Fred Dekker’s professional film career began when he was tapped by director Steve Miner to write the script for Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3D. That project became one of the countless Hollywood projects that never got made, but it was enough to establish Dekker in the film biz. He then went on to work on two memorable 1986 horror films; the first was House, which he conceived and co-wrote, and the second was Night of the Creeps, which he wrote and directed.
With his next project, The Monster Squad, Dekker and his frequent writing partner Shane Black sought to pay homage to the Universal monster films of yesteryear. The film would become Dekker’s second as director. Although the film was considered a financial failure at the time of its release, it has since gone on to become a bonafide cult classic.
Dekker’s post-Monster Squad writing credits include Richochet, If Looks Could Kill, RoboCop 3 (which he also directed), and The Predator (2018 version). He has also performed uncredited rewrites for such films as Demolition Man, Lethal Weapon 4, and Titan A.E.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Dekker to discuss The Monster Squad for the forthcoming David C. Hayes-edited book, Moonlight Marquee: The Werewolf Film Encyclopedia. (The interview was actually conducted about two years ago but has not been published prior to this.) This is an extract from that interview.
Where did the idea for The Monster Squad come from?
Monster Squad was very much a product of my misspent youth in front of the TV. I gravitated towards monster movies, science fiction, and fantasy very early on. I wasn’t a particularly athletic kid. I wasn’t out playing Little League or Pee Wee Football, so I spent a lot of time on my own. I think that The Monster Squad is my tribute to my own sense of being somewhat of an outcast and being so invested in these magical worlds that I saw in black and white on the TV. The Monster Squad was my idea.
Shane Black and I were friends in college. We were very close, and particularly after college, when we were trying to make our mark in the movie business. I had started screenwriting fresh out of college, actually. The first script that I optioned was actually written while I was in college. Shane had always been, as you probably know, a big fan of crime fiction and books. He was always a big reader. So the notion of screenwriting seemed slightly alien to him, so he asked me, “Is it hard? Is it easy?” And I said, it’s easier than writing a novel because there’s more spaces on the page. And he said, “Well, cool!” He took a crack at an idea of his own, which he and I eventually rewrote for John Carpenter, called Shadow Company. I think that was his first script, and I believe Monster Squad was his second. I had such faith in him, and we were so close and shared so many sensibilities. He was a fan, as I was, of particularly Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which I think is the perfect horror comedy, which is a hybrid that generally is very hard to pull off and there are not a lot that really succeed. But that one really does because Bud and Lou’s antics are true to what they do and the Universal Monsters are very true to the Universal Monsters, and are actually quite scary.
That was kind of my inspiration for the movie. I was also a huge fan of Our Gang, the Hal Roach Little Rascals series from the 30s and 40s that I watched on TV when I was a youngster. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to do The Little Rascals meet the Universal Monsters? That was the idea and Shane and I wrote the story together. He took the first crack at a script while I was in post-production of Night of the Creeps, my first feature.
Was it all intimidating writing updated versions of those classic characters?
That’s such an interesting question because I have to say it didn’t feel remotely intimidating. I had a sense of ownership of these characters since I had grown up with them. The truth of the matter is when we finished the script, we submitted it to Universal because I was interested in being as close to the feel of those Universal pictures of the 30s and 40s as possible. And I really wanted to use the Jack Pierce makeup designs and have it open with the black-and-white globe and the little airplane circling around it. I wanted to open the movie with the logo from 1939 to usher us in. I was very much in the thrall of the nostalgia of it. When we submitted the script to Universal, we had a very strange reaction. They had no interest whatsoever in this intellectual property. They said, “Those characters are great to put on mugs if they’re Universal Studios monsters, but we don’t want to make movies about those monsters.” Which, in retrospect, is pretty hilarious. So no, I had no sense of intimidation. My only sense was to be true to what I felt was important about those characters and depict them visually and spiritually with my love for them.
[I]t wasn’t for another 20 years before I even got an inkling that it had found its audience through cable and VHS rentals, and eventually DVDs and Blu-Ray. The analogy I pull out is it’s like shooting a 3-pointer from half court in 1987 and not knowing for 20 years that it went into the basket.
