Tuesday, May 29, 2018
May Monster Madnes 2018: Monster Squad (1976)
Come on come all to another year of May Monster Madness! This year I'll be looking at Monster Squad (no, not THAT one...or THAT one either)...
Walt is a young criminology student working at a wax museum. One night he plugged in his Crime Computer, and it brought to life the museum 'exhibits' Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, once villains but now seeking to make up for their past misdeeds. Together, this group seeks to fight evildoers wherever they may spring from...
The Monster Squad did NOT get off to a good start! Not only was the writing in the first episode shockingly awful, but the effects seemed pretty lousy too! Thankfully it steadily improved in quality with every episode, and is ultimately entertaining!
Quite a lot of the humour falls flat on its face in the earlier episodes, but that too gets steadily better One weird joke I'm still not sure about is the somewhat slow-witted policeman named Officer McMacmac. What?! My favourite presence is by far the Crime Computer. On paper a supercomputer that literally burps out its info-cards may not sound that funny, but it made me laugh every time, even in the really bad early episodes. The concept of a supercomputer that you talk with via an in-built telephone is also a great visual design.
The show is quite cheap, horrible so in many episodes. The visuals are sometimes its greatest downfall, but are also occasionally triumphs. There is some possibly re-used footage whenever the team 'come to life', but if they are, the editing sometimes shortening them or showing from a further way or closer angle than normal makes them feel fresh and new.
The make-up for the three monsters had me confused at first. I thought it was awful to begin with, but not only did I warm to them, I realized that they're actually pretty good! I guess the abysmal first episode just had me soured on the show's overall design. That's not to say the designs are perfect though. Both Frankenstein and Dracula have gaps in their make-up, around their eyes and mouth, as well as the insides of their hands. The Wolf Man's look is by far the best!
The characters are a lively and distinctive bunch. They're not amusing all of the time, but make the show a joy to watch, and it truly does live up to its cool high concept, even if it does leave you yearning to know how it all began, because a simple narration in the opening credits isn't enough! I need more!
It seems a bit of a cheat at first that we only get Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, but on reflection, not only is three enough, it also makes sure the show doesn't get overcrowded. It's also a pleasure how often the three monsters are the ones doing hands-on investigation as well as brawling, and they aren't upstaged by their human buddy, who's usually a stay at home agent, instructing from the sidelines.
Walt is funny in how he sometimes talks like an overdramatic kid with his nose stuck in a dictionary. He has the kind of characterisation that could be infuriating in the wrong hands, or even in a decently written but taken seriously show.
One minor annoyance is that it's pretty inconsistent how much the authorities/general public know about the team, and how much has to remain a secret.
Something else strange is how the Wolf Man is never actually called that. The opening narration refers to him simply as 'The Werewolf', and he's named Bruce in the show itself. Did they not have the rights to the character? If not, it's surprising they were able to get away with this character who's the Wolf Man in all but name.
The villains are the most mixed aspect of Monster Squad throughout its run. Some are quite good, most are mediocre, and a couple are awful! Their henchmen are often derivative thugs, with their most often being exactly two, and more often than not their names are emblazoned on their clothes. Another issue is similar motivations. This starts dwindling at around the halfway mark, giving way to more interesting motives, perhaps because the writers got a stern call from the higher ups to pretty please use more imagination.
The effects range from good, to not that great, to downright awful, but you get the feeling that a lot of the more unconvincing ones are used with a grin. Less appealing though are the really obvious and cheap sets and costumes in a lot of the early eps, making the show feel like a no-budget 15 minute PBS production.
I'm not that crazy about the main theme. It's a bit weird and noisy.
Ok, let's delve into the episodes proper...
The Queen of all bees is dissatisfied with the way things are being run, and holds the world at ransom, threatening to destroy humanity unless her demands are met...
Good god this episode is awful! I was dreading the future of the series once I saw this, and knew at once why it only lasted one season! This is trash. The production values are appallingly cheap, with obvious sets, super fake 'honey', a guy in a low-rent bear costume, and the puns. Oh my god, the puns! Bee-lieve, bee-witching, bee-dazzling, bee-guiling, bee-wildering, bee-seech, bee-moan, bee-loved, bee-headed, etc. There's literally over 50, if I'm remembering correctly! It's beyond a joke!
Beyond that, the villains are still annoying, and the plot not very interesting or well written. The heroes don't get that much chance to shine, and overall this is a painful watch!...
The city's mayor is replaced with a lifelike doll by the nasty Mr. Mephisto, who increases taxes in the city, shutting down practically every local business and lining his pockets with all of the money. That is, until the Monster Squad figure out what he's up too...
