Oh the horror!: Remaking the Monster Squad

Last year marked the 20th anniversary for the 1987 B-grade cult horror comedy, The Monster Squad, and and included dozens of appearances by Andre Gower (Shawn), Ryan Lambert (Rudy), Ashley Bank (Pheobe) and director Fred Dekkar, a reunion tour which began a the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas (and included an interview with Montag) and culminated — FINALLY! — into studios getting their acts together to sort out confusion over who held the rights to the film and released it to a two-disc DVD (under Lionsgate), with a fairly commendable package that unfortunately, didn’t seem to include much of the other cast (the other youngsters of the film either having passed like Brent Chalem who played Horace (aka “Fat Kid”) or simply couldn’t be located like Robby Kiger who played Patrick). More unfortunate is the fact that the noise that fans helped to generate in the last two years has lead to a rather startling announcement: preparations for a remake.

The horror!

For those who weren’t yet born in the 80s, at least early enough to fall in love with a movie that is still largely unknown to those outside the cult fan circuit, The Monster Squad is writer/director Fred Dekkar’s second cult classic — the first being Night of the Creeps (slithering alien lifeforms invade a college campus ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers). It’s not a bad way to end up considering Dekkar’s short list of career television and film credits. (The film’s full synopsis can be found at RetroJunk.com).

Flashback to the days of creepy castles invaded by angry mobs with pitchforks and you’ll find Van Helsing, the German vampire hunter battling a Liberaci-like Dracula (Duncan Regher) for control over the amulet that basically maintains the balance between eternal good and evil. Needless to say, the stakes are high. And well… somehow, he blew it. Fastforward to 1987, a regular middle class suburban neighborhood and Dracula and his band of classic Universal Studios monsters: Wolfman (played by a then-unknown Jon Gries (credited as “Desperate Man”) who is now better known as Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico), the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and, the more benevolent Frankenstien. While evil lurks in the backyard of unaware Americans everywhere, it’s the handful of elementary school kids and one chain-smoking, leather-bound junior high bad-ass (Lambert) who believe in monsters — hence, The Monster Squad — that retaliate on this invasion of classic movie monsters. Of course, it drew immediate criticism as a knock-off of the 1985 adventure, The Goonies (indeed Mary Ellen Trainor who plays Shawn’s mother in The Monster Squad was also Mikey’s mom in The Goonies), but beyond the comparisons of a group of kids embarking on their own crusade and staving off danger, it holds it’s own. Hell, it’s just a simple, fairly corny adventure.

So what’s the draw? Most certainly, it’s the young cast, though the most lasting in memory may be Lambert, who co-starred on several seasons of Disney’s Kids Incorporated and not surprisingly, wound up in L.A. years later fronting rock bands, most recently of which appears to be the locally-successful Elephone. And, as always showing up in movies throughout the 1980s, Jason Hervey, most recognizable as obnoxious Wayne Arnold on The Wonder Years, has a bit part as obnoxious schoolyard bully, E.J. And, perhaps most forgotten, is little Michael Faustino (brother of Married With Children’s David Faustino) who plays Eugene. The rest of the young cast bounced around on TV and movies, but not many. Though, Gower, who had left showbusiness to attend college in North Carolina (where he played basketball), and Bank, who had recently graduated from NYU, seem to be returning to the business, though from behind the scenes as producers.

The other draw may be, as it was is in The Goonies that, although the movie tends to get corny, these are real kids that cuss and smoke and spy on girls who seem to spend an eternity undressing in front of an open window. Even the parents were (kind of) real (nothing like a battle with monsters to save a marriage teetering on the edge of a messy divorce). Plus, there’s a thousand minor gems (quotes like “Wolfman’s got nards!”, referential t-shirt slogans like “Stephen King Rules” and hard-to-find songs like Michael Sembello’s montage tune, “Rock Until You Drop”) that establish a film’s cult following – not too many know about it. The Monster Squad‘s most loyal fans are probably people who were age-appropriate (meaning young) they saw, that piece of pulp culture that, like any other number of salient 80s movie titles (especially obscure ones) linked to something in their childhood — the movie they had on a tape they watched so often, to the point of wearing it out. It has all the right elements for it, especially as an 80s cult flick – which usually demands that its characters be a bit younger, a bit hipper.