What are your favorite aspects of the screenplay? What are you most proud of?
The story sort of unfolds in a way that’s kind of effortless. I chalk that up to Shane, in terms of how to tell a story. But I also think it builds in a way that’s kind of compelling for what it is. I think the proudest of anything in my career would be the last 20 minutes of that movie. I think really works emotionally, cinematically, visually, and all of the above. Again, Shane’s really good with actor reads.
What was [monster creator] Stan Winston like to work with?
Well, it’s funny because I understand very much he was a friend and, even before we lost him, we were talking about doing something together for a company. I was going to direct. He was very supportive of my directing career and was very aware of the peaks and valleys that happened in our sojourns in Hollywood. I miss him very much. He was really a kindred spirit. Now everyone thinks of him as this master, which he was, and a genius. But he was a monster kid just like me. So when we met, we could talk about how the makeup for Lon Chaney in The Ghost of Frankenstein is different than I did for Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. He was kind of a nerd in that way and grew up with the same movies I grew up with. We were kids in a candy story.
The other thing he brought, which was really important, was this great group of upstarts who now, of course, are the masters of makeup special effects in Hollywood. Tom Woodruff, Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan… All of those guys were kids. I was too. We were all in our twenties at that time. The kid in the candy store analogy is the first one that comes to mind. We were playing. We were play acting on a massive scale.
Is it true that the werewolf’s face was modeled after Stan Winston’s?[Laughs.] I only read that myself, but years and years later, now that I think about it, there is definitely a resemblance. The other thing was he divided all the monsters up and assigned various people to do it. For instance, Tom Woodruff, I believe, was in charge of the Frankenstein monster. Tom Noonan, and yet he himself had actually played the creature who was sculpted by Steve Wang. That was a wonderful thing that Stan did. He gave ownership to all of the people to render these characters after having designed them.
There was an excised scene depicting the death of Dracula. Why was that scene cut from the film?
The idea was to establish that they had attempted to stake Dracula and destroy him. Honestly, the scene just didn’t work. It sucked. I know that there was a pace problem with it. I remember the dailies and I remember the photographs of it. In the final analysis, it’s probably just as well that it’s not in the film, because it would be confusing. All of the Universal films, in particular, and in the Hammer Dracula films, they would kill Dracula at the end of one movie and then in the next movie you’d see how him resurrected. Well, we never wrote that and never shot it. When he arrives in America, in 1987, it would’ve been a little bit of a shutter step. The audience would have been wondering, “I thought they staked him back in 1887.”
It is kind of funny about the Hammer movies. He does die quite frequently in those movies.
Once again though, Hammer was tipping attachment with Universal. Because the monster is in the windmill in the original Frankenstein (1931) and then in Bride of Frankenstein, he’s still in that windmill, which has collapsed and is waterlogged. But he’s still there. In each film, whether he’s covered in sulfur or whatnot, he rises again. So the Hammer films are very much aware of that.
What are your thoughts on Monster Squad gaining the popularity it has over the years and ultimately becoming a cult classic?
Well, that’s something I’ve really had to wrestle with a bit because generally a career is comprised of trying to create things and hoping people like them. Generally, people think of two categories: the people who fail and the people who succeed. In this case, I put my heart and soul into this movie. I was very proud of the movie, but the movie just died on the vine. It tanked when it opened. It was kind of heartbreaking for me. I managed to eek out a living and continue working. But the failure of that film was really a heartbreak for me. And it wasn’t for another 20 years before I even got an inkling that it had found its audience through cable and VHS rentals, and eventually DVDs and Blu-Ray. The analogy I pull out is it’s like shooting a 3-pointer from half court in 1987 and not knowing for 20 years that it went into the basket. It’s very difficult for me to have the unrivaled feelings of “yay, my movie found its tribe” when that happened far away from me while I was contemplating what to do next and trying to decide whether I was any good at this at all. Clearly, I have very mixed feelings about it.
