illustration by Brianna AshbyDracula pulls up in a slick black Cadillac. A platinum skull shines on the grill. The ride is pimped, and so is he. It’s the late eighties, and he’s still rocking a collared cape with the bright red lining. A huge medallion glitters under the frills and puffs of his pirate shirt. He’s a thousand years old, and he looks fabulous.
“Let it begin,” he says to the moon. His voice is gravel over thunder. He looks down at the lights of some nowhere town. Straight from Transylvania to Anywhere, USA. The storm clouds turn his pale face blue.
The cleverest thing about 1987’s The Monster Squad—let’s be real, the only clever thing—is that it’s debatable which “squad” the title is actually referring to.
On the one hand, there are the film’s protagonists, a group of pre-pubescent monster enthusiasts who actually call themselves “The Monster Squad,” writing it in all caps on a chalkboard in their secret tree house base. There’s a fat kid. There’s a bizarre, anachronistic greaser kid that’s supposedly “the cool one.” Sean, their earnest leader, has an encyclopedic monster memory, and a snarky best friend who looks like he was grown in a lab with DNA from the two Coreys. Ultimately, these guys are like a poor man’s Goonies. They offer very little to connect with.
On the other hand, there’s a second “squad,” this one comprised ofactual monsters. They’re the film’s antagonists, but also its true stars. Each of the big Universal Studios monsters dust off their rubber suits and puts in an appearance: Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They all come together under Dracula’s leadership to take over the world, be vaguely evil, and destroy the suburbs.
From the beginning, I’m rooting for the monsters.
It’s the only option really. If you watch this movie, you’re watching it for the monsters. Where else are you going to see all the classic movie monsters team up in one place? (Okay, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, fair enough, but did they also have an original hip-hop theme song to play over the end credits? Didn’t think so.) It’s what you’ve been waiting for your whole life without realizing it. It’s The Avengers of the undead.
By comparison the human characters, kids and adults alike, are undercooked, uninteresting, and deeply punchable. It’s a rough uphill climb until the monsters finally show up. I guess these kids were written to come off as “incorrigible rascals,” or something. Well let me tell you, they don’t. They just seem loud and abrasive, and there’s a lot of uncomfortable homophobia floating around. There’s one early scene where they leave the principal’s office, speculating on how he must be “a fruit” because he wants them to pay attention in class and stop making terrible no.2 pencil drawings of monsters. I guess it’s the eighties, so you have to put a little mental asterisk by it, but boy does it sure make me want to see these little shits get eaten. I just smell something gross and fascistic about these kids and their alleged “goodness.” It feels lazy and superficial. I resent how utterly predictable their presence is. I hate that I already know they’re going to win. They’re like the Yankees or something. They expect a medal just for showing up. I’m sorry, but just because you’ve handed me a bunch of plucky white kids, it doesn’t guarantee I’ll cheer for them. And it sure as hell doesn’t make them “heroes.”
My deliverance comes in the form of Dracula, terrorizing some poor shmuck in what seems to be a tiny plane full of nothing but ancient Transylvanian coffins. His bat form flaps in angry puppet circles. Fur bristles. Red eyes flare. The legendary Stan Winston’s creature effects are the film’s other saving grace. The pilot and his plane fall out of the sky, and coffins scatter across what seems to be a vast demonic swamp bordering the sleepy, all American town. The film scores bonus points for unintentional Lynchisms.
You can tell what’s in one of the boxes, because it says “Frankenstein” in big white letters. Dracula takes his weird pimp cane—Transylvanian fashion being rich in affectations—and turns it into some kind of DIY lightning rod. Wires wind down into the creature’s neck. “Wake up, old friend,” he says, and I prick up a little in my seat. He reaches his hand down as the creature’s dead eyes open, brushes a long hand against its cheek. I feel something tug inside me. The creature is unintelligible. It says something that sounds like baby gibberish. The other monsters have gathered in a circle, howling in approval, their weird shapes writhing under flashes of electric blue.
I know the movie wants me to see this as some terrible, cataclysmic event. It’s all the great beasts of cinema, going bump in the night at once. It should mean “head for the hills,” but for some reason I can’t see it as anything but awesome. I find myself thinking of Maurice Sendak. I’m thinking of a jungle, a bonfire, and the wild rumpus. I feel like I’m watching a ghoulish version of The Breakfast Club. Suddenly, I hate this movie just a little bit less. Something unintentionally endearing has crept into the scene. My heart goes out to these monsters, these weirdly freakish nobodies. I’m seeing a family reunited, and if it means the whole world has to be plunged into some vague darkness for the monsters to win, well that’s fine with me. Monsters have to look out for one another. I’ve picked my side and I’m sticking with it, come what may. So go for it, monsters. Bring on the end times. I’m ready and willing. I’ve got my fist in the air. Turns out we are each of us a giant bipedal fish-man, a zombie wrapped in toilet paper, a wolf wearing torn capri pants, some weird bloodsucking dandy, a light-up cadaver in a box, and a criminal.
Still, there’s dysfunction in the house that Dracula built. He gives Tom Noonan’s Frankenstein a mission: He is to go after the kids, the other monster squad, in search of Van Helsing’s diary, which contains vital information about a magic amulet with the power to banish the forces of evil once and for all (otherwise known as putting an end to this movie.)
