In honor of The Nice Guys (which you can buy tickets for here), we're kicking off a month of weekly spotlight articles celebrating Shane Black and the subgenres visited by his latest film.
If there’s a Rosetta stone concerning the filmic identity of writer/director Fred Dekker, it’s his ‘86 feature directing debut, Night of the Creeps. Fluently speaking a dialect of straight up movie nerd, Creeps is a heart-on-sleeve love letter to genre cinema, mashing together schlocky '50s sci-fi, a mutant zombie picture, and Cronenbergian body horror – all while winking at you and still remaining incredibly sincere when it comes to the emotional centers of its horny college coeds. Sure, the love interest shares a surname with the Canadian King of Dysmorphic Carnage, while others are gifted the monikers of major horror icons like Raimi, Romero and Carpenter. Nevertheless, Dekker still manages to make us feel for these niche in-jokes, fully fleshing them as they fend off spaced out slug parasites beamed in from an intergalactic riff on Shivers. That’s a true gift: to be simultaneously self-aware and emotionally honest.
Dekker’s follow-up to Night of the Creeps is the movie he’s most known for. Playing like an 80-minute perusal of a pre-teen mind obsessed with ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’, ‘87’s The Monster Squad is a kid’s movie for those who would often find themselves lost in the horror section of their mom and pop video store. Our Gang crossed with Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Monster Squad is an obvious attempt to craft a Universal Monster movie for those who thought The Goonies just couldn’t quite scratch that Fangoria itch. It’s a near perfect balance of humor, horror and heart, featuring the added bonus of a Shane Black-assisted screenplay. So while Tom Noonan’s enchantingly lonely take on Frankenstein’s monster is undoubtedly unforgettable, it’s also neat to see the master of the buddy cop movie dashing a bit of his own brand of hot sauce into Dekker’s irreverent stew.
Black and Dekker have been good buddies since they were classmates at UCLA. Dekker asked Black if he wanted to work on The Monster Squad with him, and the two banged out the story idea in a matter of weeks while cooped up in Dekker’s apartment. Black then went off and drafted the screenplay’s first pass on his own (resulting in his gaining first credit when it comes to the picture’s writing). What resulted was a mammoth movie script, clocking in at a 160 pages. With the help of Executive Producer Peter Hyams (Capricorn One), Dekker then took over re-writes, lopping out a significant amount of character development and streamlining the story (Black’s original draft spent pages upon pages developing the parents of the titular nightmare hunters). The result may not be as sophisticated as the action cinema Black became famous for, but retained the cheeky pastiche Dekker had perfected with his previous picture.
The Monster Squad embraces an aura of handcrafted fantasy from its opening frames, as Bradford May’s lens captures the tangible texture of this matte painted dungeon of doom. Past the cobwebs and corpses are coffins, from which the Prince of Darkness (Duncan Regehr) rises and embarks upon a quest to destroy the planet (shortly after showing down with Van Helsing, of course). Rounding up a horde of slimy silver screen comrades – the Mummy, Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Monster – Dracula creates an eerie “shared universe” in thirteen minutes instead of thirteen films. Stan Winston brings each being to life with an eye for craggy, severe wax museum detail; a marvelous collection of icons tweaked and re-imagined for a new generation addicted to the hardcore gore and violence of the Friday the 13th franchise.
The suburbs invaded by this terror troop are a hazy, soft focus idealization that sits somewhere between David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the working class melancholy miasma of a Springsteen song. Nobody’s working in a mill or getting knocked up by the river, but founding member of the town’s “monster club”, Sean (André Gower), is the son of a dog-tired cop (Stephen Macht) and a doting, under-appreciated housewife (Mary Ellen Trainor). It’s these gauzy, anti-real depictions of domestic strife that feel like the most significant leftovers from Black’s epic draft. Trainor brings a resigned sadness to her role, as she watches Sean’s father walk out on date night in order to work a scene. Macht expressively meets his better halfway, playing the father as a man who knows he’s prioritizing the wrong things in life, but can’t help but be addicted to his job. In a different Shane Black joint, he and his partner (Stan Shaw) are yet another classic buddy cop pair – one black, one white, both looking to take down the bad guys. Only here the bad guys have fangs and claws, and adults aren’t supposed to believe in such ridiculous bumps in the night.
Completely convincing is how mean the kids are. Keeping with the trend of Shane Black movies never quite fitting into a politically correct mold, the tiny tree-house dwelling badasses sling homophobic slurs at one another while giving their portly friend, Horace (Brent Chalem), the quite literal nickname “fat kid”. Their leather clad junior high-enrolled protector, Rudy (Ryan Lambert), peeps and snaps blackmail pictures of the pretty girl next door as she changes before sharpening wooden stakes in shop class. Yet it’s difficult not to expect these little shits to have a hard edge to them, as they make plans to protect the world while peering up at posters for gross out Italian horror like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and watching drive-in slasher movies from Sean’s roof. Dekker gets performances out of each adolescent actor that straddle the line between cartoonish and true-to-life, as the casual cruelty of his and Black’s script feels shockingly naturalistic in its depiction of snotty milquetoast white boy outcasts. Using the parlance of our times, the Monster Squad is unwoke as fuck.
There’s also a legitimate darkness to Dekker’s film that stretches beyond invasion by imaginary beasts. The Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino) who the boys enlist to translate Van Helsing’s diary and help them ward off the forces of darkness turns out to be a Holocaust survivor. He believes these children when they come to his doorstep peddling tales of vampires and werewolves because he’s already witnessed the zenith of human evil. Later, Sean’s father is forced to watch his partner die in a horrible explosion, howling as the cop is helpless to pull his best friend from the flames. The Monster Squad is wicked in its malice, alluding to and explicitly depicting suffering and emotional scarring that many movies (made for youngsters or old heads) would shy away from.
The finale of The Monster Squad takes the shape of a breakneck action/adventure picture, as the boys suddenly find themselves protagonists in their own horror movie (predating Danny Madigan and Last Action Hero). Sean’s dad throws down with the Wolfman, while Horace picks up a shotgun and squares off against the Creature. Dekker has often credited Hyams in interviews for fostering an Old Hollywood mentality on set, and the influence of studio Westerns can indeed be felt during the midnight stand-off. This is High Noon on Main Street, only instead of gunslingers skinning smokewagons with righteous lawmen, we have a group of misfits letting these creatures of the night know that they’re not going to wipe the human race from existence. All the while, the poppy, comic book palette of Night of the Creeps remains, as Dekker isn’t scared to go goofily broad.
Possibly the most fascinating element of all is the movie’s firm acknowledgement that genres change. The Universal Monsters Dekker fell in love with as a kid were no longer popular, and the '80s had already seen stalk and slash sensibilities rise in popularity and become passé. So he resurrected icons from a bygone era in a way that was supposed to appeal to a generation who would’ve made up the Monster Squad, had Dracula and his goons invaded their towns. Not only is Dekker’s picture a coming of age story revolving around geeky misfits who fully realize the powerful potential they possess, it doubles as an essay on the transient nature of storytelling, and how genre is constantly cannibalizing itself – regurgitating flesh and blood to be reformed in a new image for the current crop of consumers. In this way, Dekker’s movie establishes its own identity by becoming inalienably tied to the decade in which it was conceived. This isn’t Our Gang, or The Goonies, or any of the other easily comparable collections of colorful broods. This is The Monster Squad, and there is no job too weird for them to handle.