Friday, March 21, 2008

Knowing a Lot About Monsters

“I’ve got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“They’re dead.”

So now I guess we’ve gotten to the point where there’s a Fred Dekker double bill at the New Beverly. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. I watched NIGHT OF THE CREEPS plenty of times on cable way back when. I was working as an usher the summer THE MONSTER SQUAD came out. It opened the same day as CAN’T BUY ME LOVE, which did much better business, and was gone in two weeks. Then years later suddenly it was as if I looked up one day and there was this massive MONSTER SQUAD cult out there. When did that happen, anyway? Outside the New Beverly the sign with the showtimes for the SQUAD/CREEPS double bill trumpeted “Rare 35mm print!” and “The only 35mm print Sony has!” respectively. When I bought my ticket the cute girl taking my money asked, “Are you excited?” Well, yeah, it’s a Fred Dekker double bill, how could I not be?

Two films very much sharing a lot of the same sensibilities, even though one is ostensibly for kids and one is very R-rated, THE MONSTER SQUAD and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS will always be stuck back in the 80s. Extremely slight in plot, haphazardly scripted and lacking in well-drawn characters, they are nevertheless two films that are extremely hard to dislike. Part of this is nostalgia, yeah, but they’re also very eager to please and it’s hard not to get at least a little caught up in their extremely earnest desire to entertain.

Essentially THE LITTLE RASCALS MEET FRANKENSTEIN (and the other Universal monsters) the non-Universal THE MONSTER SQUAD follows a group of kids with their own monster club who spend most of their time arguing about matters such as whether or not the Wolfman could drive a car. When one of them stumbles onto the diary written by the one and only Abraham Van Helsing, the kids learn of the existence of a powerful amulet and become aware of the arrival of actual monsters, in the form of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy and The Gill Man, seeking that amulet in an attempt to rule the world.

The kids aren’t all that memorable, but much of the rest of THE MONSTER SQUAD holds up pretty well. Running only 82 minutes, the film, scripted by Dekker and his friend Shane Black (the same year LETHAL WEAPON opened), contains a narrative (pretty obviously inspired by ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) which moves at such breakneck speed that you might not notice all the things that don’t make much sense—did the mom really buy Van Helsing’s diary at a garage sale? Rated PG-13 it’s obviously aimed at kids but for this day and age there’s some surprisingly un-P.C. dialogue and a few bits that kids might be genuinely scared by—in the best way, of course. Maybe that explains the cult—kids who watched it on TV when they were young and actually got scared by it. But those scares all seem appropriate with the tried-and-true monster movie atmosphere the movie is going for. With the advent of CGI just a few years away when this was made, this was one of the last times that a movie could present Dracula turning into a bat by panning away and showing us the action only in shadow, but the movie feels thrilled that it is able to show this to us. There’s a genuine respect and appreciation throughout for what these monsters represent in history—the opposite approach taken by Stephen Sommers when he made his own monster rally, the reprehensible VAN HELSING.

Among the monster action there’s plenty of smart-aleck dialogue which could only have been written by Black, along with the reprise of a joke from NIGHT OF THE CREEPS involving a character saying “Two-thousand year old dead guys do not get up and walk away by themselves!”—cut to the two-thousand year old Mummy walking down the street. Along with the comedy, there are a surprising number of weighty moments which help give the movie its own identity, one of the best of which has Frankenstein’s monster faced with a Halloween mask of his own face. It’s these very special touches that help give THE MONSTER SQUAD its own identity, as the young characters seem to learn that sometimes the ones that they think are monsters don’t always turn out to be that way. Adding to this is the memorable character of “Scary German Guy” enjoyably played by Leonardo Cimino who has his own secret (“You sure do know a lot about monsters.” “Yes, I suppose I do.”) that only we in the audience are ever privy too.

The kids, while cute, don't make much of an impression and the story may be a little thin, but the adults in front of the camera manage a lot of the heavy lifting. Duncan Regehr is a slimy Dracula who gives his own unique interpretation to the role. Tom Noonan is an absolutely amazing Frankenstein monster, providing it with more of a tortured soul than any actor has probably brought to the part since the forties. Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor (also in the LETHAL WEAPON movies) are the main parents, on the verge of divorce in a real-world subplot that contrasts with the fantasy elements. Jonathan Gries (REAL GENIUS, but also Benjamin Linus’s father on LOST) has just a few short scenes as the human half of the Wolfman but nails the part to such a surprising extent that you almost remember him as being around more than he actually is. Familiar faces like Stan Shaw and David Proval turn up as well for plenty of wisecracks. The movie is very well shot in Scope (it was produced by Peter Hyams and at times looks like one of his films) and the exciting Goldsmith-like score is by Bruce Broughton. I could toss out some more criticisms about it but the more I think about it, it just seems like too likable a movie. I’ve long said that I always like it when a movie contains a final shot which cranes up from all the wreckage of the climax as all the characters seem to congratulate each other as the credits roll. Coming as that damn Monster Squad Rap plays, this might be one of my very favorite examples of that. Patrick’s sister is still pretty damn good-looking, too.

NIGHT OF THE CREEPS opened a year earlier in August 1986. I think I went to see THE FLY instead, but finally caught up with it on cable. A mish-mash of different genres, it’s even more rooted in the eighties, has several uninteresting actors in the lead roles, a script that holds up to even less scrutiny than THE MONSTER SQUAD and is pretty juvenile. It’s nearly impossible for me to dislike it.

