It’s Halloween day as I begin writing this part and I shall complete it five days afterwards. It’s really so that I can’t help but do part VI well after as well. So again, take these belated Halloween entries on this blog for next year’s enjoyment or whenever you want, if I recommend it or it leave you curious.
Here, we cover Goonies-but Universal Horror Monsters, Stan Winston’s remarkable directorial debut and an anime movie classic coming from a time when Japan was showing us up in mature animation and then some.
The Monster Squad (1987)
Image from Bloody Disgusting (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Dark Universe if it happened in the 80s. And worked.)
The Monster Squad is special in that it recalls the last time I can think of when young kids or teens really seemed to care about the original block of horror monsters, or at least that’s the impression this movie is supposed to leave you with.
It could just as easily be director Fred Dekker and screenwriter Shane Black (script doctor for Predator and future director of Iron Man 3) making a love letter to what they grew up with as kids, seeing cinematic takes on Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, Mummy and the Creature from the black lagoon or in this movie’s case Gill Man on black and white television.
When it comes to the visual representations of this classic creatures, they are just about the best at being both quasi-contemporary while faithful enough to their original appearances.
The Monster Squad as a film of the 80s let alone a kids movie, is the type of experience that technically can’t be done anymore. I say technically because we actually kinda did have an experience that among other things apes with love The Goonies, Stand by Me and this film: Stranger Things.
Netflix’s blockbuster phenomenon continues to go strong based on the fourth season’s commercial success if nothing else and whatever good or bad you have to say about it, you can give partial credit to The Monster Squad. It’s a very appealing fantasy even as a grown adult. Imagine you’re put in a dangerous situation like confronting these literary and cinematic boogeymen and actually having the knowledge to confront and survive them. All of that and you are around 12 years old.
The Monster Squad is led by Sean who proudly wears a “Stephen King rocks!” shirt which considering a lot of what I’ve recently watched feels like a nice capoff. The squad consists of four other boys, one who seems young enough to be in Kindergarten and has interesting varied tastes beyond horror as I’ll mention later on.
The oldest member is a teen who is clearly trying to pull off a tough, bad boy image to get girls and yet despite his age wants to hang out with kids younger than him. A little weird honestly, though it could have something to do with the squad’s treehouse having a good view of one of the girl’s next door getting dressed or undressed (It’s an 80s movie).
One of the most notable members also plays on a convention that was very much of its time like pervy teens watching girls getting dressed: the chubby kid. Stand by Me has one ,The Goonies has Chunk and his love of Baby Ruths and this movie has what is up until his dramatic name reveal as straight up Fat-Kid. In what really does show the film’s age when it comes to demeaning people heavier than you who may or may not have an eating problem, Fat-Kid is called as such by both bullies and by his friends. The treatment is so similar that I actually mistook some bullies for being Fat-Kid’s friends. It’s that bad.
There’s also sadly then true to life casual slinging of the F-word when it comes to someone gay and one very dated scene where the girl that was being perved on earlier is being asked by the squad to help them with stopping Dracula and the monsters. They believe the teen girl called Lisa is a virgin so in order to get her to help in spite of her incredulousness, they up and blackmail her with pictures in a state of undress. Jesus.
I mean, this kinda stuff can distract and even detract from all the positives like the pretty great presentation and use of the monsters. Dracula as portrayed by Duncan Regehr is pretty fantastic as the vampire of vampires. This is the case for a lot of people but what really gets this Dracula high up there isn’t just genuinely trying to kill a bunch of meddling kids nor his cruel enslaved treatment for both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, but that he calls a little girl, Sean’s sister, a bitch right to her face.
In spite of Stranger Things existing, Monster Squad recalls a bygone time when films for all ages had both adults and kids swearing though rarely to the highest level and a level of violence that’s kinda daring. Dracula’s brides, the gill-man and the Wolf-Man get it the worst violence-wise and are the clearest reason behind the PG-13 rating, more so than The Goonies‘ PG, which was given after the creation of the former rating.
Of course the Wolf-Man often is the stand-out monster not only being central to the best known line, “Wolfman’s got Nards!”, but in an attempt to kill him when no silver bullet is around, he explodes from dynamite and because that isn’t a weakness, the guy comes back together like the Iron Giant would.