Herschell Gordon Lewis talked about how he had made his movies and then moved on, basically forgetting about them. Then somebody called him out of the blue and asked him to come and speak at a screening of one of his movies many years later. He thought it was a gag and he didn’t want to go. He warned his wife that they were going to lampoon him, but he decided to go because it was a free trip. He had absolutely no idea people were still watching those movies, let alone, enjoying them.
I had that same experience in Austin, Texas in 2007. I had a friend who I had met, writing for a website called Aint It Cool News. A lovely guy named Eric Vesty. Eric said, “I’m trying to talk the Alamo Drafthouse into showing The Monster Squad.” I said, “Good on you! Let me know!”
They scheduled it on an Easter Sunday at the original Drafthouse, in downtown Austin. They scheduled it for Easter Sunday and it sold out as soon as it was announced. They ended up having to schedule a second screening on the same day, and that one sold out too. So I arrived in Austin and I was driving from the hotel to the venue downtown. As we were approaching, I saw a line around the block. I said, “Hey, what’s going on?” They said, “That’s for you! That’s your movie.” It was very humbling.
And you got to reunite with some of the cast members from the movie at that screening. What was that like?
It was great. Making movies is like going to war. That might be hyperbolic, but it’s not completely inappropriate. You’re getting up at the crack of dawn, you’re seeing these people with bags under their eyes, they’ve been up all night, you spend 14 hour days with them, and you do that for two or three months. It’s boot camp. There is a community that is created from that that’s really hard to argue with. You see these people and it’s just like seeing a buddy from high school or something. No time has passed. You’re right where you were before. It was lovely. I’ve remained close with many of the people I worked with on that movie and other movies.
You wound up doing something else at the Alamo Drafthouse a couple years later, right?
I’ve shown both of my first two films, Night of the Creeps and Monster Squad. I’ve shown them both at various Drafthouses throughout the years. There was one where Shane and I, and Jonathan Gries who plays the wolfman, went and showed the movie in Austin and did a Q&A afterwards. It’s always fun.
That was a great venue.[Alamo Drafthouse founder] Tim League is a movie lover. That’s what’s great about him. He loves movies and he loves the experience. I’ll never forget going to this venue and sitting down, and you can order a martini from your feet! They’ll bring you whatever you want, but if you talk, they’ll throw you out. That, to me, is the perfect movie theater.
At one time Platinum Dunes was talking about remaking the The Monster Squad. What were your thoughts on that, and what eventually happened with that?
Some of this is talking out of school, since it’s still active. [Note: this project has died since this interview was conducted.] So I don’t know that we can go into that much. I like those guys quite a bit. We’re talking about some different things we may be working on together. But yeah, in the case of The Monster Squad remake, I know that Robbie Cohen wanted to direct it. I never had any problem with that because if not for Rob Cohen, we never would’ve made the first one. He bought the sandbox so he can certainly point it if he wants to.
I think what happened was that Paramount, ultimately, and this is extremely ironic in the wake of It and Stranger Things, felt that kids in this kind of jeopardy was skirting political incorrectness and maybe they should steer away from that. Subsequently, Stranger Things and It had come along and, of course, the first thing that happened was the phone rang and it was the folks at Platinum Dune asking Shane and I to come in and talk about The Monster Squad again. That’s all I can say for now.
People have accused the movie of being a rip off of The Goonies. Does that annoy you?
Here’s the thing. I can speak in complete candor. Steven Spielberg produced that movie. He’s my hero. He’s the reason I wanted to be a director. Seeing Jaws in 1975 just blew my mind. And I said, there’s a vision here, there’s a master, and this is what I want to do. So he’s the reason why I want to make movies in the first place. Dick Donner was a mentor of mine for several years during the time we were doing Tales from the Crypt, and he was doing The Lethal Weapon movies with Shane, so I know him and love him. The truth of the matter is I just never saw the thing for some reason. Subsequently, I’ve seen it since, but I did not see it prior to making Monster Squad. So to me, any suggestion that we were inspired or stealing is misbegotten. I literally never saw the movie. I was just doing adventure with kids that just happened to have a big, scary looking lug that they befriend, that happens to be in that movie too.