Mr. Mephisto is an improvement over Queen Bee, but baby steps. It's still not that great. The villain is at least less annoying. He doesn't really get a fitting title though. Mr. Mephisto sounds more like a demonic figure rather than a dollmaker using his skills for theft. His henchmen are just barely tolerable, but they're women, unlike the rest of this show's second bananas, which were usually always men!
The climax is a total mess, literally as well as figuratively. Hardly all that appealing.
Mr. Mephisto is one of the show's least good episodes, but it's not totally awful, and is at least watchable, which is certainly something...
Archfiend The Tickler is a clown who has never laughed in his life, and has devoted himself to that one goal, at the expense of everyone else's happiness. Setting his eyes on one-time foes the Monster Squad, he plots a dastardly revenge to tickle them until their bodies collapse...
The Tickler is where Monster Squad starts picking up. The episode isn't perfect, but it's watchable, mainly thanks to the good antagonist. The actor (Ivor Francis) does very well with the material, coming off like a Bond villain! I mean that in the good way not as a pejorative.
The villain of the week's hideout actually looks like a real location this time, rather than a poorly dressed-up set, and it's got some neat touches to it!
The humour is improved once more, with some funny dialogue like when Walt destroys an indestructible cage with a laser, saying "It hasn't been invented yet but I used it anyway".
The Tickler isn't perfect, but it was at this point when I realized the show's quality had taken a definite upswing...
An embittered ringmaster and his circus cadre decide to get revenge on America by holding thousands of children hostage for millions of dollars, which they'll use to buy all the toy stores in the country.
This entry has and ok story and some decent laughs, but the villains are a pretty gross bunch, mainly down to the overeating 'fat' lady, and whoever did the make-up job for the Ringmaster.
The addition of 'stupid gas' is...well, stupid, but it at least saves the episode from going to a very dark place regarding what fate would befall these kids if the government didn't pay up, so stupid gas it is!
Billy Curtis is ok as the villain, despite the ugly make-up, By the way, his self- described title is The Impish Impresario, which is a much better title than just The Ringmaster!
The Ringmaster is a step back for Monster Squad, but it's still better than its worst...
The Music Man
The failed singer and manager of a music shop robs a successful charity blind of all its earnings, in order to hire everyone in America to attend his latest concert. Unwilling to let a charity be robbed, or let the world be subjected to the terrible singing of the Music Man, the Monster Squad sets up to stop him, going in subtly with an undercover job...
The episode begins with an amusingly bizarre joke about a charity devoted to battling the dreaded affliction 'natural causes', the leading cause of death in most people It's perhaps repeated a smidgen too much, but it's entertaining, as is the one near the end about Dracula's impressions. I also got a kick of the intro, with the three monsters calmly and serenely playing violins.
The villain is pretty meh. He's nicely sparkly though, even if the costume itself is pretty awful. He has the makings of a neat plan, but it doesn't end up coming together that well, probably because he doesn't even get close to fulfilling it.
The sound trap that the Music Man has the heroes in is a somewhat neat and creative prison, but a bit annoying to hear.
Overall, this is an ok ep, but one you'll perhaps want to have turned down for a lot of the duration...
The villainous No Face impersonates Chief Running Nose in an effort to wrest control of the city away from the mayor, instituting a new policy making all crime legal. Not satisfied with his handsome drip-feed of money, once criminals everywhere have stolen all the money they can, No Face will make crime illegal again and pocket all of the ill-gotten goods, unless the Monster Squad can stop him...
No Face, with its portrayal of Native Americans, was one of those occasions where I wasn't sure if the show was going to end up insightful and witty, or shockingly racist. How does it do? Um, cringey, but not that bad. It's worst fault is the name Chief Running Nose, but that does at least pay off in a good way by the end. Overall, given we see him at the end wearing modern day clothes (as well as speaking normal English), I figure the episode knows full well having him decked out of full old-world native regalia, featherhead and all, is over-the-top and not something most indigenous Americans don't wear commonly, and is just taking the opportunity to be goofy.
This brings up an interesting point, however unintentionally. The way Native Americans were often portrayed on older comedy shows, with full-on tribal outfits, is actually quite progressive in a way, as it's showing them still holding true to their culture and customs, with their sometimes broken English showing that they still speak their original languages, keeping them alive for new generations. Do I think any of this is intentional? Oh hell no, but it's a nice thought regardless.
There are quite a few laughs to be had here, from the funny witness description, to Chief Running Nose (really No Face)'s line "Because White Man speak with forked tongue, and subdivide sacred land with fork lift, I forking over certified cheque for 24 dollars!".
Unlike a lot of the series' prior enemies, No Face came across like a more genuine supervillain, as The Tickler did, rather than just a random criminal, even if his motivation (Get lotsa money!) is the same as just about every other episode. I also found it effective how we never see his true face, until the end of that scene ruined that mystique, with a pretty bad effect to boot. No Face gets a neat music accompaniment in one scene too!