What exactly is Dracula and those monsters doing in the Squad’s home town? Well, it’s almost the hundredth anniversary of the last time that Dracula was truly vulnerable, when an amulet would make him so. Van Helsing a century ago tried to do so by sucking Dracula and his minions into literally Limbo but instead he got himself sucked up.
His followers took the amulet across the Atlantic over to America hoping that would deter Dracula. Well, it didn’t and Dracula summons and awakens the other Universal horror monsters to assist him in finding and destroying the amulet, making him invincible. It’s not explained why any other method of killing a vampire like a stake to the heart wouldn’t kill him though it certainly hurts as the film shows.
I guess being THE vampire means that his power level is so high it weakens the weaknesses. Also, there has to be an excuse for an epic finale, which is not unlike the ending of Evil Dead II, what with a spell from a book being read that summons a portal to suck stuff in. Same year in fact as Ash’s groovy sophomore appearance.
So the Monster Squad assembles, with their numbers growing to include Sean’s aforementioned little sister Phoebe, Frankenstein’s Monster who gives up his loyalty to Dracula very easily due to Phoebe’s friendly influence and a Holocaust survivor who knows German that is called at first apprehensively then affectionately by the Squad Scary German Guy. The poor guy is never asked what his real name is not that he seems to mind. Then again, him helping the kids fight literal monsters over the figurative ones from his tragic past takes precedence I suppose.
Aside from Scary German Guy, where’s all the adults? Well, of course they don’t believe the kids until it’s much too late and the lone black dude, Sean and Phoebe’s Dad’s cop partner, will pay the price for their disbelief. It is very established in stories where a kid or group of kids are the lead heroes facing a dangerous conflict will have adults, parents or otherwise, who are at best bemused by what their kids are up to. On the one hand, is that not how parents or anyone over the age of 13 would likely react? This realistic response has become overtime a turgid cliche.
So far, I have given off a positive response to this movie, barring that outdated stuff I brought up. Well, let me take the time to make it clear in how Monster Squad stacks up in comparison to the other “Kids go on perilous adventure” genre as seen through Stand by Me and especially The Goonies. This is the weakest of the three and that has to do with the weak characterization of most if not all the Monster Squad members.
The Goonies, from the four boys including Mikey (Sean Astin), Chunk, Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan) to the teenage newcomers who join in due to place and circumstance such as Mikey’s brother Brand (future Thanos Josh Brolin), Andrea and Stef all feel well defined and recognizable on their own merits. It’s the well-defined nature of the seven Goonies that helps along what is one of the most enjoyable family pictures the 80s had ever produced. Their character aspects help better inform their underground adventure to find pirate treasure as being as memorable and fun as it was.
The Monster Squad characters, while some have a few traits, like Sean and Fat-Kid, feel flat and are just meant to serve what the plot needs them to do without any way of how their own characterizations inform what they go through. It doesn’t even bother me that some if not all of the Goonies fall into some convention or stereotype. How they’re told by Goonies screenwriter Chris Columbus and executed by the actors makes them feel more real and noteworthy than any one Monster Squad member.
The film is also really short, under an hour and 30 minutes, which means it doesn’t drag, but it also feels as if they’re rushing past any character buildup beyond the most obvious. Sure, it means it gets us involved with the monster stuff in good time, but there’s a cost.
If you haven’t already checked out The Monster Squad and people of a certain, nostalgic age likely already have, please do so but I would encourage you to also see Goonies and Stand by Me in conjunction if you have the time. You will likely feel the difference as I did. But there’s nothing from what I said that implies you won’t have something of a good time. It’s own conceit, that of youngsters enjoying old horror movies, is also a refreshing touch from where I stand.
Oh, and this film will likely have you google ”Robotech” and discover out of the blue an influential American dub and mashing of three separate anime shows. Love it or hate it, you will get something out of it, no lie.
Image from Entertainment Weekly (In West Virginia, no one can hear you scream.)
Stan Winston is a legend in the practical effects industry and is responsible for some of yesteryear cinema’s most impressive V/FX. The Alien Queen in Aliens. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Terminators in….The Terminator, John Carpenter’s Thing, The Predator among other accomplishments.