After a short prologue in outer space and a long prologue set in 1959, we settle in at Corman University during Pledge Week in 1986. Chris Romero (Jason Lively, Rusty in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION) is bemoaning his loser status to roommate James Carpenter Hooper (Steve Marshall, essentially the poor man’s Ilan-Mitchell Smith) when he suddenly finds himself smitten by Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow, the perfume salesgirl in WEIRD SCIENCE). Desperate to win her over, he convinces his roommate to join him in pledging a fraternity, unaware that the frat’s biggest jerk Brad (Allan Kayser, the poor man’s William Zabka) is already Cynthia’s boyfriend. Given the task to steal a dead body from one of the college labs, the two guys chicken out, but not before freeing a cryogenically frozen body which for 27 years has housed a collection of slithering creatures in its brain and now that it is out is ready to unleash more creatures on the unsuspecting campus. Enter Police Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins, in the role of his career) who is awakened from a pleasant dream which turns into a pertinent nightmare, coming to the crime scene where he discovers the cryogenics lab (“What is this, a homicide or a bad B-movie?”) but is annoyed to learn that there is a body missing (“Corpses that have been dead for twenty-seven years do not get up and go for a walk by themselves!” Cut to…). As he seeks out the two college kids, he finds himself confronted with an unthinkable threat involving zombies, the slithering alien creatures and also something which forces himself to confront his own past.

The character names listed above should give the idea of the in-jokey vibe that the movie goes for. The frat comedy scenario when we hit the present day section goes on too long but the slithering creatures, when they take hold on the plot, are pretty creepy. There are a few definite similarities to James Funn's SLITHER from a few years ago, but I honestly prefer CREEPS. Once it becomes a full-fledged horror movie, with comedy fully intact, it’s at times extremely enjoyable. It is, after all, hard to hate a movie which has a reanimated corpse bursting through the floorboards of a house as Tor Johnson rising from the grave in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE plays on the television. But it can’t be denied that once Tom Atkins hits the scene as Detective Cameron everything clicks together. Answering every phone call with the catchphrase “Thrill me!” ( a line Shane Black, who wasn’t involved in this film, gave to Val Kilmer in KISS KISS BANG BANG) he owns the movie, making it hard to ever be all that interested in the college kids. He’s twisted because of his past, yet the more you learn about him, the more you root for him and when he is forced to defend himself within the walls of the sorority house during the climax, it all becomes a thing of twisted, pulp beauty.

I’m not going to even bother with the younger cast members. Tom Atkins is the show here. His character is a noir goof; he knows it, Dekker knows it, the movie knows it. But somehow within all the craziness he brings a dimension to the performance showing that he totally gets this guy and all the elements he brings to it combined with that priceless dialogue he has becomes unforgettable. Future Oscar nominee David Paymer plays a med student who gets killed and becomes a zombie. Suzanne Snyder, actually one of the lead girls in WEIRD SCIENCE, gets busted down to a bit part here as a sorority girl and Dick Miller, given a “Special Appearance by” credit, appears as a Police Armorer in an enjoyable bit.

Fred Dekker was still in his twenties when he directed these two movies. CREEPS has a lot of show-off camerawork expected from a first-timer and SQUAD dials this down a little, but not too much, as it very much is the product of the Spielberg-era of fantasy filmmaking. But within their frenetic approaches and wise-guy dialogue is the feel of somebody having fun creating these two films and it shows. It’s hard to ignore that each has its own not-inconsiderable flaws, maybe expected from someone still learning the craft, but it’s still too bad that Dekker never became the top-flight director it looked like he might become for about five minutes back in the eighties. Tom Atkins as Detective Cameron barks out “Thrill me!” many times. These two movies live up to the demand of that phrase.


Anonymous said...

Fans of The Monster Squad have never written a word about the movie that made me actually want to see it. I guess if you think Wolfman and Frankenstein are just the beginning and ending of coolness, the movie defies critical analysis.

If it gets Fred Dekker a double feature at the New Beverly, I say, more power to him.

By summarizing the top half of the bill as stuck in the '80s but not all that bad, I still don't have a desire to see it. Thanks though, Peel. This was an enjoyment review, as always.

Did you get to see the cute box office girl again?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Aw heck, I still enjoy it. It's a fun movie.

Cute box office girl is always there these days.

Adam Ross said...

Great post and a great blog! You should check out the new Monster Squad DVD, it has a surprisingly in-depth documentary talking a lot with Dekker and Co., with the director adding some candid comments about his career and how Squad's failure definitely hurt it -- but Robocop 3 effectively killed it.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Hi Adam--

I actually already have the SQUAD DVD and enjoyed it quite a bit. I just couldn't resist going to see it again in a theater after all this time. Thanks very much for the compliments!

Unknown said...

Cute box office girl is Julia -- who actually personally programmed this double bill because it was her birthday week. She also programmed the previous week's FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER/FINAL EXAM pairing. That should give you an idea of her 80s obsession.

I was skeptical going in, but I also greatly enjoyed the Dekker films on the New Bev's screen. Both were very well directed and proved to me that 20 years later they are some of the best horror movies of the period. MONSTER SQUAD was a small revelation -- it felt as endearingly a love letter to old fashioned horror as many of Joe Dante's films. The fact that Dekker didn't have a real career after these is a shame. Great to rediscover them.