“Where the hell am I supposed to find silver bullets? K-Mart?” — Rudy (Ryan Lambert) in The Monster Squad.
Like many baby boomers reared on the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Fred Dekker is a huge fan of the classic Universal horror movies. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy and The Wolf Man inspire nightmares in most, but for Dekker they simply fire his imagination.
“As a kid,” said the San Francisco born filmmaker, “I loved the Universal monster films of the ’30s and ’40s so obviously, getting the chance to play in their fictional universe was a dream come true.”
The result of Dekker’s reverie was the creation of The Monster Squad, a 1987 teenage horror comedy that owes a big nod to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with a side order of The Goonies thrown in for good measure.
When Count Dracula recruits a posse of monsters — Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon — to retrieve and destroy an ancient amulet that holds the key to controlling the balance of good and evil in the world, he didn’t count on a band of fifth graders (and one chain-smoking eighth grade greaser) driving a stake through his plans.
The Monster Squad, a geeky group who wear T-shirts that say “Stephen King Rules” and spend their days obsessing over monster magazines and debating important topics like, ‘Who is the coolest monster?’ and ‘Does The Wolf Man have the biggest nards?’ have come into possession of the diary of famed Dracula hunter Abraham Van Helsing, a document that holds the secret to stopping the Count’s army of darkness and thwarting his evil plan.
With the help of the local “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cinimo) who translates the book into English they get the skinny on the amulet. According to the book it is composed of concentrated good, but for one day every century it is vulnerable and can be destroyed.
If they can find the amulet and use it in conjunction with an incantation from the diary they can create a swirling vortex which will suck the monsters away from Earth, condemning them to a metaphysical jail and saving the world from their reign of wickedness. If the monsters get to the amulet first, evil will win.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Monster Squad is that the monsters don’t look exactly the way you remember them from the old Universal movies. That’s because this homage to those landmark films wasn’t made by Universal, who still own the copyrights to the likenesses of those famous fiends. To get around that hurdle special effects wizard Stan Winston, whose creature creations have been seen in everything from Edward Scissorhands to Jurassic Park and Aliens, took the original copyrighted designs and tweaked them just enough to avoid lawsuits.
“One of the things we had to be very careful of was that although we were doing a movie that was a take-off on the Universal classics, we had to be careful none of our designs infringed on the original designs of the Universal characters,” Winston told Rue Morgue in 2007. “There were subtle changes; we had to be sure that nothing specific about them could be considered a copyright infringement of a design.”
You’ll notice Dracula still has a cape, but no widow’s peak; Frankenstein’s head is shaped differently and the neck bolts are gone, while The Wolf Man looks like his hair was blown dry and teased by a hairdresser with one too many Red Bulls under his belt. The changes are minimalist, but spookily effective. The success of the make-up designs is further enhanced by strong creature performances by the actors, particularly Tom Noonan as Frankenstein’s Monster, who brings a vulnerability to this familiar character.
“I think Tom Noonan brought just the right amount of conviction and gentleness and sadness to Frankenstein’s Monster,” says Dekker, “and Duncan Regehr was a terrific Dracula. He had just the right combination of nobility and evil and animal rage and all the stuff that are the hallmarks of that character.”
In contrast to the supernatural showings of the older actors, the kids of The Monster Squad turn in nice, natural performances.
“It was really important to me that we had real kids and not movie kids,” Dekker says. “You know, the kind you see in commercials who are too pretty and mug and overact? We didn’t want that. We wanted them to be believable, and to seem like they were really friends. Luckily, they turned out to become a very tight-knit group.”
The Monster Squad, despite the salty language (the boys swear, Dracula calls a little girl “a bitch” and a preteen uses the word “chickenshit,” no doubt courtesy of Shane Black who also wrote more adult fare like Lethal Weapon), the refreshing lack of political correctness, the violence and the presence of nightmare-inducing monsters this is, above all, a kid’s film. The youngsters are the heroes and battle the monsters in ways that only kids can. A garlic pizza proves to be Dracula’s undoing, and in one classic scene The Wolf Man is felled by a well-placed kick to “the nards.”