His sole feature length movie director job has him doing his unique take on both the creature feature and the slasher genre. Set in some podunk part of America, almost certainly part of the Appalachians, Lance Henriksen plays a simple road store owner named Ed Harley. He has a bespectacled son, Billy, and a dog.
Some city folk teens are looking to stay in a cabin deep in the woods and are bringing their motorbikes along. At a stop at Ed’s place, some of the more adrenaline fueled kids can’t wait to play with their bikes. In doing so, they run over little Billy. The teens save for one stay with the boy until Ed arrives and angrily takes his son away. Sadly, little Billy dies upon returning to their home.
Being already a widower and having no other family save his dog, Ed is left with nothing except vengeance. At the apprehension of his fellow hill-dwellers, he heads to an old crone who lives at a swamp near a mountain. That crone, who sounds as if she has smoked a trillion Marlboros in her life has indeed the power to get Ed Harley his vengeance. There is a steep price. Ed accepts as hasn’t he already lost basically everything that matters? Everything but his own moral compass that is.
As a young boy, he once stayed cooped up in his house with his ma and pa and saw for his own eyes the eventual tool of his revenge, the Pumpkinhead, as it slowly yet surely hunts down and kills some poor sucker who had wronged another man. Since childhood, he has known what his weapon would look like, and once it starts cruelly hunting down those city teens, he begins to regret it, as the crone had warned. But, there is no going back once the Pumpkinhead is summoned through a ritual in blood.
What separates Pumpkinhead from other slashers of its time and in general is that only one of the crew of teens meant to die or be victimized by our slasher is the teen biker who struck Billy accidentally. Due to pre-existing trouble with the police, he runs from what he did and soon puts the rest of his innocent friends including his girlfriend in grave danger. To be fair, not one of them could have known that a terror from hillbilly folktale was coming for them.
For that reason, you’re not meant to really be cheering on the slasher or at least looking forward to how he or it will do in its targets one by one. It’s more of a genuine horror experience for that reason. Playing on the idea that the wronged person for which it’s committing this violence would want to have the perpetrator suffer, Pumpkinhead takes his time when other slashers like Jason and Michael have the courtesy to often make it quick..
Now, based on the header image, you’re wondering how that monster got the name “pumpkinhead”. Well, it’s because the body that will be the creature is exhumed from a creepy graveyard full of pumpkins. When it comes to what the fella looks like, well, it actually changes overtime. At first I thought I had overlooked something watching or there was a continuity issue, but it soon becomes clear that it’s deliberate.
In this instance, as the film nears the end, it starts to resemble..Ed Harley himself and that leads into a ingenuous plot element I will leave for you to watch and see for yourself though I think some of you can piece it together already. As expected from Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead as an effects monster is brilliantly executed. It comes closer than most of its kind to actually looking like a real creature, alien yet so familiar to our eyes. Now, as my image blurb points out, it can resemble a familiar cinema monster from beyond the stars, one that Winston has already been involved in.
It’s Pumpkinhead’s behavior, his sheer presence that makes him into what is affectionately called by fans the “hillbilly xenomorph”. Where the similarity is forgivable due to how well he works conceptually and in practice.
This is a definite recommend, especially for those looking for an expedient horror thrill as it clocks at just 86 minutes. Unlike the issues that came with Monster’s Squad’s swiftness, not a second feels wasted nor does it last any longer than it needs to make it’s country-ass diabolical points.
Vampire Hunter D (Japan) (1985)
Image from IMDB (A whole different kind of “pale” rider.)
Rarely is the European aesthetic as cool or awe inspiring in my eyes when seen through the lens of Japanese interpretation.
While I have yet to summon the courage and the patience to see Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne or Elden Ring through, these hard but beloved games from Japanese developer From Software showcase in one respect what the Land of the Rising Sun have done in visualizing Medieval and Victorian Europe in a way that seems outwardly respectful, even fascinated.
Other examples are many of Studio Ghibli’s work, especially under Miyazaki. In spite of his many criticisms of the West’s geopolitical actions, he does wonders in bringing European cultural and architectural expression to life in a way that might be more beautiful than the real thing. All while still keeping his critique of Western imperialism intact, best seen in Castle in the Sky (my first and favorite) and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Some of Japan’s appreciation for European aesthetic can become uncomfortable, however. This is especially true when it tackles Germanic style, especially when regarding those in positions of power, like nobility and the military. Manga and anime series alike have received both praise and harsh criticism of utilizing European imagery that can get a little too…Nazi-like.
