In mid 1970s the Saturday morning television landscape consisted of cartoons and a variety of live action series based on action adventures and superheroes. Networks scrambled to take the formula laid out by Sid & Marty Krofft and adapt it for their own machinations.
This resulted in the creation of a plethora of cult TV shows that never got to really extend themselves beyond a few episodes or a full season. The networks were antsy and the ghouls in suits had neither qualm nor problem with pulling the plug on a show that didn’t get ratings or ad money straightaway.
Granted, upon hindsight many of the shows were putrid and really did deserve to go. However almost forty years later some of these shows (Shazam, Isis, Jason of Star Command) have managed to retain a nightmarishly loyal cult following.
Monster Squad is one of those shows. From the ragga bassline of its opening theme to its closing credits the show was nothing short of a weekly prolonged camp excursion dressed in with accoutrements of classic horror films.
Developed by Batman alum Stanley Ralph Ross (the series that would influence the similarly camp Squad) and debuting on NBC on September 11, 1976, Monster Squad only lasted one season of thirteen episodes before mercilessly being laid to rest.
Set decorators relied heavily on old Batman props and sets and the communicators from Star Trek make an appearance as two-way communicators for the team.
[ad#longpost]Clean living nerd Walt is a criminology student by day and crime fighter by night. He has a night job at Fred’s Wax Museum which affords him a great deal of free time to build a fancy crime computer (complete with extensive labeling of “secret” gadgets and gizmos) and hide it inside a sarcophagus at the museum.
When he activates the computer it creates oscillating vibrations, which bring the wax dummies of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Werewolf (Wolfman) to life complete with intact memories of the actions of their fictional predecessors. Apparently the vibrations have no effect on the wax dummy of The Invisible Man also seen on the set from time to time. (Maybe he is just sleeping.)
Walt urges the three monsters to look beyond their past “misbehaving” and team up to fight crime. The nerdy Walt uses his love of technology and knowledge of criminals to lead the team. Walt is indeed a Nerd. He knows that bowties are cool and he rocks a bright yellow sweater throughout the entire series. The monsters on the other hand are like halfwit versions of their classic selves.
Like any squad of kickassery The Monster Squad has their own ride. In this case a souped up black van with “Monster Squad” boldly written across the side of it. This poses the questions of just how Walt got the cash for such a ride and also: how did the monsters get a drivers license? Also, why do so many criminals spring their master plans at night? But I digress.
Before sailing the high seas as Gopher on The Love Boat or serving four terms in The House of Representatives, Fred Grandy really cut his teeth in television as Walt in Monster Squad. Despite giving Walt a very bland flag-waving do-gooder demeanor there are a few moments when Grandy does appear to enjoy the ride. Throughout the shows he makes Cold War-themed digs at Russia and even makes a few one-liners aimed at the Kroffts. However his scripted jokes are often awkwardly placed and his deadpan delivery really runs its course after a few stories.
Henry Polic II is best known for his work as a recurring character on Webster and his excellent voice work as The Scarecrow in Batman: The Animated Series. In Monster Squad one could argue that he is the only thing worth watching. He completely releases Dracula from any of the terror of other incarnations of the character and instead replaces it with one who is charming, funny and even clever. Polic should also get a gold star since his character is constantly put in the stupidest of situations. His slapstick timing also makes the dumbed down Drac actuallly work.
Despite being a regular in the Planet of The Apes films Buck Kartalian somehow ended up scraping the barrel as Bruce W. Wolf. He has the best makeup of any of the regulars but this is all lost since he must deliver some really horrible dialogue. Nonetheless he gives the Wolfman a sense of laidback humor that serves as a nice counterbalance to the over the top goofiness of Dracula and seriousness of Walt. He has great comedic timing but sadly he ends up being a caricature and never really gets to do much.
Former wrestler Michael Lane plays Frank N. Stein. This character actor was in almost every big adventure show of the 1960s and 70s. He even starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970. So you have to wonder why the creative team of Monster Squad reduced his role to a very primordial series of dumb zingers and “duhs” coupled with lots of groaning and grunting. He’s like a cross between Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Chewbacca. (The figure shown on the right is an excellent custom job…for info on it and an excellent round-up of merch from the series, go here.)
Despite their character flaws and poor scripts the Monster Squad appears to work well together and seem to be having a lot of fun; even though Grandy really is mostly stiff and intense throughout the course of the series. Succinctly, the ensemble makes a little go a very long way.
I realize that Saturday morning TV is not Hamlet, but the show really was awful.
The true stars of Monster Squad were the guest starring villains. Every week, a celebrity guest star appeared as a ludicrously outlandish baddie. It’s almost like they took the unused bits of supervillainy from the Batman series and reshaped them into new baddies for this show. (Not a terrible theory, come to think of it.)
In the first episode we meet Alice Ghostley’s Queen Bee, a megalomaniac who spends too much time making puns and not enough time making crime. Nonetheless she does cause problems for Dracula, who is captured and turned into a licking post for a honey bear. No, really. And yes: Ghostley, a terrific comedian and character actress, is great and sadly the only thing that makes the debut episode watchable.
Jonathan Harris’ turn as the diabolical Astrologer may be the best performance of the short-lived series. Harris is his usual smug self but this time he dons more glitter and lamÃ© than should be allowed. Despite his lack of sartorial splendor he is more than capable of going toe to toe with The Monster Squad. However, it’s hard to take a villain seriously when they sparkle like a disco ball.
Julie Newmar turns up with a purrfect performance as the Ultra Witch in episode eight, which aired over Halloween week of 1976. Newmar’s over the top shenanigans make for one of the more entertaining episodes in the series.
You would be hard pressed anything more horrific in the history of network television than Vito Scotti’s performance as Albert/Alberta, Metro City’s most insidious hermaphrodite. Really, this story is that bad. The plot is just completely stupid, even for a show targeted at the eight year old demographic. In fact, it was so bad that it has the dubious distinction of being the last episode of Monster Squad…and one of the reasons why it was not renewed.
One of the biggest issues with Monster Squad was that the Monsters…were not even really monstrous. They had utility belts, rode around in a cool van and fought crime. The audience never really is allowed to see them as anything else but silly misfits. Frankly the General Mills team of Franken Berry, Count Chocula and Boo Berry were much scarier.
Another issue is the aforementioned absence of any plot. The stories were straight out of those weird ones most kids make up on playgrounds or in backyards. The difference here being that they were written for kids by writers with professional experience. You could also say the same thing about the costumes and the sets, which looked they came out of a 5th Grade theater production.
Nonetheless there is something hauntingly simple about Monster Squad that makes it so revered by a cult following. It’s overexaggerated collection of rogues also appeals to many as does the campiness and bad acting. But I think the main reason why people watch the show now is that they want to think of the canon of classic horror monsters in a more affable manner.
You could say that Monster Squad is Horror-ble or more of a trick then a treat and you would be right. But those who love their wacky old school camp (a la The Paul Lynde Halloween Special) will love this.