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May 24-30, 2006

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Cult Leader

'Monster Squad' Reunion: Camera Cinemas brings the director and cast of a cult favorite to San Jose June 10, and Fred Dekker talks about the comebacks of his '80s films

By Steve Palopoli

REWATCHING director Fred Dekker's two '80s films recently, I was struck first by the fact that the only available copies of both Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad were old Vestron VHS tapes that appear to be from the films' original video releases two decades ago.

That's hardly a fitting tribute to two of the biggest surprises in '80s-era cult film. The Monster Squad in particular has a huge following of fans who in some cases grew up with the film, and have found each other on the Internet to demand that the 1987 kids-vs.-classic-monsters sleeper get its due on DVD.

The Camera Cinemas is taking this newly discovered appreciation for the film to the next level on Saturday, June 10, with a one-night-only event at 7 and 9:30pm at Camera 12 that will not only offer up The Monster Squad on the big screen, but also reunite Dekker and cast members Andre Gower (whose performance as squad leader Sean had a startling amount of adult-monster-movie-hero gravitas), Ryan Lambert ("Rudy") and Ashley Bank ("Phoebe the Feeb") for a Q&A.

The San Jose event was pulled together by the Camera's Amy Choice, who saw that a similar event had been held in Austin. A longtime fan of The Monster Squad, she says she didn't know there were others out there. "I thought I was the only one who had ever seen it," she says. "I saw it in the theater. Then I had to tape it off cable so I could watch it every day." She knows a lot of boys were into it for the monsters, but she was into it for the boys—Lambert, for instance, was from the show Kids, Incorporated (which also gave the world Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas). That's why this event isn't just for the guys, Choice says—surely there were other female fans out there who, like her, were crushing on Andre Gower.

"I want to bring them out of the woodwork," she says.

Meanwhile, Dekker, who wasn't yet 30 when he made his two best-known films, is fascinated that Monster Squad has found its audience years later. He spoke to me from his home in Los Angeles about the weird comeback of his films.

SP: Suddenly your two low-budget, nearly lost films from the '80s, Night of the Creeps and especially Monster Squad, both have cult followings. What happened?

Fred Dekker: I don't know! These movies were not terribly successful when they opened, but they've sort of caught on. They've found their audience years later on cable and video. Just like the movies I fell in love with in my formative falling-in-love-with-movie years, I think kids discovered Monster Squad when they were roughly the same age as the kids in the movie. So there's this reserve of affection that's built up for these movies, I think, in spite of their flaws. And it's quite gratifying.

What is it about Monster Squad in particular, do you think, that's inspired this loyal underground following?

That movie was made in a time when there the whole John Hughes cycle, and the sort of post-Animal House comedies, and there was kind of a "youthquake" going on a little bit, if you think of Night of the Comet and things like that, all these teen movies. And a lot of them—I'm thinking of Revenge of the Nerds in particular—painted young people as stereotypes. There's the fat kid, there's this gay guy, there's the jock. One of the things that we did with Monster Squad, kind of without even thinking about it, was to not write down to the audience. Even Fat Kid, the joke is that they call him Fat Kid. We were actually shining a light on the cliché, rather than writing the kids as clichés. Obviously this is pre-politically correct, and there's a lot of stuff in the movie that's really politically incorrect—which I love about it and I think that the fans love about it too, because it's like "You can't do that! A 10-year-old with a shotgun?" But the truth is that the heart of this movie is really sincere. The adults in this town are so caught up in their own day-to-day bullshit—and the fact that they have no imagination—that it doesn't occur to them that this is really happening. And the kids are like "Hey guys, there are monsters here, and if you're not going to do something, we're going to have to." I think it's really kid-empowering for a young person to see the movie because they're like "Oh, I could actually save the world!"

It wasn't like you had the best kid performances ever, but they have a certain chemistry, and they're so damned serious about this monster threat that you really get sucked in.

I agree, I think both of those things are true. I get back again to this notion of the spirit of it being true. The Goonies is a touchstone for a lot of people for this kind of movie, and I hear a lot about "Well, this must have been inspired by it." I worked with Dick Donner for a couple years, I'm a huge fan of his. Obviously Steven Spielberg is a formative influence on me. But the fact of the matter is I don't like The Goonies, and it was barely a blip on my radar. And one of the reasons I don't like it is that the kids are so manic, they're screaming and running around. I just don't like the kids, I don't find them charming. Whereas my kids, I think they're kind of charming. They talk like borscht belt comics, and they have this kind of cool attitude, and they're not screaming all the time. They're joking with each other, and there's a warmth to them.

Andre Gower's performance in particular, there's something about him where he's not so much giving a kid-actor performance as playing an adult monster-movie hero role. There's a dead-serious drama to his performance, and a little bit of angst to him.