Those loyal viewers found a romanticism in the 1987 horror comedy and that made the movie what it is. But beyond the vicarious revisiting of childhood references, The Monster Squad is (and was) a low-budget kid’s movie. There was nothing really spectacular about, beyond it’s lasting status as a cult film (something Dekkar expressed great surprise about when the trend of current loyalists became evident at these reunion appearances). Which is why a remake sounds like a terrible idea (not to mention they only just released the original last October and with that, only just re-introduced it to public memory). But it’s one that, Rob Cohen (who directed the Michael Jackson-Diana Ross Wizard of Oz musical, The Wiz) , the film’s original executive producer, appears to be pushing forward with now that Paramount Pictures has the rights, according to recent interviews with horror movie websites. Though, keep in mind, it’s something that, at least for now, is still in the planning stages. And hopefully someone has the sense enough to abandon the project, especially where Cohen doesn’t seem to be offering anything new: I really think highly of that that film…I mean, how great is it with The Mummy, the Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Frankenstein they all were in it! It would be a prime remake!” and from his recounting of favorite things in the movie (The Wolfmans got Nards! What a great line“) just sounds like a guy who liked the first movie. Which makes motivations for a remake currently a public mystery.


Weedsploitation With A Body Count: Pineapple Express

The movie, it seemed, to generate nearly as much attention as the latest Batman installment during the summer Blockbuster season, was the 2008 stoner comedy, Pineapple Express. Although this week it’s changed: Tropic Thunder appropriately bumped Batman from the number one box office rankings. The writing team of course includes Judd Apatow (who also produces), Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg–with a script actually being shopped seven years ago–and this gave director David Gordon Green a chance to move from his typically solemn, low-budget indie films to one of the pinnacles of the mainstream summer movie fare: outrageous idiocy.

The Apatow-Rogen movies are a niche that, as Rogen once put, was meant to center around characters that were more like people like them: imperfect. And, in the case of Superbad, for example, it cheered for the socially awkward and turned the well-meaning loser into a desirable hero. Rogen’s declaration of purpose came as an appropriate reaction to the lumping of both his films and shows like Beverley Hills: 90210 into similar genres. “No part of me watched 90210 and thought, ‘Yeah! that’s what my life is like!’ It seemed like a different planet. I mean, I like shitty movies as much as the next guy, I’m not a snob, but things like that had no guys like us in it – that was the point.” Unfortunately, it has also created a world in which these heroes have very little variation. Seth Rogen’s characters — usually the leading character — is always Seth Rogen the same way Hugh Grant is always the same Hugh Grant and Adam Sandler is always the same Adam Sandler in pretty much every role they appear. And, when it wasn’t Rogen playing these main characters, guys like Michael Cera and Jonah Hill were playing those limited-dimension characters: misunderstood nice guys. And it’s always guys at the forefront who become reluctantly intertwined in the outrageous epic, which would make it interesting should someone decide to take this further and give females the leading role. The misunderstood nice guy is one thing to root for, but the hapless girl (and not in the creepy Welcome to the Dollhouse sense of it, either)?

Rogen plays moppish, easy-going process server Dale Denton. And, abandoning his typical clean-cut and straight-laced characters of late, James Franco, plays his eternally stoned and happy-go-lucky dealer, Saul Silver, who offers to Dale, the most potent and extremely rare marijuana ever known: Pineapple Express. Says Saul of the wonder weed: “It’s like, if you took that Blue Oyster shit I gave you last week, and then that crazy Afghan Kush I had that one time.. and they had a baby. And then meanwhile, that crazy Northern Lights shit I had, and that Red Espresso Snowflake shit I had, made a baby. And by some crazy miracle, those two babies met, and fucked… this would be it!” While actually a meteorological term, the title phrase refers to an abandoned experiment by the US military in 1937 to study the effects of marijuana. Unhappy with the results at the underground lab out West, an irate commander picks up the phone to notify his superiors that marijuana has been ruled… “Illegal!”