Regarding the actor who plays him, I was wondering if he was Native American, rather than a white guy in brownface. My reaction to their identity is as follows-"THAT'S SID HAIG?!". Ok, so that's a 'No' for the 'Are they actually Native American?' question, and a "So that's why!" for why No Face is the best villain in the show's run!
Getting to the heroes, there's clever thinking on their part, and the episode showcases all of their skills quite well! We're also treated to an amusingly loquacious Wolf Man. There's a reference to the show's overarching continuity, and if this episode is to be believed, the Monster Squad have saved the city once a week for 5 years. Really?! I've heard of older shows starting off in media res, but not by that much!
No Face is by far the best episode in the series, and a great example of what this show could be at its heights...
A disgruntled TV astrologer who never gets a prediction right has turned to crime, having stolen a nuclear bomb in order to make his latest prophecy come true-That of an earthquake separating California from the mainland. Can the Monster Squad stop him in time?...
Siiigh, one step forward, one step back. The Astrologer has some good aspects, such as a motivation that's different from the series' norm, even if it seemed like a bit of a ripoff of Superman (in actuality this predates that movie by 2 years, so that's neat!). The villain is its greatest weakness though. Feeling like his outfit was cobbled together from random parts in a costume box, Johnathon Harris does a painful job as the Astrologer.
There are some funny moments here and there, usually when Harris is offscreen. There's a 'ticking clock' that goes way past its supposed time, even by TV logic, which kinda ruins the climax. There's also a weirdly depressing ending, almost mean to poor Dracula.
The vengeful Ultra Witch demands to have her jailed boyfriend returned to her, and has made all the world's cows (except Arabia) dry up, and turns all U.S. soldiers into castor oil when her demands aren't met right away. Thankfully the Monster Squad has an ace up their sleeve-They're monsters, so Ultra Witch will be more liable to trust them. Will their plan succeed?...
Somewhat dated Ronald Reagan jokes aside, Ultra Witch is a decent outing, and has the welcome addition of Batman alumni Julie Newmar! The plot is the right amount of silly. Serious props to Fred Grandy for acting his ass off in the way he interacts with the cardboard cutouts. You totally believe they really are the team due to his enthusiasm! I also liked the concept of Dracula sending a morse code message with his pulse.
The climax is quite good! While the fight itself isn't that impressive, it's at least clear to make out thanks to the nice use of colour
By the way, it was this episode where I realized that there hadn't been any puns (terrible or otherwise) from the villains since Queen Bee! Thank god for that!
Ultra Witch treats us to yet another interesting motive. It's not even wanton destruction this villainess craves (although she's more than happy to cause it), but the release of her wizard boyfriend (unrelated to next episode's baddie). I also find it neat how we get to see Drac going undercover by coasting on his former reputation, one that a witch of all people is likely to actually recognise.
Ultra Witch's costume is of note It's still terrible, yes, but it at least looks like effort was put into thinking of an actual costume rather than just dressing the actor up in random junk and calling it a day. The henchmen actually have a bit of character to them, even if they look pretty similar as henchmen past.
This is another fun entry, which is thankfully becoming increasingly common for me to say with this series!...
An angry wizard seeks revenge against the American government for stiffing him, so he starts miniaturising major landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, etc. During their investigation, two of the Monster Squad are shrunk and trapped inside the tiny landmarks, leaving only Walt and Dracula to save the day...
The Wizard is a pretty entertaining time to be had.
I couldn't help but find it amusing when the characters are going on about America 'losing her identity' when all these landmarks are whisked away, yet they're all European in origin. Hehe. I bet Chief Running Nose won't be losing any sleep over 'em! Also, for a villain The Wizard's motives aren't that bad. The dude was legitimately screwed over by the government, so he's getting back at them for leaving him with worthless property by placing all of the nation's most famous landmarks on said worthless property, opening it for tourists even. So far you've said nothing wrong, Mr. Wizard! But alas, he's a bit of a dickhead, so the Monster Squad have to kick into gear and stop him.
Walter's latest invention (a universal antidote biscuit) is fun, though makes him a suicidal wackjob at the beginning! Also, laughing gas isn't a poison.
The climax is fun, despite budgetary limitations. In fact, the invisible sword fight is quite entertaining, with both actors giving it their all! The pre-cut watermelon a minute later is just embarrassing though.
Arthur Malet makes for a fine villain as The Wizard. It's almost kind of a shame they didn't try and tie this into the previous episode though. Oh well, it still stands well on its own...
Evildoer The Skull has stolen the body of Tutankhamen, the world's greatest thief, and he resurrects the long dead pharaoh to steal precious diamonds. What will the Monster Squad have to say about this?...