He's like Patrick Knowles in The Wolf Man! Those wild eyes when he realizes Alucard is Dracula.

Which was a great reference by the way, the Alucard thing.

Yeah, Son of Dracula with Lon Chaney Jr. Perhaps the worst Dracula of all time.

Another thing about Monster Squad is it's one of those fan wet dreams of an all-star monster movie. Did you run into any problems using all those classic monsters?

It actually was pretty easy, in that Dracula is in the public domain, because the Bram Stoker novel was written in the 19th century. Same with Frankenstein, the Shelley novel. So those characters, if you wanted to go out and make Dracula vs. Frankenstein tomorrow, you could do that. The wolf man we just plain got away with, because I'm assuming that the movie is copyrighted and therefore Universal owns the words "the wolf man," as opposed to a generic werewolf. But basically our guy is a generic werewolf. He's clearly inspired by Larry Talbot, in terms of the haunted, tortured guy. The Gill Man we consciously called the Gill Man, although Eugene refers to him as "Creature"—he says "Creature stole my twinkie." There's a tremendous hubris in youth. We took it to Universal; I wanted to use the Jack Pierce makeup because I'd grown up on those movies and loved those movies, and I wanted to see them on the screen as they looked in the '40s. But I was 20 years ahead of my time, and Universal in its infinite wisdom of course said, "Oh these monsters—this library doesn't mean anything to us."

They're certainly not saying that now, with the multiple DVD editions.

Yeah, and Van Helsing, which to me is an abomination for a number of reasons, but most importantly, Stephen Sommers, you can use these characters as we saw them in the '40s. "No, I want to redesign them." OK, fine, make them look like something from Underworld or 15 other movies.

It must have helped that you got Stan Winston to design your monsters.

That right. And Stan, like a lot of people in that business, grew up with those movies too, so it was for him a really exciting challenge to try to do justice to the memories we have of these characters, but to tweak them enough so that (a) we didn't infringe on copyrights, and (b) that he felt the propriety sense of having re-created them in his own image. We knew that we had to be a little careful. But I also knew, because I'm a total nerd, that variations of the Jack Pierce Frankenstein makeup had been done a million times. If you look at the Hammer films, if you look at Mad Monster Party, if you look at cartoons and comic strips, and all sorts of stuff, everybody sort of knows generically what the monster looks like. So all we had to do was be off a little bit. The head wasn't flat, and I think we moved the bolts a bit, and that kind of thing.

And you were pleased with the results?

I think the Creature [From the Black Lagoon] is along with Alien one of the two best monster costumes ever built for the movies. And I think that ours is real close.

I like your mummy, too; it's leaner and meaner than the original. I've never been down with the idea of the Mummy as a monster, it's just not very scary.

I agree with you, I never liked Dracula much and I never liked the Mummy much. It was my idea to have him be small. We already had a big lumbering guy. I imagined that he was an Egyptian prince who had been made royalty as a child, and actually had died as a child. So he was mummified when he was 12 or 13 years old.

Shane Black co-wrote Monster Squad with you before hitting it big with Lethal Weapon. How did you hook up with him?

At the Austin screening, somebody said, "How did you end up working with Shane Black?" And I said, "I didn't, I started out working with Shane Black." We were college buddies. I broke in writing screenplays, and he was a big fan of detective fiction, he's read every pulp novel ever written. He said, "Wow, you can actually make money doing that?" And I said, "Yeah, it's the same as the books you read, you just put 'fade in' and 'cut to' instead." So he wrote a script called Shadow Company, which we ended up rewriting for Universal, John Carpenter was going to direct it and Walter Hill was going to produce it. It was another zombie movie, Vietnam soldier zombies. I think it scared the studio a little bit. But he had yet to write Lethal Weapon. We were very good friends, and I said, "I want to do the Little Rascals meet the Universal monsters." And he said, "Count me in." So we wrote it together.

How successful did you suspect The Monster Squad to be at the time? Was it a disappointment?

It was very much a disappointment in the sense that it didn't do very well, and it kind of canceled out its audience. Kid adventures were a completely different thing back then—this was pre-Harry Potter, pre-Goosebumps. I think movies that kids go see now are much scarier than they were back then. In those days, parents were actually afraid of their kids seeing something that was too scary. And then the older kids who could go see it thought it was a kid's movie. I certainly would have liked it to have done much better. But a lot of it is timing—you can have a bad movie come out at the right time and be huge and you can have a good movie come out at the wrong time, and, as in this case, take a long time to find its audience.

I can imagine that Night of the Creeps in particular had trouble, because it's so strange. It's really hard to articulate the tone: it's a horror movie, but it's funny too, at a time when most people probably didn't have a real grasp on that concept.

