04/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Monster Squad: See It Instead of The Wolfman This Weekend, It's One of the Best Kids' Horror Movies

The Monster Squad has a ridiculously easy premise for an '80s movie: bring together Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and then get a team of kids to try to stop them. It's sort of like The Goonies (rating: 65) with monsters instead of pirates. It's a loving homage to old Universal horror movies -- especially apropos because the remake of The Wolfman just came out today -- that has just enough thrills for a 10 year old, more than enough laughs, and a clear vision that has allowed it to gain a steady cult following after totally bombing in 1987. (It was a tough summer: they had to contend with Beverly Hills Cop II (rating: 49), The Untouchables, Stakeout, Predator (rating: 77), and RoboCop (rating: 92), and Dirty Dancing (rating: 73) was released a week later.)

The fact that it bombed may have halted a lot of careers. (Director Fred Dekker didn't work for several years, then made Robocop 3, and hasn't made a movie since.) 22 years later, by far the most famous person involved in the movie is its co-screenwriter, Shane Black, whose first movie appeared just a couple months before The Monster Squad: Lethal Weapon (rating: 92). He has one of the best ears for a catchphrase of any action screenwriter, and though elsewhere that tendency has bordered on cloying, here it's charming. (The most memorable exchange in the film comes when the Wolfman tries to attack two of the boys, who are trying to get away: "Kick him in the nards!" "He doesn't have nards! [kick] Wolfman's got nards?") The kids are largely unknowns now, and few of them worked much after the 1980's. The character actors who played the monsters, Toom Noonan (Frankenstein) and Jon Gries (the Wolfman), have fared slightly better, though Gries's Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite (45) is the closest either has come to mainstream success. But they're all well-cast, and the movie is actually helped by having a gang of fresh faces. Unlike some movies of the '80s, this movie isn't hurt by the latter-day infamy of its stars.

The plot is cheerful nonsense, and it's largely explicated by a character aptly named "Scary German Guy." There is an amulet that helps preserve the balance between good and evil, and Dracula's after it, bringing his monster buddies along with him for good measure. Sean is a middle school ne'er-do-well more interested in monsters than classwork, and his dad's a cop having marriage problems. By the time the apocalypse comes near, he's the only person who can save the world. And so he does. The effects aren't bad -- the legendary Richard Edlund was in charge of visual effects, and the legendary Stan Winston did the creatures -- and the set design is workmanlike. It has a much lighter tone and palette than a movie like Gremlins (rating: 75), which was spoofing a much different era of the horror genre. And it really doesn't try to be anything other than what it is: a silly homage to movies the director loves, with little depth beyond that.

The Monster Squad languished for many years after its release, unavailable on DVD and hard to find on VHS, before finally receiving a reverential 2-DVD treatment for its 20th anniversary. They assembled most of the gang, cast and crew, to talk about how much fun they had making the movie. There are only a few down moments, like when Dekker admits that the movie's failure effectively put one nail in his career. And that's as it should be. Real life has a habit of intruding, but when a movie is this enjoyable of an escape, it's nice to be able to forget, even if only for 82 minutes -- the length itself is an homage to the oldies. Dekker deserves another bite at the apple, but for now, his best movie is pretty good all by itself.

Rating: 74

Crossposted at Remingtonstein.