It’s 1990. I’m mere days away from my eighth birthday. And my older brothers are showing me Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.
That’s the beginning of my Monster Squad story, and that’s where any discussion of Wolfman’s Got Nards-A Documentary, André Gower’s wonderful new retrospective on both the film and its rather delayed cultural impact, has to start. Gower, the one-time child actor whose character leads the titular Monster Squad, brought his documentary to Denver Comic Con last night for its convention debut. He and his Monster Squad co-star Ryan Lambert talked to fans, both in the screening room for a Q&A and outside in the hall when we were forced to clear the room. I watched as one fan after another thanked them and excitedly shared their own Monster Squad stories.
So, here’s mine: Monster Squad is the movie my mom was forced to rent one Halloween night when my older brothers were showing me Freddy Krueger just to give me nightmares. My step-sister and I watched Elm Street 5 from the corner of a couch, only peeking out from under the cover of a blanket whenever we’d been assured Freddy was gone. Except, of course, Freddy wasn’t always gone. Sometimes, my brothers just got a kick out of watching us scream. Brothers, amiright?
Once my mom laid eyes on this, she quickly scooped me up en route to the video store in search of a more age-appropriate Halloween viewing option. The kindly clerk pointed us toward Monster Squad, a movie about a group of kids fighting the Universal movie monsters. I could not have been less interested. For as much as Freddy scared the living daylights out of me, I also got a charge out of the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be watching his movies. But this kiddy fare about Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman, The Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (not that I actually knew who that was yet) bringing havoc to a small town? No thank you!
[Smash cut to like 2 hours later]
OMG, this is the best movie of all time!
Thus began, in earnest, my horror fandom. Ever since, I’ve regarded Monster Squad as one of the ultimate gateway horror movies. It – along with The Gate, House and House 2 – is what I watched and loved before I grew into more R-Rated fare. I’m not alone. Many people my age regard Monster Squad with the same nostalgic reverence today’s kids probably will when they grow up and look back on Stranger Things, which is quite similarly about a group of geeks coming face to face with the type of creatures they’d previously only seen in fantasy.
Except Monster Squad isn’t the exclusive property of my generation anymore. An entire new generation, as we see in the documentary, has discovered it over the past decade. Fans, new and old, combined to sell out Monster Squad screenings throughout the world, rallied together to force Lionsgate to finally put the film out on DVD, and bewildered Gower, Lambert, Ashley Banks, and their co-stars every step of the way.
That’s how we ended up with Wolfman’s Got Nards. Gower had a front row seat to something so wonderful, yet so strange that he had to film it. After all, let’s not kid ourselves – Monster Squad bombed in its day. It didn’t even make the box office top 10 in its opening weekend. Why now over 30 years later is it more popular than ever?
Gower’s obviously not the first to follow that kind of impulse or ask that kind of question. Troll 2 star Michael Stephenson did the same with Best Worst Movie, his sobering take on the downside and limits of cult movie infamy/fandom. However, where Best Worst Movie serves as a “There but for the grace of God go I” cautionary tale for all actors Wolfman’s Got Nards focuses in more on what connects us as film fans and a film community. It’s no accident that the opening and closing image is of an unnamed person’s eyes looking up at a flickering screen with great anticipation.
As such, hardcore Monster Squad fans should know Wolfman’s Got Nards is not an overly exhaustive history of the making of the movie ala Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th or Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. There’s the obligatory detailing of who made it (Fred Dekker, Shane Black) and how it came together (they met at UCLA in their mid-20s and Fred had an idea for a Little Rascals-meets-the-Universal-Monsters movie). On-set footage from the making of the movie rolls by. Behind the scenes stories are shared by Dekker, Black, the cast, and Stan Winston’s old effects crew, all of whom springboarded from the film into very successful careers.
But as we walk through each stage of production we are greeted with title cards laid over Monster Squad fan art, with the artist credited in the bottom right hand. When Gower discusses Monster Squad’s terrible marketing campaign he does so after coming across one of the old posters while sifting through a superfan’s memorabilia collection:
It becomes clear the goal is not to make a movie about Monster Squad but instead use Monster Squad as the tool to connect to the larger story of how exactly fandom flourishes, often to the complete ignorance of the filmmakers. That’s why so many of the interviews are simply with fans, be they famous actors/directors/writers/critics/film professors or otherwise.
The reason for the doc’s title, if you don’t know:
Wolfman’s Got Nards, to be clear, isn’t above a more academic analysis. Efforts are certainly made to better understand the logistics of Monster Squad’s popularity, such as interviewing a former HBO higher-up for insight into why the cable network used to play the movie so often and thus create a generation of superfans. The definition/phenomenon of “cult movie” is debated. A persuasive argument is made that Monster Squad’s success is tied to its believable child characters and inherent wish fulfilment. Also, the lack of a legally available home video copy for years only added to the legacy.
But, mostly, Wolfman’s Got Nards is about celebrating the joy the film has brought to people. Far more interesting than any behind the scenes insight are moments like when Gower and Lambert visit an ailing fan in the hospital, who looks overjoyed to see them. Grace notes like those make Wolfman’s Got Nards a treat for not just Monster Squad fans but also anyone fascinated by the intersection of fan and filmmaker.
THE BOTTOM LINE
An obvious must-see for Monster Squad fans but also a sneakily effective bit of filmmaking about the joy we take from the pop culture we embrace.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Monster Squad does have some now-dated language and slut/fat-shaming. Wolfman’s Got Nards addresses that.
- Fred Dekker on his ambivalence over Monster Squad: “It’s like shooting a basket in 1987 that doesn’t go in until 2006. It’s weird.”
- Wolfman’s Got Nards will play the film festival circuit through November. They’re still working on getting it to a point where we can buy it, either on its own or perhaps as a special feature on a Monster Squad Blu-Ray.
- BTW: According to Gower during the Q&A last night, Universal’s ill-fated Dark Universe put the kibosh on a Monster Squad remake, but now that the Dark Universe is possibly kaput there is again a shot, however slim, of a remake or even sequel.