This episode has humour that doesn't really hit the mark, but is intermittently funny (the borderline racist Asian character named Kung Fooey is not). The villain is pretty entertaining, and has a neat design, although he does sound basically the same as Dracula. I'm less positive towards the annoying henchman, who is sadly not strangled by Tutankhamen.
We almost get another Universal monster on display this episode in the form of the mummy. Unfortunately it does barely anything, especially in the climax, even though the end does kinda set him up for a return, though it's really just for a joke conclusion. Kind of a shame the personality we hear of (King Tut as one of the most devious criminal masterminds in history) wasn't explored more, because that sounds like high concept fun!
The finale is pretty interesting, in that while there is a brawl, the true showdown is more low-key and psychological (to the extent that a goofy show like this can be, of course). And funnily enough, the whole time I as yelling at the Wolf Man to just reach up and pull The Skull into the grave, and woudn't you know it, he ends up doing just that! It serves The Skull right, trying to use a bullet by poking someone with it!
The effects here aren't very good, with an obviously plastic and obviously hollow diamond, and an unimpressive mummy.
With it's Kilink-inspired baddie, The Skull is a neat episode, albeit imperfect...
A diabolical gangster has taken control of the weather, and will bring America to its knees unless he is unanimously voted in as President for Life of the United States. Obviously the Monster Squad cannot allow this, but how will they fare when one of their own is frozen solid?...
The Weatherman makes for a relatively amusing time, but it's not that comfortable to watch in winter. Brrrrr!
This one of the only episodes in the entire series that actually shows the effects of the villain's plan! This is accomplished through use of stock footage though, which could perhaps be seen as a little insulting?
There are very good effects for the people who get frozen. So good that they'd look good in a higher budget movie!
The Weatherman is a pretty fun villain with his swaggering crime boss demeanour, and he gets a very anti-Bond speech during the climax in how quickly he decides to kill the leads, but the mystique is ruined by how easily he's disarmed twice in a row afterwards.
The final battle this time round is...interesting. 'Interesting' in this case is not code for 'funny', but at least it's not samey. I had a good time with this episode, though maybe I'd enjoy it more if I wasn't shivering the whole way through!...
Lawrence of Moravia
Foreign dignitary Lawrence of Moravia is unsatisfied with being able to buy anything he wants, and derives much greater pleasure from stealing it instead. Having set his eye on the largest pearl in the world, it'll take the combined efforts of the team to stop him...
The Monster Squad do battle with a nefarious Arab sheik, and boy do I hope this won't be racist! Thankfully it's mostly not. *phew* once more!
This struck me as a really good final episode! It has by far the best climax, character moments, a fun villain, henchmen who are varied and mostly not annoying (more in that later), and is an all-round great time! My how this series has improved!
It's interesting how the heroes meet the villain relatively early on, and that part of the episode is a nervous conversation, a tete a tete between the two parties. The Monster Squad are at their best here, coming across as very endearing! They are the heroes we need!
The effects are ok. The costuming is pretty good! Dracula's make-up is somewhat faded in this episode. This kinda has an unintentional positive effect, make his cheeks appear more sunken, and thus more deathlike
The oil rising is less convincing, with it being obvious it's only entering into a thin chamber sitting in front of the actors, designed to make it look like they're being submerged despite it being plainly obvious they're not.
Despite not being Arabic, Joseph Mascolo acquits himself off pretty well, making for a fun enemy. His henchmen though, not so much. They're in obvious brownface, and it's embarrassing!
Lawrence of Moravia is the pinnacle of what this show could accomplish, and is well worth a watch!...
Criminal mastermind(s) Albert/Alberta are plotting a dastardly scheme in order to hold the world ransom, and the Monster Squad must stop them in order to avert an apocalyptic catastrophe...
This episode is borderline surreal! A literal half man-half woman is stealing two of every animal in order to flood the world and create a new 'Genesis'. What the flying heck? Bloody weird! As for the hows of his plan, I'm only going to describe them with "Uhhhhhhhhhhh"...
My greatest fear going into this episode (right after if it'd stand up next to Lawrence of Moravia) was whether or not it'd be inadvertently transphobic. Thankfully it's not. *phew* While is not is still pretty annoying (thanks mainly due to his 'half' obsession), as are his henchmen. Vito Scotti also doesn't do a very good job at being Alberta. So bad that his Alberta personality fleetingly speaks.
Despite some decent moments, this isn't that great of an episode, nor is it a good send off for the series as a whole...
Monster Squad is a very flawed show, but it's got enough upsides that I recommend giving it a watch. Just make sure to avoid the first episode like the plague, and to make Lawrence of Moravia the last one you watch...
Thank you all for reading, and be sure to check out all the other contributors to this year's May Monster Madness! They'll all have fangtastic posts, I am sure!...