[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
Since I started contributing to Daily Dead right around the time the “Class of…” series hit the late ’80s, I tend to focus on movies that made an impact on me when I was a wee lad. Last year I focused on the light-hearted fantasy epic (with a bit of a horror streak) Willow, and the year before I took a look at the extreme S&M, incestual splatterpunk masterpiece (with a bit of a horror streak) Hellraiser. With these serving as the cinematic touchstones of my formative years, you can see why my personality tends to be a little all over the place.
For my Class of ’89 entry, I somehow found a movie from that year that A) represents a beloved movie from when I was a kid, B) has the whimsical, fantastical appeal of a movie like Willow, and C) subverts the notions of what it means to be a monster in ways that remind me of one Mr. Clive Barker. Said movie is the Fred Savage/Howie Mandel buddy comedy Little Monsters, and it should be noted that before writing this piece it had been a solid 25 years since I’d last seen it. Would it hold up for the jaded, desensitized eyes of a man who still openly weeps when he watches Forrest Gump? Only one way to find out!
Little Monsters was directed by Richard Greenberg, whose directorial filmography is the definition of sparse. The guy has just one documentary and an episode of Tales From the Crypt under his belt. You probably, however, know his work from the opening frames of films like Alien, Superman, and Lethal Weapon, as his company designed the title cards for all of them. He’s also dabbled in VFX work on Predator (for which he got an Oscar nod), Xanadu, Goodfellas, and The Devil’s Advocate. That said, I didn’t want to get my hopes up that the only feature film he ever directed would hold up, especially given that it was geared toward an audience 30 years my junior.
I’ll also admit remembering that as a kid I was tickled by the fact that I shared a name with the main character (even though he totally spelled it wrong). Savage plays Brian, who we meet in the middle of a pretty bad week. His family recently moved, he’s having trouble making friends, and his parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) are constantly bickering because his dad is kind of an ass. To make matters worse, his little brother Eric (played by Savage’s own little brother Ben) is convinced that there’s a monster hiding under his bed. When Brian agrees to switch rooms for a night to see what’s what, he does indeed find a monster in the form of Maurice (Mandel), a perpetually adolescent creature who passes the time scaring and playing pranks on unsuspecting kids.
That said, Maurice and most of the monsters aren’t meant to be scary (with two major exceptions that we’ll get to later). They represent a mischievous id more than anything truly malevolent, so the FX gags play out like what a cartoon character would look like in real life. Mandel is in full-on schtick mode, playing Maurice with the manic glee typical of one of his stand-up sets of the era. Only in this case, he’s got David Atherton backing him up with some pretty funky effects, from horns and googly eyes to a hand that literally turns into the dog that eats your homework. His fellow monsters are mostly played by child actors getting the opportunity to play it silly in non-threatening face paint and latex.
In fact, the majority of the monsters in this movie play as a sort of a junior version of Nightbreed (although this movie predates Barker’s second feature by a year). Just because they’ve got a set of horns and they like to scare the occasional baby doesn’t mean they’re evil. They just want to mess with people, play pinball, and eat cheeseburgers for all of eternity. And who would begrudge them that? Certainly a pudgy kid for whom cheeseburgers were lifeblood who grew into an adult who wishes cheeseburgers could still be his lifeblood.
Of course, a movie like this needs some true villains to help contrast with the unconventional heroes. Little Monsters gives us not one but two baddies, each one having his own particular brand of scary. First, we’ve got Snik, played by the late, great Gary Ducommun. I think my childhood fear of Snik has faded with the knowledge that under all those prosthetics is one of the great comedic character actors of all time. Honestly, I kind of kept hoping he would break into a “Satan is good, Satan is our pal” chant. And Ducommun aside, Snik is really more of an oafish bully than anything else.
The role that has only gotten creepier with time, however, is Frank Whaley’s Boy. Atherton’s makeup work has a lot to do with this, with some surprisingly gruesome effects (especially for a kids’ movie) used to show a monster wearing a little boy costume and starting to burst at the seams. But you also can’t discount Whaley’s approach to playing Boy, as he matches that barely held together visual artifice with an equally artificial personality. Boy is a petulant, foppish child on the outside, but you can tell there are mighty bad things lurking in that psyche.
Also, for as effective as villains are in the film, can we take a minute to address how vein-poppingly scary Daniel Stern is as Brian’s father? I’d assumed I was just scared of him as a kid because back then I was terrified at the idea of an adult being mad at me. But three decades later, I still found myself squirming as Stern shouts 75% of his lines at the top of his lungs. I get that family strife is a prominent theme in the movie, and Brian’s conflict with his father sets up the context for why Brian would find life as a monster so appealing, but it was pretty disconcerting to watch Kevin Arnold get screamed at by his older self.
Now, if you’re wondering why I don’t make much mention of the non-monster kids in the movie, it’s because frankly, who cares? They’re all fine, and clearly there’s a reason Fred Savage was cast in pretty much everything in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But I’m here for the monsters, and I’m pretty sure you are, too.
In the end, I’m glad I got the chance to revisit Little Monsters. It’s aged surprisingly well and I can certainly remember why I was so obsessed with it as a youngster. It’s a slice of gateway horror that you can show the tyke in your life without having to worry about scarring them too badly (maybe fast forward through Boy’s face reveal). There’s plenty of wish fulfillment and hero moments to go around for all of our characters, both human and monster alike. And of course, because it’s the ’80s, young Brian learns the importance of family, even ones that aren’t perfect. That said, I hope his mom follows through on divorcing his dad, because she can do much better.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!