While attempting to serve papers to the last person on his list that same evening, he witnesses an execution-style murder involving a powerful “drug lord” (the maliciousness of the term mitigated by the sense that Jones comes off more like an indifferent California billionaire type), a crooked cop (Rosie Perez), and possibly a rival drug dealer. He may been able to flee the scene without anyone ever knowing Dale was there. But, panicked, he tosses his weed out the window, throws the car in gear, and takes considerable time even pulling away from the curb, ramming the cars in front and behind him. While the executioner pair see the car abscond into the night before they could make out who was driving, it is the rare Pineapple Express that is the scent the hounds follow.

For some reason, freaked-out Dale can only think of going back to Saul and, in explaining what he saw, Saul makes the connection that not only is Dale in deep shit, but so is he. Not many degrees of separation from drug lord Ted Jones, Saul is the only one privileged by his own supplier to sell Pineapple Express. Already busying themselves with trying to rid the Asian competition (which includes a cameo by stand-up comedian, Bobby Lee, who should’ve been given a more substantial part), Ted Jones and the policewoman now have to deal with getting rid of Dale and Saul.

Thus, the chase begins…

Other stoner comedy teams who are inadvertently implicated in chases with either cops (Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke and Nice Dreams) or drug dealers (Half Baked) exist in a setting of cartoonish violence. Pineapple Express, on the other hand, attempts to fuse its situational comedy (with a zillion great one-liners) with true action elements (especially with a 3 minute fight scene between Dale, Saul and Red (Danny McBride) that is likely to get an MTV Video Awards “Best Fight” nomination), and this is evident from the promotional poster itself with the trio of stoners and dealers (the one in the neckbrace being the impenetrable Red, who is Saul’s supplier) looking dubious but well armed. Most assuredly: this is weedsploitation comedy with a body count.

With a movie that struggles to get off the ground in the beginning (reminding the sober audience just how painfully boring and juvenile a 5-minute conversation between sufficiently stoned friends can be), it manages to keep a satisfying pace throughout until the epic finale, when the drive to be the grand action film showdown trumps — with plenty of blood, guts and snot — to the point of being overdone, if not just short on enough material to accommodate the time alloted. The writing team also consumed itself with mockery of the Buddy genre, equipped with an abundance of pretty blunt gay jokes (Red to Saul and Dale: “I want to be inside you, homes!”) that culminates into a reflexive recapping by the ailing heroes in a diner.

Ignoring the flaws, Rogen, Goldberg, Apatow score an expected hit riddled with hilarious idiotic characters and crude comedy (even Ed Beagly, Jr. gets to let loose as the short-fused father of Dale’s teenage girlfriend), enough to get even the more skeptical viewer rolling in the floor especially for the sheer odd choice of dialog like Red admitting that he shaved his armpits in order to be more aerodynamic in a fight, or the fueding henchman (perhaps the best secondary character is Craig Robinson’s 80s throwback, Matheson) who mourns the lost of his partner’s ferociousness. He knows this… he’s “Seen’t it!” And as Rogen and Franco reunite, they portray characters very reminiscent (but much more happy-go-lucky) of the McKinley High School students Ken Miller and Daniel Desario — The Freaks — in Appatow’s (and other’s) 1990 television dramedy, Freaks & Geeks. If Rogen’s character were as pleasantly distracted as Saul (Dale has some annoying moments because he’s too level-headed about some things), they’d be a duo worth matching other purely outrageous weedsploitation comedies like Cheech & Chong and the guys from Half Baked. And in that event, maybe a duo worthy of episodic adventure.

