The Monster Squad (1987)

Nostalgia has gotten out of control in the past couple of years, particularly when it relates to pop culture born in the ’80s and, to a lesser extent, the early portion of the ’90s. The worst part of it all is that I know it’s my generation’s fault*, so I would like to offer up an apology to society on behalf of all of us. What us twenty and thirty somethings need to take pause and remember is that just because we as children voraciously consumed a television show like Full House or a movie like Megaforce or because we got a Howard the Duck toy in our happy meals** on the weekly family jaunt to McDonalds doesn’t mean these entertainments are worthy of the “underrated” tag or the heaps of praise lavished on them online. Before you freak out, let me put my money where my mouth is by offering up a personal example.

As a child, I fucking loved He-Man. I had all the action figures my parents would allow in our modest home, and at one point, they even went on an odyssey to find Merman, who, for some reason, was the hardest action figure to find in the history of action figures. I had Castle Greyskull. I had assorted vehicles and Battle Cat and Panthor. The show and character are now 100% responsible for my unwavering loyalty to Dolph Lundgren. There is no way around it, facts are facts, I was pretty much obsessed with the show, watching it on a daily basis. But holy hell does that show suck now, a fact that was cruelly learned when I got a boxset containing the first season of the show a couple of years back. I got through around 7 episodes—which was a feat of nostalgic strength, I assure you—before I had to throw in the towel, realizing that the animation was elementary (if I had to see He-Man deep squat and toss a boulder at bad guys one more time, my mind may have snapped) and the stories rudimentary in the worst possible way.

Even worse is when I allow myself to be tricked into watching a film that a friend holds dear due to viewing it in his or her formative years, that for some reason (being grounded, the tape was always rented, rock slides, etc.), I missed as I was growing up. This never works out for either party. My reaction to the film falls into the range of ambivalence to outright violent dismissal 99% of the time, leading to awkward conversations once they pose the inevitable “Did you watch {insert film title here}?, Isn’t it awesome?”, questions that I then have to answer honestly because I’m that type of guy, unwilling to lie about not liking an arbitrary piece of pop culture. This happened to me when I caught The Wizard a couple of years back at the behest of several friends, all of whom have above-board taste in film, by the way. While the Fred Savage opus isn’t the worst offense ever put to celluloid, it’s rather bad, essentially a 90 minute ad for the original Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario 3, quite possibly the most hyped video game ever up until that point in time. I was bored to tears but at least my friends recognized my response to be rational, some even admitting that they hadn’t seen it in a long time, and with hindsight being 20/20, they may even feel the same way if they were to screen it now. For these reasons, I put off watching Monster Squad for a long time, a decision I have come to regret as it truly is an effort worthy of the cult status it attained after it bombed so spectacularly upon its release. Fred Dekker’s film is a blend of genre types, including action-adventure, horror, and comedy, making it a solid title that also makes viewers that grew up in the era responsible for Reganomics appropriately nostalgic.

The story follows a young lad by the name of Sean (Andre Gower) who, along with his friends, have formed a club based around their shared love of old-school horror films and their respective icons, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein’s Monster to name a few. They take science fiction and horror seriously; their rooms are decorated to the nines with vintage movie posters (Vampire Circus!) and action figures of the characters they hold dear. To enter their exclusive coalition, one must pass a pop quiz featuring a smattering of questions designed to make sure the potential member has the same burning passions they possess. The group is rounded out by Patrick, Sean’s best bud; the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Kid, otherwise known by his equally unfortunate Christian name, Horace; and Rudy, the cool-as-shit middle school kid that seems to have timed traveled back with Marty via his DeLorean, given his choice in wardrobe, bike style, and the fact that he likes to hang out at diners that carry with them a sensibility found in the ’50s, offering their customers malts via a park and order from your car service. Noticing the warning signs throughout their sleepy town, the grade-school fright fans come to discover that their favorite baddies have arrived in town, looking to take over the world by obtaining an amulet that would give Dracula the ultimate power he craves, and make the decision to take matters in their own hands, recognizing that this is the battle they have been unwittingly training for their entire lives.

The Monster Squad represents a solid entry in one of my favorite genres, The Team-Up Film***. The crux of this story concept is fairly simple: it brings together a disparate group of people with a common cause, goal, or enemy together, and sees if they can overcome their differences to use their exclusive talents to overcome the odds. Other examples of the Team-Up Film include this year’s The Avengers, Ocean’s 11, and The Seven Samurai. This little cinematic gem fits squarely within the Kids Team-Up subgenre, featuring classics like The Goonies and The Sandlot or in the underrated, forgotten (by most) film, BMX Bandits. These genre efforts tend to at least be interesting, and when you have a script writer that is on a roll, as Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) was at the time, and a director who brings an obvious love for old school horror to the table, you get a pretty damn fine kids flick, filled with bad-ass one-liners and moments that allow each member to get their place in the sun.

