When The Monster Squad was released in theaters 30 years ago, on August 14, 1987, it was a flop. Released during peak summer season, the now beloved cult classic earned only $3.7 million during its short theatrical run. All plans for potential merchandising, like a line of Phoebe’s beloved stuffed dog Scraps, was terminated. Luckily, audiences finally took notice of the film’s greatness after a run on cable television, followed by a home release on VHS. Though inexplicably overlooked upon release, The Monster Squad quickly became a generational classic and its audience now even more passionate 30 years later.
As a kid, my movie choices revolved around one thing: are there monsters in it? With a VHS cover box that featured the classic movie monsters and a bunch of kids closer to my age than your typical horror movie, this made The Monster Squad an easy choice. That the actual film saw a group of relatable misfits who adored monsters as much as I did take on an assembled team of really cool monsters lead by one of the best renditions of Dracula meant that I wore out more than one VHS tape during my childhood. I desperately wanted to be a member of the Monster Squad. I connected with Sean’s (Andre Gower) love of horror and monsters. Rudy (Ryan Lambert) was the cool kid you wanted on your team. Phoebe (Ashley Bank) perhaps was the most relatable as the one most often ignored for being younger and a girl. The best part of the squad, though, was their tree house covered wall to wall in horror posters.
More than the team of underdogs and their cool hideout, the best part of the movie were the monsters and special effects brought to life by Stan Winston’s studio. Winston’s assembled team of Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Tom Woodruff Jr., Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, Shannon Shea, and Winston himself crafted the coolest designs for Wolfman, Mummy, Gillman, Frankenstein’s monster, and the big bad Count Dracula. The bat transformation sequences set a trend for future bat inspired vampires in film, and the big set piece at Dracula’s castle during the opening scene sets the tone. In short, the practical effects and timeless design by Winston and crew helped solidify The Monster Squad as an ageless classic.
As an adult, nostalgia drew me back to the film, but I discovered that the story works just as well now as it did during childhood. Shane Black and Fred Dekker’s story has a lot more depth than I could comprehend as a kid, bridging the gap between generations. So absorbed with the monsters and the kids that were brave enough to stop them, I didn’t notice how Del (Stephen Macht) and Emily’s (Mary Ellen Trainor) marriage was on the verge of complete collapse. Sure, the scene in which Sean overhears his parents arguing paints a picture of discord, but it didn’t really occur to me as a child that Emily had packed her bags and planned to leave Del until seeing it from a grown-up perspective. Or that the “scary German guy” that plays a huge role in thwarting Dracula’s plans is a Holocaust survivor. Of anyone in the film, he understands true monsters the most.
The loving homages to the Universal Classic Monsters meant so much more, too. The nods to the armadillos in Dracula’s castle, as they were in the 1931 film, and the plane that carries the monster crates is named Browning, after the original director Tod Browning, are clever. It’s not the only film nods either. So in awe of William Friedkin’s work on The Exorcist, particularly the subliminal aspect, that Dekker drew from that when creating the scene that sees Dracula’s face flash to a creepy skull.
The relationship between Phoebe and Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan) was always the beating heart of the film, but it holds deeper meaning after seeing the 1931 version of Frankenstein. In it, Frankenstein’s Monster meets a little girl by a lake and they toss flowers in a lake to watch them float. The monster doesn’t really understand, so he tosses in the little girl to watch her float, too, but she drowns instead and Frankenstein’s Monster runs away upset. In a way, The Monster Squad offers Frankenstein’s Monster a redemption for that fatal mistake. As with the 1931 version, he meets a little girl by the water too. Only this time, the little girl warmly welcomes him into the Monster Squad, a group of misfits in which Frankenstein’s Monster humorously fits right in. Her parting gift to him, her beloved Scraps, at the end of the film still chokes me up to this day.
Shane Black and Fred Dekker created the perfect balance of light and dark, scary and campy. Combine their layered story with a talented cast, both young and old alike, and the timeless practical effects by Stan Winston and his brilliant crew, and The Monster Squad becomes the perfect gateway into horror for generations to come. Duncan Regehr’s portrayal as Count Dracula remains one of the most intimidating and terrifying, while Tom Noonan’s rendition of Frankenstein’s Monster is the best counterbalance with his sweet innocence. The Monster Squad endures the test of time and continues to sell out retro screenings in theaters, way more than it did upon release. Here’s to another 30 years of Wolfman nards.