What The Monster Squad Means To Me: a 25th Anniversary Tribute
by Ben Bussey
I should forewarn you that what follows will not be a standard retrospective. You see, today marks 25 years since The Monster Squad was first released to cinemas, and while I’ve no doubt that doesn’t mean too much to a lot of people, let me see if I can give some indication of what it means to me.
Follow me on Twitter and you won’t see a picture of me. You’ll see the victorious grin of Van Helsing, thumb held up high as he drags Dracula to Limbo. Visit my profile page, and you’ll note my backdrop is The Monster Squad’s British VHS sleeve. Likewise, friend me on Facebook and again it isn’t my face you’ll see, but that of Rudy, sunglasses on and cigarette in his lips, and for my cover photo you’ll see the scene at the top of this page: the midnight riverbank assembly of Wolfman, Gillman, Mummy and Dracula right before they resurrect the Frankenstein monster. On top of that, you may notice my FB address is facebook.com/kickhiminthenards. My first ever article published online, back at good old B Through Z? yep – it was on The Monster Squad. It was even in part the subject of my MA dissertation.
Yes, I love The Monster Squad. And not in some hipster ironic way. I truly, madly, deeply love every second of this silly little 1987 kiddie horror movie. For better or worse, it made me the person I am today. So if you need someone to blame, direct your hatemail to Fred Dekker.
So, how to adequately express this love? How to sum up just how great I think the film is, and just how great its personal impact on me has been? I don’t think I can within the confines of a single article. Why, I could write a book. In fact… I’m in the process of doing just that. A slow, faintly torturous process, but a process nonetheless.
For the time being, though, I don’t think I can sum it up much better than I did five years ago on – God, was it that long ago – my Myspace blog. What follows is an abridged version of a blog post I made in July 2007, just prior to the film’s 20th anniversary and its release on DVD from Lionsgate. Once again, I warn that this is not a basic review, so anyone with an aversion to long-winded, overly personal, syrupy, touchy-feely emotional content may want to look away now. What can I say; I’m just a sensitive, sentimental kinda guy. Hence I write for a site called Brutal As Hell.
(…) Two big things happened to me when I was nine years old. I found out there was no Father Christmas; and I saw The Monster Squad.
Okay – event number one. (I’m fuzzy on the chronology; this may have happened second. But let’s assume it didn’t, for the sake of convenience. And to support my upcoming argument. Teeheehee.)
Now, I’m curious about this. Am I right in thinking that nine is quite a late age to learn the truth about Santa? A lot of people I speak to seem to have either been aware, or figured it out on their own by then. Not me. I was a dedicated believer. I don’t know what it was, but I was adamant that Santa Claus absolutely had to be real. Now, I never harboured any delusions that there was an Easter Bunny. (Over there, that’s just a guy in a suit!) With the Tooth Fairy, initial belief gave way to a comfortable realisation that it was my parents. But Father Christmas… he was just too big, too significant to be a lie. And not just because he made a movie with Dudley Moore and John Lithgow.(…) So when the fateful day came that my mother sat me down and gently told me the truth… it was a strange moment. I didn’t cry. I didn’t get angry. I just kind of went… “Oh.”
I went “Oh” because on some level I had always known. I went “Oh” because I knew that as much as I had been deceived by my parents, and all the other grown ups in the world, I knew that I had also been deceiving myself.
(…) Onto event number two: The Monster Squad.
As a kid, I hated horror. Tick me off on the list of people born into the eighties who hid behind the sofa during the Thriller video. Anytime one of the Jaws movies came on TV, I ran screaming. (Not such a bad thing with the sequels…) Sure, I loved Ghostbusters and Gremlins, but – like Steve – they didn’t count. (…) Why anyone would voluntarily sit down to read or watch something with the specific intention of getting scared, I could not for the life of me fathom. So sitting down one Saturday night with my brother and cousin to watch a film they’d picked out at Pharaoh’s Video that evening – a film that featured a werewolf, a mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Frankenstein monster, and Count Dracula – it was a pretty big step for me.
And you know what? I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
The living skeleton attacking Van Helsing, in the wake of the whirlpool mouth of Limbo; Dracula dissolving to bat form, and escaping the plane (in broad daylight, mind you!); the sudden flash of Dracula’s skull in the lightning; the monsters congregating at the misty lake to resurrect Frankenstein; Wolfman’s exploded remnants whooshing back together; Dracula, electricity flickering over his shoulders, beating his way through cop after cop without breaking a sweat, taking out Scary German Guy with a thunderbolt from his palm, and picking up Phoebe by her cheeks: “Give me the amulet you bitch!” (Seriously, has Dracula ever had as much bad-ass power as he does in this film?)