While its true that the film is more than a bit silly, propelled by several insane coincidences, Black’s script has a definite sense of fun and action, never taking itself too seriously, which helps to balance the menace of the monsters with the enthusiasm of the children. In a refreshing subtle fashion, his work also takes the B plot sincerely, one that doesn’t pop up frequently in movies of this nature, the marital woes of Sean’s parents, helping to make The Monster Squad unique. One of the biggest things going for Dekker’s film is the fact that movies like this don’t get made anymore. Child actors smoke, the fat kid goes by Fat Kid, the words homo and faggot are thrown around liberally, and Patrick’s older sister’s (an early high school student, at best) virginity is consistently called into question. I’m not one to use this type of language or to discriminate against others due to weight or sexual orientation, but it is refreshing in how un-PC it is while managing to become an accurate representation of how it was to grow up in the time of Hypercolor shirts and Jams, ultimately imbuing the film with a sense of reality that help to counteract aspects that date the film. In the clip below, both Fat Kid and Rudy (wicked entrance) are introduced along with the bully of the picture–played by the go to prepubescent/teen asshole of the ‘80s, Jason Hervey–giving everyone a good taste of the tone employed in the next hour and a half.

It’s a crime that both The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps failed at the box office, as Dekker was a unique directorial voice, something we need more of in cinema, and specifically in the horror genre. Between these two efforts and his script work on another, mostly forgotten genre offering in House, I think it was obvious that he was one of the more talented horror auteurs at that time, deftly blending horror and comedy troupes together for maximum effect. He would only go on to direct one other film, bottoming out with 1993’s odious Robocop 3. Hopefully, he can take solace in the fact that both have gone on to find generous followings, an audience who appreciates his talents, and film lovers who are on his wavelength. More importantly, he managed to get this film buff to move past his rants and raves to deeply enjoy a film that transcends the trappings of nostalgia.

-David

*And VH1 for those horrendous I-Love-Whatever –Decade-Is-In-Vogue-This-Week show staring D-list celebrities making truly God-awful jokes about New Coke and Dana Plato.

**Don’t get overly excited, to my knowledge, this never happened.

***I may have just coined this phrase, as Google doesn’t really provide me with solid hits on the phrase “team up movies”. If so, I will begin charging $10 per use of this phrase to those who wish to use it.

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R.I.P. Tony Scott (1944-2012)

I woke up this morning to the tragic news of the passing of one of cinema’s biggest filmmakers of the last 30 years and one of my top ten idols in movie making period, the great Tony Scott. Apparently at around 12:30 pm yesterday Mr. Scott jumped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the San Pedro port district of Los Angeles, California, rumors speculate he may have been recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer but as of this post no official statement has been made.

The question of why such an iconic filmmaker would take his own life, especially at the age of 68 and still so many films set to come, is hardly an importance. What matters the most is that Tony Scott delivered decades worth of high profile, summer blockbuster, action packed entertainment. His style in the 1980s and his revised look in the early 2000s has inspired a new generation of filmmakers and will be copied for years to come, although never equaled. Reception to his movies has divided critics and moviegoers alike yet Tony Scott has always held an extremely loyal fan base and the success of his last film, 2010’s Unstoppable (including 167 milllion dollars worldwide and a Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) shows that Scott was still full of surprises.

Tony Scott first hit celluloid at the same time as his older brother, Ridley Scott. At the age of 23, Ridley Scott made his debut with a short film entitled Boy and Bicycle and cast his then 16 year old younger brother Tony in an acting role. When Tony graduated the Royal College of Art he went to work for his brother at the Ridley Scott Associates television commercial production outfit and began a successful career crafting many celebrated British commercials and television specials.

In the late 1970s an invasion of British filmmakers including Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott himself swarmed American cinemas with a new look and voice in independent film making. It is at this time that Tony Scott too would begin receiving offers from Hollywood, it is also at this time the Scott family would suffer a major tragedy in the death of their elder brother Frank from cancer. Tony came to Hollywood attracted to the in development adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and subsequently was assigned the studio’s other vampire themed project The Hunger (1983).  The debut film featured an early look at Scott’s signature style and featured performances by David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and the launching of actor Willem Dafoe. The film was a critical and financial flop but has since gained a big cult following and held the attention of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who would approach Tony to direct the seminal 80s blockbuster Top Gun.

Top Gun was released in 1986 to record breaking box-office numbers and launched the summer action movie and its marketing campaign as we see it today. Essentially a 90 minute promo for the U.S. Navy the film made a box-office star out of Tom Cruise and propelled actors like Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan into the forefront. Though notoriously cheesy, Top Gun will always remain one of the best, most talked about films of the 80s and its choreography of aerial action has never been topped. Tony Scott’s camera style, editing and color palette would become the quintessential look and tone for 80s and 90s action movies and surely paved the way for such action directors as Kathryn Bigelow, Renny Harlin and Michael Bay. This is most obvious in Tony’s followup to Top Gun, the 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. Scott’s version of Axel Foley is a tougher, grittier and much harder take than Martin Brest’s predecessor and still holds strong as one of the greatest sequels ever made.

