Sunday, 10 July 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part two - Stand By Mummy

In 1987, the world was saved from the combined forces of darkness by an elite team who operated from a treehouse...

Monster Squad(s)

Films finding their way to New Zealand in the days before multiplexes could be a very hit-and-miss affair.  Before a collection of yawning big screens under same roof needed their endless appetites fed, there were the video rental shops on almost every street - and video-release only in this country was the way many of us caught up on films.
In fact, in these obviously very pre-internet days , this was sometimes the only way we found that some films existed at all.

I was working for film company, which subscribed to American Cinematographer magazine, and it was here that I found out about The Monster Squad.  I haven’t grown up now, and certainly hadn’t back then, so this film sounded fantastic.

Although the publicity material traded hard on the still-strong reputation of Ghostbusters from three years earlier, The Monster Squad has been more accurately described as’The Little Rascals meet the Universal monsters’, in the middle of the 1980s, of course.  Makeup genius Stan Winston was given the opportunity to update the universal creatures and, despite the film’s modest budget, brought them all into the era of MTV with obvious affection and respect.

The amazing Stan Winston and his Wolf Man
The Wolf Man is apparently modelled on Winston’s own features, while this decades’ possibly only representation of Dracula seems to pay homage to both Lugosi and Lee. American Cinematographer told me that Winston also made the supremely logical decision to make the Mummy look like a walking corpse, rather than an already burly, heavily swaddled stuntman, and cast “The thinnest actor they could find who could still move around”. (this gave me hope for a future horror film career). 

Young Eugene's Dad 'clears all the monsters out of his room',
but doesn't look in the closet
Tom Noonan’s sympathetic and expressive performance as the Frankenstein Monster is facilitated by an expert  makeup job which stays just the right side of copyright infringement on Universals’ original design. But the icing on the cake is a gorgeous piscatorial reworking of the Creature from the Black Lagoon which would hold its own if that film were to be remade today.

The creature walks among us
On the side of the angels we have a collection of kids who are definitely not your saccharine Spielbergian Goonies cast.  Honesty would probably bring you to the conclusion that you were more like these little rascals when you were their age, than Elliot from ET - complete with all the sexism, homophobia and inappropriateness which might make us cringe a little now. It’s ‘not OK’, but is at least an truthful depiction, and for the most part the young actors mainly portray an untarnished belief in doing the right thing, despite spending a good part of the film terrified. 
Main character Sean’s little sister Phoebe is a perfect example of this film’s perfect casting.  She is not the genetically-perfect poppet that you’d find in a children’s clothing catalogue - but her sweet and innocent nature allows her to befriend the towering Frankenstein monster and ultimately save the day.

Phoebe, and her new best friend.
They have help in the form of ‘Scary German Guy’, a reclusive elderly immigrant who subverts the children’s expectations by proving to be the kindest and gentlest of souls. He is crucially also able to translate Van Helsing’s diary despite the fact that I’m sure that character was supposed to be Dutch.  In one of the film’ s many effective shifts of tone from light to dark, our young leads remark that 'SGG' (his name is never given) sure knows a lot about monsters.  “Now that you mention it, I suppose I do.” he remarks, as the camera pans down to the concentration camp tattoo on his wrist.

Scary German guy would also be able to translate this poster -
which really emphasises the Ghostbusters connection with an unsubtle title change.

The performances are key but this film but visually it also delivers in the way that we expect from pre-CGI mid eighties mid-budget adventure films.  The previously-mentioned Stan Winston was an undisputed genius in his field, while Star Wars veteran Richard Edlund headed the visual effects team.  His crackling, ‘blue-lightning’ optical effects enhance the practical creature work in an organic and believable way which modern digital effects work often fails in.

Van Helsing, about to 'blow it'.
The opening sequence in 19th century Castle Dracula is splendidly creepy while the exciting climax satisfies on every emotional and visual level.  Films of this era do have their drawbacks of course, we also get a standard Second Act 'training montage' orchestrated to a forgettable single by Flashdance’s Michael Sembello, while the closing credits crawl embarrassedly under a horrendous rap theme.

I first watched this one with my Mum, and we both loved it. It is inescapably ironic that a film which is essentially comedy succeeds in bringing together cinema’s most beloved monsters in ways that Horror films have failed.  But the last film we looked at, Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, also triumphed in this regard and in fact shares many plot points with The Monster Squad.

Like many of the films I enjoy the most, this was a notable failure at the box office but has built a strong cult following in the year’s since.  A cast reunion and re-screenings in 2006 were sold-out, enthusiastically attended by fans from all across the United States, and subsequent DVD releases have disappeared quickly from shelves.

Like Van Helsing in his slightly confusing reappearance at the climax of the film, The Monster Squad gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me.

How does the dog get into the treehouse?

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