Resources for the Cult Film Fan

It’s funny when some people claim to adore 80s movies, but can’t seem to name much beyond the typical titles. Before Netflix and the rest of the on-line movie distribution boom, this could be blamed for local video retailers not carrying a more diverse catalog, save the occasional goldmine of rare titles.

A good resource for the fan of obscure 80s movies (and, eventually, movies from the 70s and 90s, too) is the website Fastrewind. Although, reasoning follows that if you’re a fiend for obscure 80s movies, chances are you’ve stumbled across it already in building a must-see list. Fastrewind.com (the 80s companion being called “The 80s Movie Rewind”) offers some of the same criteria of the Internet Movie Database with commentator reviews and a rating system, a synopsis of the film (which is actually more a Wiki attribute), user-submitted trivia (most of it identical to that found on the IMDB page and not all of it really being bona fide trivia), soundtrack information (where available), stills, messageboards, and links to any existing external sites. The catalog of films covers a good range of genres, and they seem to add a few movies to the list every month, some of the containing a wish list of movies which they invite site visitors to write reviews and synopses. Even the theme of the 80s portion of the site (there are also 70s and 90s companions) matches the style of the decade.

Failing to Merge: Less Than Zero

Though an author, Bret East Ellis is the predecessor to the likes of contemporary dramatic filmmakers like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant, those who have brought to the screen a startling (and at least in Van Sant’s case, very stereotypical and monolithic) view of extreme teen apathy. Ellis’ 1985 novel, which captures the mood of the decade, Less Than Zero centers on vaguely connected, college-age friends and trust-fund babies in Los Angeles. Their world lacks any real human emotion, any real human connection to one another, whether friends or family. Their concerns and legacies trivial, a fantastic reality of youth corrupted by uber-urban materialism. This, the 1980s. 

College freshman Clay returns to Los Angeles from New Hampshire on Christmas break and the novel is told from his point of view, but its stream-of-consciousness descriptions of mundane events feel more like a diary of dull consistency. The routine of parties, drugs, and gossip. But the theme, the significance of this particular book become clear about half way through; just before the point where the reader might be ready to give up on the really unglamorous life of people who believe themselves to be truly glamorous. And it is Clay who is acutely aware of this, his insulation in the East Coast life has made the West Coast one alien, though from the flashback passages, it already had been before he left for college. The book’s commentators appropriately draw comparisons to Salinger, saying that Clay is the modern Holden Caulfield. By the end of the film, there are no redeemable characters, no one worth Clay trying to save.

Somehow, by the hand of screenwriter Harley Peyton and director Marek Kanievska, these crucial social criticisms of the self-centered 1980s (or just privelege in general) mutated into a 1987 anti-drug movie starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey, Jr. and James Spader, among others. Clearly, the casting of some of the loosely connected “Brat Pack”–which should have included Jami Gertz and James Spader (who was much older than the others) among its named ranks–it is a star vehicle, and the intentions of which seem to transcend the material from which it is adapted.

McCarthy, as Clay, is summoned by former girlfriend, Blair, returns home for Christmas with the plea that he help save their friend, Julian (Downey, Jr.), burned by lofty ambition and suffering the peak of a cocaine addiction. While just as conceited and oblivious as the rest of the people Clay encounters in the novel, here, Blair invokes a kind of sympathy. She is Jami Gertz afterall and this is a Hollywood production, so there isn’t much to expect to be unresolved, and particularly, in any morally ambiguous conclusion (though interestingly, this is what happens in 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, which somewhat takes on the same subject of young privelege, but as Asian youth). The movie tries to impose on the characters an understanding of the rights and wrongs in which they exist, but what made the book so shocking was that its characters–at least outside of its nearly non-chalant observer, Clay–never seemed to possess any awareness of these things. There was never an alternative to force any of them to consider it, as there was in the movie. McCarthy’s version of Clay as the impatient hero, or Gertz, or even Julian’s parents who had nearly given up on their son but in the end, urge for their son’s reform in order to finally reunite. Never did such compassion exist in the book, and by the end, it’s relieving when Clay abandons the world he had only left for a short while, but even when he was there, felt so alien.

