How did I never know about this? It's awesome!
It's like a cross between The Goonies and The Lost Boys
, but with the target audience of the former. Remember all those 1980s movies in which the kids were kids? I love Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, by the way. When it works, it works like crazy. These aren't thirty-year-olds pretending to be eighteen. They're playing down a smidgin, but only to the extent that Andre Gower is thirteen or fourteen instead of twelve. They're tiny. One of them's a five-year-old girl.
...and they're all bang on. I didn't have to ignore a dodgy line reading from a single one of them, even the five-year-old. They're full of beans and invested in the material. In deadly seriousness, this makes the film (a) a nostalgia depth charge from the 1980s, and (b) better. This film won the Young Artist Awards prize for Outstanding Young Actors/Actresses Ensemble in Television or Motion Picture, which it deserved.
As for the story, it's a faintly goofy excuse to bring together Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There's a talisman of good, you see, which briefly stops being invulnerable every hundred years and a virgin has to recite a magic spell in German to save the world. What does this talisman actually do? Is this palaver necessary every century to stop evil from destroying mankind? The world's doomed in the long run, isn't it?
However this doesn't matter. It's a McGuffin. The important thing is that we have pre-teens fighting Universal's full back catalogue and a director who's not pussyfooting about. It's a fun movie that belongs in a double bill with The Goonies and that I'd have eaten up with a spoon back in 1987, but it's taking its monsters seriously. After telling us that the Wolfman can only be killed with a silver bullet, the film shows him getting back up even after getting blown to bits with dynamite. One of the first things we see in the opening sequence is a Bride of Dracula getting killed with a crossbow. Later, Dracula picks up five-year-old Ashley Bank, calls her a bitch and hisses in her face. (The scene was done in one take, with the director telling Ashley to scream after the platform raised her. She asked "when?" and Dekker replied "Oh, you'll know.")
The film loves those old Universal movies. It's bringing them up to date (i.e. 1987), but that doesn't mean it's not radiant with love for the classics. I nearly had kittens when they recreated the 1931 Karloff scene with the girl at the lakeside. It's perfect. My grin nearly split my head in half. Meanwhile the Stan Winston special effects aren't just trying to look good; they're trying to make you smile in a way we've forgotten in this CGI age. Look at Dracula's bat transformation. Look at the skull-flash in the lightning. Look at those living skeletons coming out of the ground in the 1887 opening sequence. These are works of art.
As for the specific monsters:
The Mummy and the Gill-Man are goons, basically, but they look great. Gill-Man looks a bit like a Predator, which coincidentally also made its debut in 1987. He's got a similar jaw and he looks fishier than the original Gill-Man. It's heresy to say this of one of the all-time great monster designs, but I'm tempted to say that Stan Winston improved on the original.
The Wolfman has some slightly odd angles to its face, but apparently it's based on the face of Stan Winston himself. Coo. More importantly it's a good-looking Wolfman and that's an amazing thing. Movie werewolves look rubbish. This is a law of cinema. This kiddie film's Wolfman beats the living daylights out of half the werewolves you'll see in full horror movies. Also, just as importantly, they're maintaining the Larry Talbot tradition of the man who doesn't want to be a monster, even if he's not getting as much screen time as Lon Chaney Jr did.
Frankenstein's monster is following Jack Pierce's classic 1931 design, but realised with a bit more relish. The stitches really look like stitches. You'll believe that Tom Noonan's been stitched together from corpses, whereas with Boris Karloff you just went "cool make-up". Furthermore this Creature has just as much of a heart as Karloff's and is capable of forming loyalties that make him dangerous to his monster allies as well as the humans. I really liked the subplot with him and Ashley Bank.
Finally there's Duncan Regehr's Dracula. Apparently Liam Neeson was also considered for the role. Obviously we don't see him bite open throats and there's no attempt to make him terrifying, but he's also clearly the top dog monster. Regehr's quite interesting in the role. He's almost gentle. I loved the look on his face as he's resurrecting Frankenstein's monster. "Wake up, old friend. It is our time." He finds something worth watching in the role of a Dracula who's not scary and apparently he's well regarded among buffs, even compared with some of the big names who've done more serious takes on the role.
I loved all those guys. Meanwhile the children could easily have torpedoed the movie, but I had fun with them too. Gags like the dog's paw work, when they probably shouldn't. Dekker gets away with risky material like the bullying of Horace (not nice) and spying on a stripping girl (even though we see no nudity). You'd expect this material to be a train wreck, but instead it comes together triumphantly in some kind of impossible 1980s alchemy. The scene where the boys are trying to ask Lisa Fuller if she's a virgin, for instance, is both appalling and funny.
The only failure is Stan Shaw, who can't do his cop banter at all. Fortunately it's a small role. Oh, and I was confused by having a fictional slasher franchise called Groundhog Day, even if of course the Bill Murray film of that name didn't come out until 1993.
It's quite a short film, but that's due to the studio. Thirteen minutes got cut because the executives wanted to keep it under ninety minutes. In short, it's great. Obviously it'll help to be a horror buff, but if you are, look out for things like the "Stephen King Rules" T-shirt and the Zombie Flesh Eaters
poster. Apparently Dekker made another much-loved 1980s horror-comedy, Night of the Creeps
, which for me is clearly a must-see. All children should see this film. Well, after they've been educated in the 1930s Universal classics, obviously.