“I like to think that Monster Squad, in its own small way, says something about what it is to be a kid and to be afraid in the world,” says Dekker, “and discovering the need for heroism.”
Dekker adds that he set out to make an exciting teen adventure movie, but may have been a bit ahead of his time. In the post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world we live in the mix of kids, humor and horror seems normal, but in 1987 it didn’t click with audiences.
“When Monster Squad was released, we found that kids didn’t go see it because their parents wouldn’t let them. Mostly because they thought it was going to be too scary, and parents didn’t see it because they thought it was a kid’s film,” he says. “In fact it took another several years before the combination of young people in jeopardy in genre-horror situations like Buffy and Goosebumps and Harry Potter really became acceptable. The audience wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. Sure there was The Lost Boys and The Goonies, but specifically the kind of monster-slayer approach wouldn’t be popular for another ten or fifteen years. So I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve.”
The movie’s box office take, or lack of it, condemned the film to obscurity, but it didn’t disappear altogether. Substandard video releases of the movie helped built a small cult audience for the flick, but fans had to wait twenty years for a deluxe DVD treatment. In 2007 Lionsgate released a sparkling two-disc set with lots of extras and deleted scenes. “The remastered print is so incredible that there are many shots that I hadn’t seen since I saw them through the lens of my Panaflex,” says Dekker.
Richard speaks to “CTV News at Six” anchor Andria Case about the best movies and television to watch this weekend. This week we have a look at director Edgar Wright’s time-trippy “Last Night in Soho,” the based-on-true-fact drama “Snakehead” and “The French Dispatch,” the latest from Wes Anderson.
Richard speaks to “CTV News at Six” anchor Andria Case about the best movies and television to watch this Halloween weekend including “Army of Thieves” on Netflix, Crave’s “Slumber Party Massacre” and “Muppets Haunted Mansion” on Disney+.
This week on the Richard Crouse Show we celebrate Halloween with two of the stars of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Patricia Quinn and Nell Campbell. They both appeared in the original stage production and the movie, as castle maid Magenta and the tap-dancing Columbia respectively.
Then, we’ll spend some time with horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro, director of movies you love like Academy Award winning “The Shape of Water,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pacific Rim” and many more. In a conversation we recorded nine years ago, we talk about why he is drawn to the horror genre, why children play such large roles in his films and much more.
Land finally, I recommend “Let Me In,” a great vampire movie you may not have seen… something fun to watch this weekend. We’ll also meet the director, Matt Reeves, who’ll talk about the movie and why we get scared when we go to the movies.
Each week on the nationally syndicated Richard Crouse Show, Canada’s most recognized movie critic brings together some of the most interesting and opinionated people from the movies, television and music to put a fresh spin on news from the world of lifestyle and pop-culture. Tune into this show to hear in-depth interviews with actors and directors, to find out what’s going on behind the scenes of your favourite shows and movies and get a new take on current trends. Recent guests include Ethan Hawke, director Brad Bird, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Roberts, Brian Henson, Jonathan Goldsmith a.k.a. “The most interesting man in the world,” and best selling author Linwood Barclay.
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“People, and critics too, should know about the circumstances under which I had to shoot my films,” said Mario Bava. “On Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires) I had nothing, literally. There was only an empty soundstage, really squalid, because we had no money. And this had to look like an alien planet! What did I do then? I took a couple of papier-mâché rocks from the nearby studio, probably leftovers from some sword and sandal flick, then I put them in the middle of the set and covered the ground with smoke and dry ice, and darkened the background. Then I shifted those two rocks here and there and this way I shot the whole film.”
Planet of the Vampires is a low budget film, but the visual style of Italian maestro Mario Bava elevates what could have been a forgettable B-movie into a memorable movie experience.
