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Movie/DVD Review: The Monster Squad

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Before Joss Whedon’s witty dialogue and smart, vulnerable characters, before Kevin Williamson’s sly, self aware pop culture references and before Edgar Wright’s good-natured poking at beloved horror classics there was Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s The Monster Squad!

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WARNING: Contains Minor Spoilers!

We begin this tale with some helpful text explaining that a century ago, a group of freedom fighters tried to rid Transylvania (and ostensibly, the world) of the monsters and darkness that had befallen them. Let’s just say, they were not successful. After a brief, action-packed glimpse of what exactly happened that night, we fast forward to “Present Day”, or what was known at the time to be 1987, roughly.

Sean and Patrick (Andre Gower and Robby Kiger, respectively) don’t run with the popular crowd at their school. They have their own circle of social misfits and outcasts, who like to geek out about monster movies and comic books. When we first meet them, they’re in trouble with the Principal, for drawing monsters (a spider with a human head, to be precise) during class. Meanwhile, portly cohort, Horace (the late, memorable Brent Chalem) is getting picked on by bullies for being, “Fat Kid”. Just as a fight breaks out, local “biker” punk, Rudy (Ryan Lambert) rides up to save the day, light a smoke and generally be bad ass.

Walking home from school (while discussing the Wolf-Man’s need to wear pants), Horace tries to convince Sean and Patrick to make Rudy a member of their, “Monster Club”. While weighing the pros and cons, Sean’s adorable, tag-along little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank) warns, “I heard he killed his Dad!”. They decide a simple, “Monster Test” is the way to go. During that time, Sean’s Mom gives him the diary of Abraham Van Helsing, which she bought just up the road at an estate sale. This all ties back to a powerful amulet, but you get the picture.

I’m going to leave the rest for you to discover on your own, including the monsters. There are so many elements, side-characters and subplots to this movie, I could go on for pages. Patrick’s older Sister, who may or may not be sexually active. The marital turmoil of Sean’s loving Parents (Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor). His Father’s frustrating job as an over-worked cop (courtesy of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang scribe, Shane Black). The redemption of Frankenstein’s monster. Little Eugene and his fearless dog, Pete. And of course, let’s not forget the “Scary German Guy” who just wants to serve pie.

The monster effects by Stan Winston and his team are first-rate (and even some deliberately cheesy ones are thrown into the mix). The visual effects by Richard Edlund are graceful and inventive. The script is sharp, nuanced and Fred Dekker directs with a precise balance between horror and comedy, which is quite impressive given that this was only his second feature film at the time (the first being the equally delightful, Night Of The Creeps). The actors are all genuine and energetic. The drama has sincere pathos, due to the fact that no matter how fantastical the situations, the cast plays it straight. Bradford May’s cinematography is atmospheric and colorful, but never betrays the intended tone of a given scene.

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Which brings us to the audio and visual portion of this DVD. For the first time in a long time, the film is presented in its original, 2.35:1 Widescreen aspect ratio! This is a big deal, since the VHS tapes and television broadcasts always crop the image to the point of frustration and unwatchability (it is too a word!). Many scenes take advantage of the wide, panoramic format and fans can finally appreciate it the way it was meant to be viewed (some, for the very first time). The actual quality of the image itself is another matter. While generally clear and colorful, especially given its age of 20 years, it could stand to be sharper. Much of the picture is rather soft, particularly in night time scenes. I would imagine this will be easily and substantially corrected in the much-rumored and anticipated Bluray release, should that ever come to fruition.

Thankfully, the sound quality is very satisfying, offering a 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering and an original 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix. Dialogue is always clean and understandable, even if the ADR looping happens to stand out quite a bit, but it’s easily forgiven. The sound effects are plentiful and well placed throughout the mix, so your ears will never get bored. The real treat however, comes from composer and conductor, Bruce Broughton. His orchestral and choral score is vigorous and grand, but never too loud or obstructive. From the triumphant horns during “Fat Kid’s” burst of confidence (“My name, is Horace!”), to the beautiful and touching swell of strings of Phoebe’s Theme, the music stands on its own as a pleasurable feast for the ears. If that doesn’t excite you, there’s always the cheesy fun of the “Monster Squad Rap” during the end credits, or Michael Sembello’s toe-tapping, rhythmic clap-inducing “Rock Until You Drop”, during the classic montage.

