Appellate Judge Mac McEntire stole my Twinkie.
Our review of The Monster Squad (Blu-Ray), published November 24th, 2009, is also available.
"Wolfman's got nards!"
Yeah, yeah, everybody likes to joke about the 1980s, heckling the hair, the clothes, the music, and the occasional weirdness for weirdness' sake in the pop culture of the time. But if you can somehow ignore the cornball jokes and the crappy VH1 specials, then you'd see that the '80s were actually a great time to be a kid. Fantasy filmmaking was at a new height, when special-effects innovations and multi-million-dollar budgets brought the impossible to life like never before—and young folks ate it up.
It all began with Lucas and Spielberg of course, but fantasy films continued throughout the decade. They might not be like today's CGI spectacles, but for kids of the '80s, these are cherished memories. Who didn't feel chills the first time they saw the dragon take flight in Dragonslayer? Who didn't experience a sense of wonder seeing One-Eyed Willie's ship for the first time in The Goonies? Who didn't jump out of their seat when the Beast sprung back to life in Krull? And, most importantly, who didn't bust out laughing the first time they heard "Wolfman's got nards" from The Monster Squad?
Sadly, not all of my fellow '80s brethren share that last memory, because The Monster Squad was only released in certain parts of the country. Allegedly, the studio didn't know how to market a movie about cute kids who swear a lot and shoot monsters with shotguns. The film was a financial flop in 1987, but the seeds of its reputation had been planted. In the years that followed, more and more people discovered it on VHS or on late-night cable, and word of mouth spread. Today, The Monster Squad has an enormous following, with its actors now considered cult stars. It's also been a long-awaited DVD, here now on an extras-packed two-disc 20th anniversary edition. How does that dog get up here anyway?
Facts of the Case
A quaint small town somewhere in suburbia has been invaded by monsters!
• Dracula (Duncan Regehr, Blood Surf) is an immortal vampire seeking an ancient amulet that could sever the balance between good and evil, allowing the creatures of the night to rule the Earth forever.
• Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan, Manhunter), despite his monstrous appearance and super strength, might merely be misunderstood.
• Wolfman's (Carl Thibault, The Garage) got nards!
• The Creature, a.k.a. the Gillman (special effects and makeup artist Tom Woodruff Jr.), lurks under the water and develops a taste for a certain preservative-filled snack treat.
• The Mummy (Michael Reid MacKay, X2: X-Men United), casually strolls out of a museum exhibit to join his fellow monsters in action.
Fortunately, there is hope for mankind. A group of horror movie-loving 12-year-olds are the only ones to realize that genuine monsters are in town, so they form "The Monster Squad" and set out to save the day. Roll call:
• Sean (Andre Gower, Sweet Deadly Dreams), the squad leader whose love of fright flicks helps him escape parental strife at home, rallies the others into action.
• Patrick (Robby Kiger, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael), Sean's semi-loyal sidekick, follows him into whatever adventure lies ahead. Also, his older sister is hot.
• Fat Kid (the late Brent Chalem), who is a little less enthused to battle monsters; if you push him too far, he'll tell you what his real name is.
• Rudy (Ryan Lambert, Kids Incorporated), a tough guy who smokes, wears sunglasses, and doesn't take crap from anyone.
• Eugene (Michael Faustino, Blank Check), a younger kid whose area of expertise is apparently his amazing letter-writing ability.
• Pheobe (Ashley Bank), Sean's 5-year-old little sister and unofficial member of the squad, helps out the team in some surprising and unconventional ways.
Are there any three words that sum up the cinema of the 1980s better than "Wolfman's got nards?" I think not. When co-writer/director Fred Dekker (House) first penned these words, a multitude of angels sung out from the heavens in a majestic chorus and the foulest sinners burning on the deepest, darkest coals in Hell felt a rare moment of relief from their pain. Then, when actor Brent Chalem said the words on set, the sound of "Wolfman's got nards!" thundered across all seven continents and out into the cosmos, bringing the entire universe to a standstill as the whole of creation sat up and took notice. Why? Because it was at this instant that the 1980s stopped being merely a decade and instead became a state of mind.
Nostalgia is a huge part of what makes The Monster Squad tick. Looking at it today, it's clearly a product of its time, a film that could only have been made in the '80s. And yet, the creators made it with their own nostalgia in mind, that of the classic monster movies and comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Dekker says his movie "holy grail" is Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which expertly blended monster action and broad comedy. Film fans familiar with the original Universal monsters will enjoy spotting the many visual references to those classics throughout. The creators do an admirable job of giving each monster its own look while also paying tribute to what came before. Having special-effects whiz Stan Winston on "monster maker" duties no doubt helped.
The tone of The Monster Squad is tough to describe. Yes, it's a movie for kids told from the kids' point-of-view. The monsters, however, are played straight, so we see them plotting, maiming, and killing. There's blood, swearing, and gunfire alongside sweetness, jokes, and slapstick, sometimes all in the same scene. I feel that the filmmakers have given us a hint to the movie's tone in an early scene where the school principal chews out Sean and Patrick for drawing monsters in their notebooks instead of studying while in class. Based on this, I've surmised that The Monster Squad is a 12-year-old boy's doodling brought to life. It's got vicious monsters with blood dripping from their fangs and claws, combined with cute girls and pals hanging out in a treehouse. Like an adolescent boy, the movie is worldly in some ways, such as when the monsters threaten children or mow down a small army of cops without breaking a sweat, but it's innocent in other ways, such as wondering whether or not a pretty girl has been "dorked."
