The term “kids’ movie” has been colored as of late by the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. They make many fine “family” films with lots of layers and advanced story telling, but in many ways these, often CGI films have neutered the kids movie genre. Certainly there were animated movies in years past, but in the 80s these were mixed in with movies marketed toward kids that weren’t toothless at all. Films like Gremlins and The Gate are movies about young teens or kids who go through a horrific experience, lots of action, gruesome scenes, but all aimed at a younger audience.
Best in the genre of horror movies for kids, for me, is Monster Squad. Hot on the heels of Ghostbusters this movie I feel modernized the Scooby Gang concept and gave birth to the Buffy the Vampire Slayers and Supernaturals to come later. Young, independent protagonists, fighting supernatural beings older authority figures can’t even fathom, let alone face. For those taking notes, here’s what made it such a great kids’ horror movie:
The Classics Return: After a generation of “new” slasher killers and gorehounds, some great some not-so-great, Monster Squad brings back the monsters that made the genre popular. Not just one or two but ALL of the great so-called “Universal” horror monsters, Dracula (yep with cape and tux), the Wolfman (pretty good animatronics), the Gillman (even BETTER animatronics), the Mummy, and the Frankenstein monster. All with their classic looks, all doing their classic things. Dracula creates his brides, leads the group, is the most together and menacing. Wolfman howls at the moon, Gillman glugs around being creepy while the Mummy lurches and staggers in bandages. The Frankenstein monster, true to his roots, remains both monstrous and sympathetic. The film even re-creates famous scenes in a new way, such as the famous Monster and girl by the lake sequence. It taught an entire generation of kids of the horror that came before. Well those who weren’t obsessed with the Crestwood series anyway. Even Van Helsing plays a key role. I didn’t even know who this vital character was when I saw this movie!
Kids Being Kids: Popular YouTube personality and “garme jurnalizt” Jim Sterling describes kids as basically “shitty adults.” That’s as apt a description as I can think of. REAL kids, neither the defanged yet endearing kids from modern movies like Paranorman and Frankenweenie, nor the extreme kids from the kidsploitation movies that show rampant juvenile crime and drug abuse, but the kids I knew and grew up with. They were smart asses, foul mouthed (especially when adults weren’t around), ignorant, and cruel to both friends and foes. Yet through all that we were still kids. We still played with toys, fantasized about goofy things, and could find joy in candy and cartoons. That is what great about the kids in Monster Squad I don’t think I’ve seen a more real version of kids on film in ages. Through all their idiot kid behavior and attitudes, they are still endearing and heroic. Not in forced ways or fake ways, but in ways kids can be. They fight monsters on their terms. It’s a great mixture of Son of Frankenstein and The Goonies.
Layers of Story: Subtle layers exist in this film beyond the monster hunting and horror fun. You hear parents arguing from the context and perspective of a kid who only knows whats going on from the yelling through the walls. You see bullied kids and tough kids. Most telling is Scary German Guy who says he knows true monsters. A tattoo on his arm tells us all we need to know without a flashback or narrative. Even the monsters are given background, Dracula calls the Monster an old friend. The Monster calls him master. There is story there we don’t know and are never privy to. It just lends itself to the depth.
It’s hard to put your finger on what makes this movie so classic. It is undeniably cheesy and a product of its time. It’s very 80s with kids in leather jackets (smelting silver in that jacket no less) being tough and cool and dated music montages but the story is epic and its horror roots firm and grounded. Yes there is a monster in the closet. Yes Wolfman has nards. And so does this movie.