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Lionsgate pulls out all the stops for this 20th Anniversary release, with two discs full of content. On disc one, in addition to the nicely restored feature, we get two commentary tracks. Fred Dekker brings in the cinematographer, Bradford May for a discussion that’s fun and friendly, but mostly leans more on the technical side. Better suited for film school enthusiasts, but still interesting. The other commentary is a whirlwind of laughs, warm regards and fond memories as Dekker revisits the film with cast members Andre Gower, Ryan Lambert and Ashley Bank. The track is alive with constant chatter as they discuss growing up on movie sets, poke a few small holes into the film’s plot, make fun of their own performances and we even get a rousing rendition of Rock Until You Drop from Ryan (“Party ’till your nuts are gone!”).

Disc two contains an extensive, feature-length documentary. Interviews abound from the cast and crew. This retrospective is a must for Monster Squad fans. It covers every aspect of the production, from Fred’s career before and during the film, all the way to the movie’s current cult status and beloved fanbase. There’s also a touching segment where everyone fondly remembers Brent Chalem. Have the tissue box near by. You may need it. The documentary is broken into distinct chapters to select from, or you can watch in one sitting through the “Play All” function.

For a chuckle, there’s also a tongue in cheek “interview” with Frankenstein’s monster. It was shot back in the day, during filming. In full make-up, Tom Noonan chats about the hardships and joys of being a monster working in Hollywood. The joke runs over just a little bit, but it’s fun, regardless. There are a few deleted scenes, with commentary from Fred explaining why they were cut. They’re mostly disposable, but completists (like myself) will appreciate them. We also get the cheesy, ever-so-80s’ trailer, tv spots and a nice, nostalgic photo gallery to close out the special features.

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The packaging provides a slip-sleeve for your plastic snap-case. I suppose it’s fine, if you perhaps want to get your copy autographed (like I did. Thanks a million, Fred!). Otherwise, I’ve never understood the desire for these, especially since the box art is the exact same on the case itself. Speaking of, the art is somewhat of a point of contention with die-hard fans. In order to “help” sell the DVD to newcomers, Lionsgate created all new cover art. It’s nice and all. The monsters are well-represented, but God only knows who the guy with the ammo belt and dagger is! Andre Gower even setup a petition early on to try and get the image changed back to the theatrical poster everyone knew and loved. A kind of compromise was met. The insert (inside the case) features the classic, Drew Struzan-inspired art on one side, and a heartfelt, Thank You note from Fred Dekker on the other.

The menus evoke the feel of the picture nicely, using images and concepts from the movie through simple animations. However, the graphical side is a bit blocky and difficult to read sometimes, like a cheap video game with low resolution. The font is accurate and in keeping with the film’s opening credits, but be prepared for some possible squinting. The little skull cursor is cute, though. Not bad, but could’ve been better. Then again, maybe it’s just me and my craptacular eyesight.

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**** out of 4.

The Monster Squad is for anyone who grew up loving the Universal horror classics, or for anyone who grew up loving Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, or for anyone who just plain never completely grew up! A cult classic in its own right, the film is one of those big, crowd-pleasing party movies that was way ahead of its own time. Movies today rarely contain a youthful exhuberance such as this. People are often too cynical or jaded now, and the movies of today can often reflect that.

Still, The Monster Squad can appeal to the young hopeful buried within all of us. The determined underdog that managed to form his or her own surrogate family of other, like-minded latchkey kids. Equal parts Steven Spielberg, Joss Whedon and a sprinkle of Scooby-Doo and The Little Rascals for good measure. If any single part of that gets your inner geek salivating, then this movie is definitely for you. Welcome home. 🙂

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