This isn't Disney. Political incorrectness seeps into almost every scene. Not only do the kids fire off shotguns, pistols, and crossbows with abandon, but some of them smoke on a regular basis, and their dialogue is peppered with as many swears as a Tarantino film. Even the adorable little 5-year-old girl gets in on the cussing. Also, homophobic comments are the norm. This might shock some adults more used to teen fare like the watered-down half-hour comedies seen on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, but I say the language adds a level of realism to the film. Sorry, parents, but there's a very real possibility that your middle school-aged son talks like this with his buddies when you're not around. The kids' behavior and the monsters' violence would probably get the movie an R rating today, but I and many others saw it when we were that age and identified with parts of it.
The kids in this movie come across as real kids, not stock Hollywood "movie kids." With the exception of Ashley Bank, they're not overly cute or precocious. I can certainly picture this group of kids living in my neighborhood. Andre Gower is the one with the most screen time. He does the "hero" thing with ease, and he gets to show off his serious side when we get a Spielbergian glimpse into his home life. Ryan Lambert plays the tough loner routine for all it's worth, but there are hints that his character is just as much of an outcast as the others, and that all he really wants is to be included. Brent Chalem is the character who changes the most, starting the movie as a target for bullies and ending it as a monster-killing bad-ass. And let's not forget that he delivers the movie's signature line. As Eugene, Michael Faustino is something of a mystery. We're never quite sure what Eugene will say or do next, but he too proves effective in the end. I have to admit, Robby Kiger sort of faded into the background for me. It's not a bad performance; it's just that he didn't stand out as much as the others. As noted above, Ashley Bank fills the movie's "cute" quotient. In a lesser movie, this character might have ruined the entire film by being annoying or by being a scene stealer (or both). Fortunately, Bank brings a ton of emotion to her performance, so that when she's happy or sad or afraid or ticked off, we the audience feel it, too. As young as she is, she provides the "heart" of the movie. This being an '80s fantasy film, there's also a big "E.T. moment" at the end, and Bank fully sells this as well.
And then there are the monsters. Duncan Regehr doesn't attempt to mimic Bela Lugosi's accent, but otherwise, he sticks to a classic take on the world's most famous vamp. He's driven to get what he wants, and his threats to the kids feel real. In a lot of kids' movies, there's no real threat, or no real sense of danger to the kids' adventures. In The Monster Squad, though, it's clear up front that the stakes are high, and life and death is on the line. Tom Noonan infuses Frankenstein's monster with a lot of humanity underneath his monsterness, so that viewers get the sense that he's more misunderstood than sinister. The other monsters are there mostly for a physical threat, chasing after the kids throughout the film, keeping the story moving at a quick pace. During the big finale, each monster gets a fitting send-off as well—sometimes more than one.
The Monster Squad arrives on DVD in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The picture tends to be soft in spots, especially during darker scenes. It's not the razor-sharp image we're used to seeing from the finest video transfers, but there's no grain or scratches to distract viewers. The sound comes in two flavors—a newly remastered 5.1 track or the original 2.0 track. They both sounded similar to my ears, but they too were free of any distortions or noticeable flaws. You'll have no problem at all hearing the words "Wolfman's got nards!"
Knowing there is a Frankenstein-sized fan base for this film, Lionsgate has loaded this two-disc set with tons of bonus features. There are two audio commentaries, one with Dekker and three "squad members," Gower, Lambert, and Bank. They have fun picking the movie apart and remembering what it was like being kids on a monster movie set. The other features Dekker and the director of photography, which is a little more technical, but has plenty of other fun anecdotes as well. The centerpiece of disc two is a 90-minute documentary, "Monster Squad Forever," which cover's Dekker's filmography, the creation of the script, the serendipity behind the funding and casting, the production, and the eventual 20-year rise in fandom. It covers a lot of ground, from acting to special effects to more funny anecdotes to the origin of the legendary "nards" line. This documentary makes a fine companion to the film itself. The other featurette is a never-before-seen interview recorded in 1986, with Noonan in full makeup being interviewed in character as Frankenstein's monster. It's a witty spoof of pretty much every celebrity interview ever. There are some funny deleted scenes, the original trailer and TV spot, storyboards set to music, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases. Plus, any purists who don't like the new cover art will be glad to see the original movie poster reprinted on an insert, as well as a letter from Dekker in which he thanks Monster Squad fans for their years of support.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Cheesy script, cheesy acting, cheesy effects, cheesy clothes…cheesy, cheesy, cheesy!
So, you're still not convinced? You think The Monster Squad is nothing more than a forgettable '80s B-movie? Yeah, well, give it a try. I dare you to watch it and not have a good time. I freakin' dare you.
(P.S. Wolfman's got nards!)
Not guilty. I'm in the goddamn club, aren't I?
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Fred Dekker and Squad Members Andre Gower, Ryan Lambert, and Ashley Bank
Review content copyright © 2007 Mac McEntire; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.