1990 holds the one-two punch of the ever busy Tony Scott, seeing the release of Revenge, a steamy and brutal neo-noir in which an aviator falls for a crime boss’s wife in Mexico and Days of Thunder, in which Scott reteams with Cruise for a Spaghetti western on wheels set in the world of auto racing. Revenge is one of my favorite Tony Scott films and the best Kevin Costner-starrer I’ve ever seen. Days of Thunder is a fantastic sports epic, features star making roles by Nicole Kidman and John C. Reilly and plays like a NASCAR version of Sam Peckinah’s classic Junior Bonner.

Scott and Warner Bros. purchased Shane Black’s follow up script to Lethal Weapon with a record sum of money and thus the phenomenal The Last Boy Scout was born. Featuring a never funnier Bruce Willis in the ultimate portrayal of a hardboiled, badass cop and the greatest ensemble of action movie henchman to ever grace the screen, The Last Boy Scout is an underrated 90s gem. The combination of writer Shane Black’s characters and tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen dialogue with Scott’s slick portrayal of L.A. is the first of many great writer-director collaborations to come.

Quentin Tarantino sold his first feature script True Romance to help fund his own debut Reservoir Dogs and with a great admiration for Revenge and Days of Thunder Tarantino felt completley safe with his very personal script in director Tony Scott’s hands. The result is Tony Scott’s (and by many degree Tarantino’s) masterpiece. I’m dying to write a post on this one as it features my favorite scene, my favorite moment in cinema, of all time. This of course would be the “Sicilian and Moors” conversation between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. More on this in an upcoming post. Eggplant!

Scott and Tarantino became such a great pairing that even after winning an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino came on to do a final script polish on Scott’s next film Crimson Tide. Tarantino left much of the naval drama and military lingo intact while punching up sequences with his signature dialogue and references from everything from the Silver Surfer to the classic WWII submarine film Run Silent, Run Deep. The 90s blockbuster featured stellar performances from two actors who would become synonymous with Tony Scott films, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

The 1996 film The Fan was a critical and box-office flop starring Robert De Niro as a crazed fan obsessed with a famous baseball player (played by Wesley Snipes) and came at a time when all three parties (Scott, De Niro and Snipes) seemed confused on where their careers should go. While still not good, the movie does hold its share of fine moments and Tony Scott trademarks. Scott was able to bounce back in 1998 with the box-office hit Enemy of the State, an all-star paranoia thriller featuring Will Smith on the run from CIA surveillance and Gene Hackman reprising his signature role in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation. Between Enemy of the State and his 2001 film Spy Game starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, Scott’s camera movements and editing style would change considerably and create a new way of shooting action set pieces.

Starting with 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott films would feature the signature orange and yellow sunsets and color schemes as before but now with a more frenetic imagery. His films are now filled with quick edits, lens flares, shaky cam, and jump cuts that would detract many cinema lovers, but keeps this viewer visually blown away. The hallucinatory style applied to Man on Fire, 2005’s Domino and 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 makes Tony Scott’s films their own unique beast.

He plays with soundtracks more and more and this creates a roller coaster ride of entertainment in each film. When Denzel Washington extracts bloody revenge on the men who kidnapped Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Nine Inch Nails blares on the soundtrack as Washington strolls across the street wielding a shotgun is fucking movie bliss. Same goes for the bloody shootout in a trailer park that leads into an ass-kicking, Xzibit soundtracked opening credit sequence in Domino. Or even the opening of Taking of Pelham 123 that intercuts the sounds of Travolta and his gang hijacking a train with the famous Rick Ross beats of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

What’s more is that Tony Scott continued to make smart action films in a time when the genre only seemed to be getting dumber. 2010’s Unstoppable is a masterclass in momentum and suspense. Pelham 123 is a smartly scripted remake of a beloved film and Brian Hegleland makes it his own and very original. Man on Fire is one of the coolest revenge movies of the last 20 years and saved Washington’s post-Oscar career from disasters like Out of Time. Domino is sheer, adrenaline fueled mayhem. The only misfire is 2006’s Deja Vu which collapses on its self from flawed, overly complicated time travel logic. Its still a very invigorating visual experience despite its confusing plot.

Now to my dismay there will always be a gaping void in cinema today. A missing piece to the movie going experience. The style and technique that Edgar Wright parodied so lovingly in Hot Fuzz will never be matched. Action movies will rarely be this smart or this much fun ever again. Mr. Scott is up there with Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, John Milius, Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino as my action movie idols. I’ve always dreamed of one day writing a screenplay for Tony Scott. Even though he’s no longer with us, I will continue to write screenplays for Tony Scott. Through myself and the rising filmmakers of today, perhaps the legacy of Tony Scott will continue to live on in Hollywood. My condolences to the Scott family, his wife and twin sons, and thank you for the many memories and epic pictures  you’ve given me. Cheers, sir.

-John