American International Pictures, the house that entertainment lawyer turned Hollywood showman Samuel Z. Arkoff built by churning out cheaply-produced exploitation films with grabby titles like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Saucer Men, had distributed two of Bava’s best known films, 1960’s terrifying fairy tale Black Sunday and ’63’s Black Sabbath (Ozzy Osbourne and friends lifted their band’s name from this movie).
Those films had filled AIP’s coffers, so Arkoff and collaborator, James H. Nicholson felt it was time to co-produce a movie with Bava, rather than simply distribute the finished product. They’d make more money and be able to shape the story according to the ARKOFF Formula, which was the former lawyer’s recipe for B-movie success.
Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
Killing (a modicum of violence)
Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)
AIP provided the services of Robinson Crusoe on Mars screenwriter Ib Melchoir to help form the “haunted house in space” tale based on the short story One Night of 21 Hours by Renato Pestiniero into a screenplay.
An international cast was assembled, headed by American Barry Sullivan, Brazilian actress Norma Bengell, Italian starlet Eva Marandi and Spanish actor Angel Aranda. Co-writer Robert J. Slotak remembers it was a confusing shoot, with each cast member using “their own native tongue on the set, in many cases not understanding what the other actors were saying.”
Sullivan plays ever-so-serious Captain Mark Markary of the exploratory space ship Argos. In orbit over a newly discovered planet, the fogbound Aura, the Argos begins receiving odd electronic signals. Forced to crash land on the desolate planet by a radiation overload, the troop turns on one another. Once restrained, the aggression disappears and the crew members have no memory of their violent behavior.
Markary, puzzled by the feral behavior of his crew, doesn’t have time to get to the bottom of the mystery before he receives a distress signal from their sister ship, the Galliot. Leading a small search and rescue party Markary braves a hallucinatory landscape of psychedelic swirling colors and molten lava flows only to find that most of the Galliot’s crew has already massacred one another, and those who survived are badly injured, and worse, most of the scars are psychological. In other words, they’ve gone crazy from fear.
It’s a grim discovery, made all the worse when it is revealed that the deceased Galliot crew members are having a hard time staying dead. In one of the film’s most eye-popping sequences the undead rise from their makeshift graves with a taste for living flesh.
Bava, working with no money but lots of ingenuity isn’t so much a cinematographer as he is a Cinemagician. For once, Arkoff’s penny-pinching ways actually served the movie. Optical special effects are expensive so Bava created the world of Aura using nothing but miniatures and old-school forced perspective shots. The two papier-mâché rocks — “Yes, two,” he said years later, “one and one!” — were maximized with the use of mirrors and multiple exposures to give the illusion of a rocky landscape. It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s possible that if Bava had access to a larger bank roll he might not have been so imaginative in his execution of the look of the film.
As much as possible the special effects were done “in camera,” that is utilizing the camera’s operations such as stop motion, slow shutter tricks and multiple exposures in lieu of special effects which are typically added to the film once the shooting is complete.
Bava further masked the cheapness of the set with a rainbow of colored lights filtered through fog. “To assist the illusion I flooded set with smoke,” he said.
It’s this sense of style that makes Planet of the Vampires so enjoyable. Bava injects great atmosphere into every frame, literally turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The film’s simple B-movie premise doesn’t promise much in the way of originality, but Bava’s unerring eye elevates the material, giving us an alien world unlike any seen on film to date.
Fangoria’s Tim Lucas wrote, “Planet of the Vampires is commonly regarded as the best SF ever made in Italy, and among the most convincing depictions of an alien environment ever put on film.”
The images are striking, none more so than the scene where the Argos astronauts discover a derelict ship in a huge ruin on the strange new planet’s surface. Climbing through the skeleton of the ship they uncover the gargantuan remains of mysterious creatures. If this sequence looks familiar, it’s perhaps because it appears that Ridley Scott borrowed from it while shooting Alien. Although Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon deny having ever seen Planet of the Vampires at the time they made their film, the similarity between Bava’s vision and a long sequence in the 1979 movie cannot be disputed.