All these moments and more flashed before me like a dream – and in an instant, I got it. I understood why people watched horror movies. Monsters were cool! And being scared – sure, Monster Squad isn’t all that scary, but still – I suddenly realised how alive it made me feel. How being afraid and being excited weren’t really all that far removed. Thinking about it, it was probably that same year that I plucked up the guts to go on ghost trains and rollercoasters for the first time.
Over the next couple of years, I saw The Monster Squad every opportunity I had; eventually I got my own ex-rental VHS copy, which I still own, and I watched it over and over – at least once a month, probably until I was fifteen. Watching it again a few weeks ago, for the first time in a while, I still found myself mouthing along to pretty much every line of dialogue, and every beat of music. (Though I still can’t quite make out all the lyrics of ‘Rock Until You Drop’…)
So – what, you may ask, did those two utterly commonplace childhood events have to do with one another? Why do I feel the need to go into detail on both of them in this manner? Because when I learned there was no Father Christmas, I stopped believing. And, as feeble an example as it may seem, when I stopped believing, I got my first little taste of despair. That’s where horror movies came in.
My mother didn’t encourage my new-found interest in horror movies. Sure, she and Dad would buy me books – all the Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson classics – but they wouldn’t let me rent any Nightmare On Elm Streets or Friday the 13ths. All those nasty things that Mum in particular had shielded me from in my earlier years, I was suddenly anxious to see, and I don’t think she was too happy about it. She didn’t want me having nightmares.
It was she, of course, that broke the news about Santa.
This was my revenge. This was my rebellion. This was my punk!
Maybe I couldn’t rent the tapes I wanted, but, unlike my mother, I knew how to work the timer on the video. ITV still showed Hammer movies most Saturday nights; I taped them all. Every so often I’d even get some more recent ones: Lost Boys, Fright Night. Then, most importantly, I made friends with a kid called Paul, whose parents let him watch absolutely anything… soon enough I was up to my eyeballs in Critters, Freddy Krueger, and George A. Romero.
And yeah, there were a few nightmares along the way.
Just to make it clear – I love my Mum! I’ve got a kid of my own now; I understand how powerful the instinct is to protect your child, how desperate the desire to shield them from any pain and distress. But we all know how it goes. There comes that moment when you’re growing up when the parents become the enemy. They’re trying to keep you down; they don’t want you to grow up. And, as my parents have told me since, in a way that really is true! God, when I try to imagine my little baby boy growing up, reaching puberty, going beyond my control… it’s a bloody scary thought. I don’t want him to be at risk. I don’t want him to suffer. Above all – I don’t want him to not need me anymore. But that day is going to come, whether I like it or not.
Remember that scene in The Crow? Michael Wincott’s holding his snow globe with a graveyard scene inside, remembering his father giving it to him and telling him, “Childhood’s over the moment you know you’re gonna die.”
Every once in a while, we start debating the significance of horror. The 70s, as anyone who’s seen the marvellous documentary American Nightmare can tell you, were all about ‘Nam, Watergate, and the assassinations of King, Malcolm and the Kennedys. Today? Well, it’s obviously 9-11 and the War on Terror, right? Sure, but…
Here’s what I think. Remember what I said, about how the non-existence of Santa was my first taste of despair? Horror will always be appropriate, always of popular interest, as long as there is cause for despair. And we all have cause for despair, and always will. Because we’re all going to die.
The motivational speaking of Mr Benjamin Bussey, ladies and gentlemen; coming to your town soon. Book now.
The Monster Squad started it all for me. It established my enduring love for classic supernatural horror in particular. It made me doodle spiders with human heads when I was supposed to be paying attention at school. And you know what? It holds up as a movie. It grips you from the opening scroll, and doesn’t let go. It’s funny and it’s thrilling; and today, when blockbusters seem to be getting more and more overblown, and moviemakers are so anxious about protecting the young that shotguns are digitally altered into walkie-talkies, it’s so refreshing to see a film clocking in at not even 80 minutes, where kids swear like sailors and are placed in genuine peril.
So when I got my e-mail from Amazon.com this morning, informing me that my copy of the brand-new Monster Squad DVD had been shipped… I got excited.
And, as you’ve probably guessed, more than a little reflective.
Five years on, my feelings haven’t changed, and rest assured, I have plenty left to say on the subject. Now, back to my place for some pie.