Mobile Suit Gundam’s Principality of Zeon was clearly inspired by the visual and political aspect of Nazi Germany, though in fairness they are the baddies of the story. But like Star Wars’ also Fascist Galactic Empire, they look so cool being evil. Zeon’s Mobile Suits (Piloted giant robots) called Zakus look menacing yet awesome.
MSG shows sympathetic if still villainous members of Zeon and also establishes that the original vision of the outer space breakaway state from Earth’s Federation wasn’t necessarily always Fascist, rather with supposedly noble intent that humanity must embrace being a species among the stars and not under Earth’s jurisdiction. Why I am spending so much time on how the Japanese use of European and recent European style and history can have unfortunate implications instead of just getting to Vampire Hunter D?
Well, I just wanted something of a crash course in how Japan, for all its at times too-reverent love of its own complicated and bloody history, like anyone else’s, can also show an honestly humbling enthusiasm for exploring other cultures and infusing a bit of themselves in it.
Vampire Hunter D is set ten thousand years in the future, presumably from when it was released like in 1985. It’s a post-apocalyptic future with a mix of high-flung cyber-tech like robot horses with stuff that is definitely more agrarian, old by today’s standards.
Whatever the event that sent humanity into this long, dark future with a mix of old and very, very new, it is certainly not a world that a viewer of 1985 or 2022 would recognize. The abundance of Gothic monsters preying on humanity’s remaining settlements attest to that.
Vampire Hunter D plays with how in this far future, humanity is still or maybe for the first time, openly dealing with fantasy horrors of a very distant past. What is one monster of the night that can naturally bridge the vast gulf of ten thousand years and even then? Vampires!
Count Lee (who I at first thought was called “Countly”), an obvious reference to the second most famous person to portray Dracula cinematically, wants a new bride. He doesn’t need one as his vampire aristocracy rules-minded daughter keeps reminding him of, but he wants one because why not? Why the hell not?
As he later reminds his vampire daughter that their kind can be around for a very, very long time. How you start to view time and keep yourself occupied when being immortal becomes as important as basic vampire stuff like drinking blood and caring for your fangs.
Doris Lang, a blonde-haired farm-girl, who lives only with her young brother Dan, are accosted by Count Lee and she is soon vampirized. It takes awhile for the process to become a full vampire on Doris, longer than most depictions, so there’s enough time,she hopes, for a very long-haired, hatted stranger on horseback to help with dealing with Count Lee and his court of vampires and other creepy-crawlies. Here comes the Toshiro Mifune/ Clint Eastwood-like D.
Yes, his name is straight-up D. Why? Well, as the final confrontation D has with the Count strongly insinuates, he is a descendant of THE vampire, Dracula. This also plays into the mid-movie reveal which I honestly saw coming that D is a Dhampir, someone who is the offspring of a vampire and human coupling. It doesn’t matter whom is whom, so long as they have sex and one doesn’t turn the partner before and during the process so to speak.
D is part of the small but significant group of heroes/anti-heroes that are half-vampires that include Marvel’s Blade and Castlevania’s Alucard. It is generally easier for a Dhampir to resist the desire to consume blood, but it is never gone. Because they can resist, they are thus far more likely to be on the side of good and also have the added benefit of walking in sunlight without consequence.
They are also made hunters of vampires for those same reasons, whether it comes from a thirst for justice or self-loathing or both. D falls more into the latter category than Blade or Alucard in wishing to hunt vampires because he despises that he is half of one and has that potential temptation at all. Even if his mission is impossible in ridding the world of vampirism, being long lived or immortal gives him basically all the time in the world to find out.
A key distinction from other hero dhampirs is that he has on his left hand a living entity with a mouth and eyes. It speaks to D and often tempts him to go about being more…vampy. He also tries to goad D to be more human as D also abstains from most forms of physical contact, up to and including sex. After all, D fears that in the heat of the moment, he could bite his lover/partner and spread the curse further, defeating his life purpose.