Bava died in 1980, and even though he made all kinds of films during his career, his name has become synonymous with horror. It’s ironic that the maker of such classic horror films as Kill, Baby . . . Kill and Twitch of the Death Nerve was a bit of a fraidy cat in real life.
“I make horror movies,” he said,” my aim is to scare people, yet I’m a fainthearted coward; maybe that’s why my movies turn out to be so good at scaring people, since I identify myself with my characters . . . their fears are mine too. You see when I hear a noise at night in my house, I just can’t sleep . . . not to mention dark passages. Sure, I don’t believe in vampires, witches and all these things, but when night falls and streets are empty and silent, well, sure I don’t believe . . . but I am, frightened all the same. Better to stay home and watch TV!”
Sci-fi and horror rarely mix, but when they do it can result in classics like Alien, a near perfect fusion of scientific fiction and terror. Or, when the blend isn’t right, you get flops like The Mole People.
Dark Skies tries to hit the right balance with a story about a suburban couple, an ET disguised as a human and some good old-fashioned alien abduction.
Dark Skies did OK at the box office, but horror stories about outer space creatures have succeeded in the past.
The premise of Species is pure sci-fi. Scientists discover that alien and human DNA can be combined. Of course nothing bad will happen when you create a human with alien traits, right? A-listers like Ben Kingsley added some cache, but it was the horror of the H.R. Giger-designed alien and Natasha Henstridge’s flicking frog-like tongue that made the movie memorable.
Years before Peter Jackson hit it big with Lord of the Rings, he made a film that mixed sci-fi, horror and a big helping of humour. Bad Taste sees a small town taken over by aliens who harvest humans as ingredients for their fast-food restaurants. Über low-budget, the movie was called a “deranged, bloodthirsty heir to the Marx Brothers’ slapstick kingdom” by a BBC film reviewer. Its best joke may be on the DVD cover. The film title’s font looks like the logo of the U.S. takeout restaurant Fatburger.
It Came from Outer Space (one of the first alien invasion films), The Blob and giant ant movie Them! all combine the best elements of sci-fi and horror, but not all movies are as successful. The title Robot Monster promises some futuristic scares, but earned the title “Baddest of the B-Movies” in Michael Sauter’s book The Worst Movies of All Time mainly because the robot was actually just an actor dressed in a gorilla suit topped with a diving helmet.
The name Bela Lugosi conjures up images of horror to anyone familiar with his portrayal of Dracula, so a sci-fi movie with the genre legend should be both speculative and spooky, right? Wrong. The Golden Turkey Awards dubbed Plan 9 from Outer Space “The Worst Film Ever,” but it wasn’t Bela’s fault. He died before the movie was actually shot, but director Ed Wood Jr. used test footage of the actor in the finished film; hence the video box tagline, “Almost starring Bela Lugosi.”
Richard joins Jay Michaels and guest host Tamara Cherry of the NewsTalk 1010 afternoon show The Rush for Booze and Reviews! Today we talk about Halloween icon Vincent Price’s favourite cocktails, the eerie “Last Night in Soho” and Wes Anderson’s latest, “The French Dispatch.”
Richard’s free weekly newsletter, “Richard Crouse’s Weekly Hello,” can be delivered straight to your in-box with just a click of this link! It’s fun, quick and more than your usual entertainment report. Join us!
This week, “Beware the Haunted Toaster.”
”We can all imagine the fear that comes along with being chased by a werewolf. Or waking up to find Dracula staring down at you. They are living, breathing (or in Drac’s case, dead and not so breathing, but you get the idea) embodiments of evil. But how about inorganic objects? Have you ever been terrified of a lamp? Or creeped out by a tire?”
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Richard joins CP24 to have a look at new movies coming to VOD, streaming services and theatres including director Edgar Wright’s time-trippy “Last Night in Soho,” the based-on-true-fact drama “Snakehead,” “The French Dispatch,” the latest from Wes Anderson and the Netflix heist flick “Army of Thieves.”