As an anti-drug movie, Less Than Zero (the film version) faces competition by two films that better approached the coke-addiction 1980s: Bright Lights, Big City (also a wonderful novel by Jay McInerny) and the 1988 Michael Keaton and Morgan Freeman drama, Clean & Sober. Given this, it is no surprise that Ellis would comment that there was no connection between the film and the book, despite the loose connection of character names and situations. He never goes as far as Paddy Chayefsky did to disavow himself of the film as was done with the early 1980s adaptation of Chayefksy’s novel, Altered States. Rather, Ellis was kinder with his reaction: “Due to all the liberties taken, Ellis refused to see the movie. In a recent interview with Amazon.com, Ellis stated that he has warmed up to the movie, and appreciates it visually as a snapshot of a particular time. Ellis claimed that there was no connection between the book and the movie, except for the title and the names of the characters” (from the Wiki article).

Ellis, in January 2008, suggested penning a sequel to Less Than Zero, to be titled Imperial Bedrooms, named for an Elvis Costello album. The movie is, as obvious from the post above, worth skipping. Pick up the novel instead for a quick read, but lasting effect.

How Much the Burden: Stop-Loss

Perhaps it’s first worth noting that 2008’s Stop-Loss, which although timely (and passed quietly), is directed by a woman: Boys Don’t Cry director, Kimberly Peirce (who co-wrote with Mark Richard). Immediately, in that post-9/11 mentality when it comes to Hollywood addressing warfare (although, technically, as a Bad Robot production, it’s not a mainstream picture), the opinions polarize as “with us” or “against us”.

‘Stop-Loss’ follows decorated US Army Seargent Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) who goes AWOL after being stop-lossed (meaning military service is indefinitely extended by the contracted term by the authority of an executive decision from Bush) for another 15-month tour in Iraq. The film is no doubt clear in its position on the invasion of Iraq, and as King describes, he enlisted in the military in the hopes of protecting his country, but fighting on the front lines in Iraq, realizes that it has become an unnecessary quagmire fueled by the simple desire for retaliation of 9/11. This, furthered, by the teeth-grinding level of frustration that those in Washington who administer the war, are so far from removed to even properly consider the realities of not just foreign policy decisions, but more specifically the life of the solider, even beyond the subject of stop-loss. That beyond simply the honor and pride of military service, those in combat also wrestle with the consequences of death and injury, of bureacracy, of family and friendship, mental illness, and obviously much more.

King returns home to small-town Texas with two of the troops he served with in Iraq. One of them — Steve (Channing Tatum) — is certain that a military career is inevitably his destiny, although he fails to consider the impact on his finacee, Michelle (played by Australian native, Abby Cornish) who is certain she is not strong enough for the accompanying destiny of being a military wife. “I can’t go another year without touching his face,” she admits to King. Tommy (Joseph Gordon Levitt), perhaps the most cocky of the squad, soon turns juvenile mistakes into bigger detriment, risking his marriage and career of military service. And, a survivor of the ambush they faced in Iraq before shipping back, Rico (Victor Rasuk), is now a blinded and scarred amputee recovering in Walter Reed Hospital.

Most simply but quite loudly, Stop-Loss asks how much of a burden one person should be asked to carry. There is the habit to unquestionably grant the title of “Hero” to anyone who has served in the military, and whether or not this is appropriate, by doing so, we attach a requirement that they carry the burdens, no matter how many there are to bare. In Stop-Loss, Brandon King’s reluctance to return to Iraq is largely because, due to his rank, he has seen many of his troops killed in battle, and does not want to be responsible for the deaths of any more. “I’m tired of the killing,” he explains. That he would have to give up another 15 months of his life living in the battle zone is the least of his worries. Though this is another “War is Hell” theme, Kings’s concern is much greater and done with at least some level of honesty in that, he doesn’t express the regrets the death of the Iraqi’s, but of his own men. It is a very real dissection of the US soldier. Why must he be expected to shoulder such an incredible burden just because he wears a military uniform? This is perhaps the most reticent question of ‘Stop-Loss’ and one that we rarely consider because discussion of Iraq is almost never viewed in human terms on any level. None of it made real enough for the considerations and discussions of people who experience this only through the filters so many miles and coasts away.