The Hand yet argues that he has to live a little eventually, he won’t necessarily get someone vampirized if he goes all the way with someone and without that kind of emotional or physical connection, all he’s got is his mission. A mission, while well intended, that by itself can make you lonely and miserable. Considering his dhampir lifespan, a far longer ordeal than any one of us will endure.
D accepts the offer to help Doris and Dan with their vampire problem even when he realizes it will involve fighting Count Lee, who he recognizes as a potentially unsurpassable foe, even for him. Eventually, circumstances force D to journey alone into the Count’s castle, full of beautifully animated yet ugly creatures for him to face.
It’s at this moment that I might address Vampire Hunter D’s mature if possibly reckless attitude towards sexual expression, namely showing off female nudity. Keep in mind that anime and manga have long surpassed other regional forms of animation like my own when it comes to mainstream mature content being presented. Japan, despite having many reservations about public displays of affection or sexual content, including for the most part not featuring sexual intercourse even, they are more OK with just showing off cartoon ladies with less covering them.
This very complicated nature Japan has with expression or showcasing of sexual activity can both leave one with a headache parsing what is and is not acceptable for what has been a socially conservative nation while it can also seem as if the ready featuring of female nudity can show a cultural double standard. Is it sexist? In some areas or examples definitely, but it can also be a case of Japan culturally trying to get past it’s own censorship and dare I very much say it, hangups. The notorious “tentacle” porn is actually an alternative to what has been allowed in other parts of pornographic or sexual expression.
Vampire Hunter D is only ever graphic in showing female breasts, and some of them come from three siren sisters who transform into super long necked serpent monsters and do the best job of anyone other than Count Lee and his hatchet man Rei of wrecking D’s shit. There is a scene where for a short moment Doris has a wardrobe malfunction, but it occurs during a dramatic scene, not played for carnal laughs.
While the serpent sirens showing off their breasts makes sense as they’re sirens and initially try to seduce D which of course doesn’t work for our stoic anime protagonist, it comes across as frivolous in Doris’ example. It’s just because the animators could or to further show off maybe maybe not to a non-Japanese consumer that this is what anime can get away with that American animation cannot, unless you’re Ralph Bakshi.
It reminded me of an intentionally disturbing moment from Akira released three years later which involves almost-rapists ripping off the shirt of a teenage girl and that moment doesn’t come as frivolous rather as a stark example of how dystopian and not okay Neo-Tokyo’s world is meant to be. Within the confines of how “justifiable” a scene like that can be, Akira is more skillful than Vampire Hunter D, but then again Akira is masterful in almost every sense save for compressing to feature-length a long manga narrative that hadn’t even been finished at the time.
Now, like I have done in a case of last resort before, I watched Vampire Hunter D in its entirety for free as a YouTube video. Don’t ask me why that hasn’t been taken down. For that reason and that I might have been watching a VHS copy of the movie, I didn’t see the film in a crisp manner. Being animated and not live action, it was easier to catch the details but it was not the optimum way to view a distinctive as hell take on the Vampire mythos. For the modern age viewer’s vocabulary, Vampire Hunter D is a mid-80s Anime classic that is dripping with style.
Yes, because the limitations of budget and time, it can be more stilted in character’s movement and expression than say Akira. But Akira’s animation quality is so ludicrously high that it still looks better and more animated than most animations made today, whether it’s hand-drawn, CG or anime. So, yes, a beastly unfair comparison to make.
Anime movies, as it would be the case with Western animation, typically have better animation or quality than a TV series, so if you wanted to get the real good s**t of Japanese animation of the time and even now, you better hope it’s feature length. Vampire Hunter D isn’t the apex of its era but it is a beautiful if morbidly presented example of how varied and ambitious animation could be across the Pacific from us. In the 80s, we were basically flailing for the most part in the U.S. when it came to animation, though we would end the decade on a refreshing high note with the beginning of the Disney Renaissance through Little Mermaid as brought up earlier with Return to Oz on this horrorthon.
Vampire Hunter D is a must-see whether you like anime or not and if you know that, yes, the blood shall flow, among other things in this animated picture.
Next time: Halloween Horrorthon concludes well after Halloween has.