I'll be honest, I don't think people to this day have one. I mean, Scary Movie 4, people know they're just going to go and laugh. And the horror movie of the week, whatever it is—I think people pigeonhole things in very simple terms. I'm not sure that they're wrong, but you're right, it was never like "This is going to just be this." I get really bored with one note. I hate comedies that never make any attempt to be serious. And I hate serious movies that never make an attempt to have humor. I've always loved blending genres.

Yeah, the hardboiled-cop angle is pretty unusual for a horror movie, at least to the degree it's taken in Night of the Creeps.

Well, part of that is Tommy Atkins, who just totally hit it out of the park. I've been thinking a lot about him lately, having seen the movie in Austin again, and I think for me he's the glue that holds the movie together. It's interesting, a lot of the stuff that you're talking about is stuff that you do as a filmmaker kind of without thinking about it. I was really enamored with creating this Chandler homage, this kind of Philip Marlowe character, which in retrospect is really kind of a cliché. But what ends up happening in the movie is that he's sort of self-aware of what he's doing. He's like "I'm very unhappy, I'm an alcoholic, my life ended a long time ago, so I'm just going to have this attitude." He just is this attitude. And it works like gangbusters.

Do you have any kind of philosophy about what makes a monster work, or what makes a zombie work?

I defer to Romero, who I think is a genius, and who was a huge influence on me and continues to be a huge influence on my writing. His social commentary, his sense of character—I think he's a wonderful filmmaker. And I think the simplicity of the Romero zombies is something that cannot be underestimated. Dan O'Bannon came along and did Return of the Living Dead, and did it sort of tongue-in-cheek, and since then, if you talk to people who are sort of fans, but not really knowledgeable, they'll say, "Oh yeah, zombies want brains." No, zombies don't want brains. That was a reinvention. Zombies just want flesh. So I think simplicity is the key to any scary monster in any type of movie. The Frankenstein monster is a perfect example. He was stitched together from dead bodies, he is not a happy camper, and that's it! There's really nothing more to it. He either wants to be your friend, or if you don't want to give him some wine and a cigar, he kills you.

Besides Night of the Creeps, you also directed a Tales From the Crypt that had a zombie—one that looks a lot like the undead from your previous film!

It's interesting that you say that. It didn't occur to me until just this conversation that with the zombie in Night of the Creeps and the Kyle Secor zombie in [the Crypt episode] "Thing From the Grave", we played the exact same beat of "I already killed you." The dialogue is exactly the same. Miguel Ferrer says it and he shoots him, and Tommy Atkins says it and he shoots him. There's a grand tradition of borrowing from yourself when you make films.

How do you look back now on RoboCop 3?

I see my mistakes very clearly. I'm not a big fan of directors who sort of say, "Well, this is my movie and it is what it is, and it's brilliant." There's specific things that I wanted to do with RoboCop 3 that I didn't do. One of them is I was really a fan of and influenced by the Hong Kong films, specifically Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan and John Woo, and I wanted to do what the Wachowskis did a few years later, which is bring a Hong Kong sensibility to action. But we just didn't have the money, and I didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness to say, "This is what we have to do." But I still think it has some of my best stuff.

What did you think when fans of Night of the Creeps stormed the Internet to denounce Slither as a rip-off of your film?

That was very sweet. To me it was much ado about nothing. I think James [Gunn, Slither's writer-director] and I probably have all the same influences. He claims not to have seen the movie [until after Slither was completed]. And I've heard this from a couple of sources, including people who know him, that they were like "You really should probably look at this movie, just to do it." And apparently he got an old VHS and sat down and looked at it and went "Holy shit!" The fact is [Creeps] was not released theatrically everywhere. It was regionally released in the United States, so if he was on the West Coast he might not have had a chance to see it theatrically. I find it a little strange that he knows Frank Henenlotter movies, but he never saw Night of the Creeps. But by the same token, there was a TV show in the '70s called The Monster Squad. It just goes to show you: here's me who grows up loving the Universal monsters, and it turns out there's a TV show with them in it, with the same title as my movie! So I have to stand behind James' story, because I have the same one on my movie.

Though you've had a lot of success as a writer, you've said you want to get back to directing. What are you working on now?

I have a script that I've been trying to get off the ground for the last couple of years, and it's gotten very close a couple of times. I developed it with Jim Cameron's company Lightstorm, and we came very close to doing it at Fox, but it fell apart. Right now Renny Harlin is attached to produce it, and it's a very scary science fiction thriller. There's a real horror bent, but it's mostly a character piece. If I can pull it off, you'll be surprised, because it's much more Lars von Trier than it is David Cronenberg.

The Monster Squad will be shown at 7pm and 9:30pm on Saturday, June 10, at Camera 12. There will be a Q&A and autograph session with director Fred Dekker and cast members Andre Gower, Ryan Lambert and Ashley Bank. Tickets are $15, available at Camera box offices. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite childhood cult film here.

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