heavy rotation on HBO - in fact, when my wife mentioned to my mom that I'd picked up the long-overdue DVD release, there was a long silence before my mom responded, "I've seen that movie twenty goddamn times." I assume that The Monster Squad has little appeal for those who didn't first see it when they were between the ages of three and eleven. I don't mean this as a case of nostalgia, as I have enough distance from my earliest movie-watching experience to know that Harry and the Hendersons, for instance, is really quite bad. The Monster Squad, on the other hand, is one of those movies that requires a child's imagination to do some of the heavy lifting; rewatching it, I realized that what I had long remembered as a film of epic scope was actually a fairly low-budget 82-minute B-movie (although makeup effects artist Stan Winston and VFX head Richard Edlund do wonders with what they have). However, this only increased my affection for the film - its modesty is perhaps its greatest charm, its battle between a group of nerdy kids and cinema's most iconic monsters a jolt of smart, unpretentious fun that puts bloated studio product like Van Helsing to shame.
The Monster Squad is one of those great 80's movies (Explorers and The Goonies are two other examples, with Stephen King's book It a masterpiece of the subgenre) that rewards young genre-loving geeks with the promise that their knowledge of aliens, pirates or vampires is preparation for an awfully big adventure. When we first meet Sean (Andre Gower), the leader of the titular gang of kids, he's wearing a homemade t-shirt that reads "Stephen King Rules" and getting chewed out by the school principal for drawing monsters in class. But director Fred Dekker and writer Shane Black know, as we do, that our formative years are better spent learning about Cthulhu than the Magna Carta. Sean's expertise pays off when Dracula arrives in his small suburban town (why is not really clear, except that he owns real estate there) and assembles Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Gillman (so named for legal reasons) to carry out his evil plans. The plot involves an amulet, a vortex, and Van Helsing, and it occurs to me that nearly every movie would be improved with these three things (except, of course, Van Helsing). As the kids assemble in their treehouse to plan a once-in-a-century opportunity to stop Dracula and his cohorts, it becomes clear that this is a film borne out of Black and Dekker's (ho ho) childhood dreams and fears - it's a film where the monster in the closet is real, no matter what mom and dad say. As such, it is much more than a calculated attempt to repackage creaky franchises in a slick modern package; it's a labor of love, and goofy as it is, I can't help loving it.
While it's pretty clear that The Monster Squad owes a lot to The Goonies, it's also superior to that film in that, for a film aimed at kids, it's surpisingly rough-edged. Early in the film, schoolyard bullies taunting Fat Kid (Brent Chalem) actually call him a "faggot" - these aren't Disneyfied goons but realistic, nasty little shits. Later in the film, Fat Kid uses a shotgun to blow away one of the monsters; the moment isn't softened at all, the monster bleeding and crying out in a protracted death sort of astonishing in a PG-13. Contrast this with last year's Monster House, a good movie that just missed greatness with an end-credits denouement designed to reassure kids that all is well. The Monster Squad isn't afraid to raise the stakes; there's a genuine possibility that Wolfman could just rip these kids limb from limb, and we become unusually invested in their fates. This extends to the movie's schmaltzier elements - the reformed Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan) is one of a long line of 80's-movie ET-surrogates, but Noonan and 5-year-old Ashley Bank play their scenes together with enough authenticity that what could have been cloying elicits a genuine "awww."
The moment that really sets The Monster Squad apart involves Scary German Guy (Leonard Cimino) an elderly local expert on monsters who helps the kids in their mission. As the kids are leaving Scary German Guy's house, one comments that he doesn't seem very afraid of monsters, and Scary German Guy responds that (I'm paraphrasing) he knows there are enough real monsters to be afraid of. As Scary German Guy closes the door, Dekker cuts to a close-up of a concentration camp tattoo on his wrist. It's a real "Whaaa?!!" moment, but questionable taste aside, it gives the movie real weight. The Monster Squad is a celebration of outsiders - seeing a bunch of bookish, strange kids battling a particularly totalitarian Dracula, it gives hope to kids persecuted at school for the very qualities that may someday ennable them to make the world a better place. And just as important, it teaches us that Wolfman has, in fact, got nards.