Little Monsters (1989)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in My Childhood | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Sexual innuendo, toilet humor, swearing, and face melting – such filth from the likes of a germophobe.

The world presented in Little Monsters is one that had to have been forged in the mind of an adolescent boy. About half takes place in a strange world located under our beds inhabited by (who else?) monsters. Before they were monsters, however, they were children who decided to transform. It’s easy to see why they would. A monster’s job amid their world of stairways, ladders, fences, boxes, and boards is to wreak nationwide havoc (kids outside the U.S. are OK, apparently) as each wooden structure leads to some poor sap’s bedroom. Once inside, they leave muddy footprints, scratch records, and place cellophane on toilets, leading parents and siblings to point blame. “Trouble is our code of honor,” one monster notes, “our raison d’etre.” The underworld also houses a 24-7 buffet of cravings, arcade with no tilt, stuffed animal dungeon, and baseball game involving priceless glass objects. But most important to “every kid’s fantasy” is two simple words: no parents.

While the world seems like an updated version of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland – a place where kids never grow up and always have fun – the story resembles Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a classic children’s tale of a forest filled with scary creatures where the boy that creates the world in his imagination is named king, but quickly grows homesick.

This story follows Brian, a sixth grader whose family LittleMon2has moved to a new town leaving him miserable and lonely. As Brian sneaks out of bed to watch late-night TV one evening, his younger brother calls out for his parents and insists he saw a monster. “Honey, there’s no such thing as monsters,” his mother (Margaret Whitton) assures. Dad continues the condescension “maybe it was mommy snoring.” The next morning Brian is grounded for various household misdemeanors he didn’t commit and Eric deduces it was the monster. On a dare, the brothers switch rooms and Brian creates a security system out of bike parts, rope, and Doritos to capture the crafty beast. When he does, he quickly makes friends with Maurice, an 11-year-old monster trapped in a state of perpetual monstertude for the past 200 years. The blue-faced, horned, jeans-and-leather-jacket-sporting chum invites Brian to the underworld to take part in the shenanigans. Not only must Brian contend with monsters, but his school’s figureheads for failing to complete homework, a red-headed siren (Amber Barretto), and overgrown bully (Devin Ratray), who makes him thirst for vengeance (“Ronnie’s gonna be pissed.”).

Underlying all of this is an unstable and unhappy marriage. “Take away the fighting and there’s nothing left,” mom says at one point. When they leave Eric’s room after his first monster scare, dad asks, “Do you think he heard us?”  “Of course he heard us; that’s what scared him,” mom responds. When they finally sit the kids down to explain the possibility of a divorce, Brian immediately resists (“I hate them”) while Eric insists (“You don’t have to go; I’ll be better, I promise.”). The film was the first collaboration for writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, a team that later moved on to write Aladdin, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean. With the dramatic sub-plot, I would have hoped for a few clues that would suggest the entire monster episode was taking place solely in Brian’s mind (a la Phillip K. Dick) to replace thoughts of the divorce.

First-time director Richard Alan Greenberg, previously known LittleMon3as a special effects guru from Predator, must have brought his own technical prowess to this production for the creatures and effects. The stylized monsters range from resembling a pumpkin and catcher’s mitt to a collie and boar. Brian catches the eye of an underworld bigwig named Boy (Frank Whaley), who looks like a Catholic schoolboy that played with matches and has a hunchback smoker (Rick Ducommun) for a henchman. When exposed to light, these scarers are reduced to a pile of clothes, which makes for cool effects such as melting and moving clothes. Greenberg also includes prosthetic effects such as popped out eyeballs, growing horns, and a dog for a hand. Though Little Monsters is his only directing credit, Richard Greenberg (with the help of his DP and cinematographer) did at least one thing worth commending – they positioned the camera and utilized shadows in a way that belittles the pre-teen stars and gave me a pretty good scare as a kid. David Newman organized the pop soundtrack (with Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere among them) and a score that sounds like a combination of a Jack in the Box from hell and the breathing from Friday the 13th (chee-chee-chee-ha-ha-ha).

The film was truly kept inside the family as it stars Fred Savage, his younger brother Ben Savage, and older sister Kala Savage (as a monster). In an even stranger casting choice, the father is played by Daniel Stern, who began narrating Savage’s TV show The Wonder Years one year earlier.

Before he was trading suitcases in  mainstream television gameshows, Howie Mandel was a well-known (many found him infamously annoying) germophobic comedian who gained national acclaim for blowing up medical gloves with his nose. Here he plays Maurice, the teenage jargon-spouting jokester with eccentricities similar to the titular character in Beetle Juice, but more adolescent and immature (if that’s possible).

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