First Frankenstein finds Sean’s little sister sitting by a pond, playing with flowers. It’s a scene that harkens back to Karloff’s classic version of the monster. But, much to the grave disappointment of this viewer, there is absolutelyzero drowning in The Monster Squad, accidental or otherwise. Instead, everything just sort of works out, and it’s revealed that Frankenstein’s monster has been deeply misunderstood this whole time. He’s a kind soul underneath those big boots and dusty jacket, a gentle giant in need of a little understanding. It’s like Sloth in The Goonies, except he’s made of sewn-up dead people.
For me, this is the great tragedy of The Monster Squad, Frankenstein’s betrayal of his fellow monsters. It cut me deep. I couldn’t understand it. Have you no dignity, Frankenstein? How could you betray your dark brethren for this pack of twelve year olds and their off-putting homophobic banter? I know the film wanted me to see Frankenstein’s change of heart in a hopeful light, hand me some vague platitude about goodness being found in the unlikeliest of places or some such bullshit, but I just felt sad watching Frankenstein sell out so spectacularly. It’s a misguided move, in my opinion. I’d argue there’s far more solidarity and camaraderie, far more “humanism” on display among the monsters than these children, who bicker and bully with the viciousness of the worst twelve year olds.
Middle-schoolers are terrible people. They always have been, and always will be. And The Monster Squad is no different: they actually call their fat kid, Fat Kid. They do it to his face, and they do it all the time. But Dracula’s monsters move and act as one, a well-oiled machine. Maybe it’s a maturity that comes from being thousands of years old. Maybe it’s centuries of team building workshops in the bowels of a secret dungeon. All I know is there must be some level of decency and mutual respect at work for such a disparate, cosmopolitan group (Egyptian, Transylvanian, some sort of merman) to come together under one roof. The only monster that can even articulate proper thoughts is Dracula, but you never see him verbally shame the poor, ineffectual mummy (always the saddest and shabbiest of movie monsters) for being so damn useless all the time. But I ask you, who is there to dry off Eugene aka Fat Kid’s pillow when he cries himself to sleep at night?
That’s why it hurts me to see Frankenstein run off into the sunset with these suburban whippersnappers. The kids put him in big, Risky Business-style Ray Bans and teach him to say, “Bogus.” My douchechills are instant and severe. It’s like seeing those people that walk around in public with their kid on a leash. At one point the monster looks at a cheap plastic Frankenstein mask and pulls back in disgust. He raises his massive hands to his face, and feels its misshapen contours. He’s horrified and ashamed by what he finds there. “Scary?” he asks the little kids in the tree house. They don’t say a word. I wish I could have been there. I wish I could tell Frankenstein that yes, he may be scary, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to be scary. It’s okay to be a big walking collage of green-grey people parts. It’s okay to be a monster. Whatever you do, don’t try and be human. They’re the worst.
During the final confrontation with Dracula, when Frankenstein grabs him by the back of the neck from off screen, swooping in to save the kids at the last minute, it broke my tiny, monster-loving heart. I wept to see Dracula and his evil plans fall to pieces, the monsters falling one by one to this pack of white, privileged brats. Watching that sad, frail mummy have his bandages unraveled from the legs up. He’s holding onto the back of a speeding truck, swiping violently at the kids in the backseat. One of them ties his bandages to an arrow and shoots it into a tree. The more they drive, the more he unravels. Dust pours along the highway. I could swear there’s a moment of genuine horror and confusion in his dead, Stan Winston puppet eyes. His ancient cursed Egyptian brain is telling him, “Well, this is it.” And then, poof, just a skull bouncing down the highway, one tremendous pile of cloth. I felt sad watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon bleed out from a shotgun wound. The viewer is supposed to feel happy for Fat Kid, who finally conquers his fear and mans up under pressure. But all I can see is the quickened breathing of the terrible fish-man, how in its last moments its chest rises and falls real fast, like something laid out flat against the bottom of a boat. The Wolfman puts up the best fight. Only a silver bullet can kill a werewolf, but The Monster Squad is nothing if not prepared. His human form says thank you to the anachronistic greaser kid for putting him out of his misery, and I feel a weight bottom out in my stomach. Another monster gone.
Once it’s over, I’m left feeling bitter. It’s like my team just lost the big game in the last quarter. I’m alone on the couch, a Scooby Doo villain with my rubber face pulled off. Damn those meddling kids. I wish I could rewind it and intervene. Change the ending. I wish I could persuade those kids to just stay home. Let Dracula have his amulet, and call it a day. Let the monsters win for once. A million monster movies, and every time they lose.
Personally, I’ve had enough of “goodness” in my stories. It leaves so little room for anything but the big, broad, happy ending, and I’m not sure if I believe in those any more. I haven’t seen too many around, to be honest. The world comes with the roughest of edges, and in every shade of grey. It can be quite a monstrous little place. And maybe that’s why I find myself rooting for the monsters. I see honesty there. I see hopefulness. Maybe I love them because they were just born to lose, but I’ll always be hoping they succeed. That they’ll overcome whatever it is that makes the world deem them less than human, and steal a win. Because they deserve it. And isn’t that the whole point of Halloween? It’s the one time when all the dark things reign supreme. One night, when the monsters have their day.
Bob Schofield is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June. He likes what words & pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.