Recently, my film-critic colleague Simon Abrams wrote a piece at Capital New York.com about many of the bad kids’ movies that ripped off Steven Spielberg in the ‘80s. In Abrams’ eyes, these films not only committed the unforgivable crimes of being derivative and shamelessly opportunistic, they failed to exhibit the inspiring, inventive sense of adventure and discovery many Spielberg-associated films captured. (I loved how Abrams mostly called out Mac and Me, the horrendous E.T. carbon copy from 1988 that was basically just one long McDonald’s commercial. Hell, Ronald McDonald made a cameo in it!)
But there was the odd film or two back then that managed to bite from Spielberg in an affectionate but original, even irreverent manner. Take The Monster Squad, which will have midnight screenings this weekend at the Belcourt. Released quietly during the summer of 1987, this movie doesn’t deal with extraterrestrials. But it does have a group of suburban kids going up against Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) when he reunites with other classic creatures (the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Gill Man – all the Universal horror cats!) to take over the world.
Squad lifts more from the Spielberg-produced The Goonies — one of the hottest cult movies of the past decade — than any Spielberg-directed film. There's even a kid who bonds adorably with a monstrous-looking but ultimately kind-hearted character — except here the outsized buddy is actually Frankenstein’s monster (Manhunter serial killer Tom Noonan). But the movie does cop Spielberg’s most tried-and-true theme: the weight of parental issues on kids, with the squad’s Stephen King-loving leader (Andre Gower) portrayed as the child of a dad (Stephen Macht) and mom (Mary Ellen Trainor, who also played a mom in Goonies) who can’t stop bickering.
That trope doesn’t loom over the entire movie, though. Director Fred Dekker (whose equally beloved ’80s shocker Night of the Creeps will show as part of The Belcourt's "Hellcourt Halloween" horror-movie marathon Oct. 30) throws narrative logic out the window to create what is either a kid's ultimate nightmare or dream come true – that all those movie monsters are alive and well and possibly hiding out in your room. (At one point, the Mummy shows up in a kid’s closet.) But with its collection of scamps preparing for a possible apocalypse by making their own stakes and silver bullets and whupping some evil ass, the movie is more concerned with showing kids how they can overcome their own bogeymen — while having an exciting time doing it.
What makes Squad so unique and unorthodox – especially these days – is its un-PC (and therefore very accurate) portrayal of kids. These foul-mouthed, grade-school scamps have no qualms calling each other “homo,” “faggot” or “butt love” or referring to body parts as “dorks” or “nards.” Working from a script by Dekker and Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black (who's probably responsible for the movie’s potty-mouthed cheekiness), Squad does what many kids’ movies used to do before Hollywood went all soft with children onscreen: It isn't afraid to show that kids, however sweet or good-natured, can also be ... well, some crude little shits. (At least South Park is still around to remind us of that.)
While there has been talk that Squad might be remade one of these days — is there another ’80s memory left to plunder? — it certainly won’t be done the same way. Too bad, since Dekker's foul-mouthed fanboy joyride is the kind of fun, brash, unpretentious adventure-in-suburbia that Spielberg doesn’t traffic in anymore. (And yeah, I saw the Spielberg-produced Super 8.)
At the same time, it’s also a movie where the monsters present a real threat, and Dracula doesn't flinch at calling a 5-year-old girl “bitch” to her face. While parents of today used to the antiseptic likes of The Wizards of Waverly Place might not stand for that, it makes The Monster Squad awesome as hell in some people’s minds. And I have the nards to say I'm one of them.
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