The Kid Stays in the Picture: Son of Rambow

Dweebcentric apologizes in advance for any lack of coherence in this post… I’m trying to post very old drafts and write them while getting distracted at a conference…

The English (along with the Australians) masters of  feel-good comedy, keen to tolerable amounts of family-palatable material and evasive of the over-compensatory crudeness relied on by American filmmakers. The opening sequence of Son of Rambow (2007)–which marks a change in the typically grim selections of distributor Paramount’s Vantage Films–follows pre-teen misfit Lee Carter (played remarkably naturally by Will Poulter) racing down the roads of his early 1980s English countryside neighborhood with a backpack containing freshly recorded bootlegs of First Blood (1982). The accompanying music and comical additives (Carter throws something over a hedge at a man standing on a ladder in his yard) might entice American audiences into that Rob Reiner-esque conditioning of near-impeccable adolescence, near-impeccable families, and near-impeccable suburban homes. You could almost see adorable little Mason Gamble peddling his training wheels-supported bike and loud, rattling red wagon attachment in the beginning of Dennis the Menace (1993). But then the English suddenly remind us, as Lee Carter films his bootleg in the dark theater with a cigarette in his free hand, that these are, to a certain extent (well… it is still a world established by the imagination of filmmakers and production hogs), real kids. They neither need look perfect nor behave perfectly. The carefully cut previews hint at their epic adventures that eventually consume the whole town and if the circumstances are right, the empathetic viewer.

At the center of writer/director Garth Jennings‘ Son of Rambow (look for connections to the Spaced (1999) crew) are the mismatched pairing of eventual friends. At one extreme is Lee Carter (Will Poulter) who shares a his estranged step-father’s lavish home attached to a nursing home with his obnoxious, materialistic older brother Lawrence. Carter is witty, cynical and best of all, daring, all of which may be natural consequences of minimal parental supervision. And, it’s quite different from his newfound friend, Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), the typically awkward, bashful and imaginative loner, alienated from the other schoolchildren because of his strict religious upbringing.

For some reason, the English and the Irish can’t seem to avoid this impetus in tales of unlikely young friends. Previous examples being ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ in which a soccer enthusaist’s placement on an official girl’s team was frowned upon by her overprotective parents, who worried of its impact on their Hindi identity. Will and Lee embody that kind of loveable young mischief in making their movie, and in a sense it is an epic unfolding as the boys (but mostly Will, who becomes a sort of celebrity) recruit and pique the interest of other students in their school–though tarnishing Lee’s original vision for their movie–and the fact that his mother (Jessica Hynes, who plays roommate Daisy in Spaced) and the curious instigator/parental ally Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) interfere are quite unreasonable. ‘Son of Rambow’ is a celebration of harmless, unrestrained adolescence, something that seems to have gotten lost in American films; their subjects seem to lack any kind of real authenticity. They are portrayed in extremes – either impecably wholesome, incredibly dumb, or, purely apathetic (and I’d like to take issue with Gus Van Sant’s recent slew of teen-themed movies at some point in this blog) In a review of the 1987 film, The Monster Squad, Missy, of RetroJunk.com begins the introduction by correctly noting that it had what kids movies aren’t allowed to have these days… cursing, political incorrectness, smoking, and Scary German Guys. ‘Son of Rambow’ manages to maintain the authenticity, even in Will, who’s mother seemed to suggest that childhood is a moral fray that one must eventually abandon. How frustrating to believe that this abandon is necessary for a wholesome life. Audiences seemed to revel in the most delight when the young characters were fully permitted to be exactly that – children.