Saturday, June 27, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 81: Monster Squad (1976)

Developed by Stanley Ralph Ross, one of the talents behind the Adam West Batman series of 1960s, the live action TV series Monster Squad aired on Saturday mornings from September 11, 1976 to November 4, 1976.

The D'Angelo-Bullock-Allen production ran for thirteen half-hour episodes and over the long years has developed a cult following of sorts. Indeed, some Generation X-ers (myself included...) remember this one season program with fondness. Many kids of the era even played with Monster Squad ancillary products (such as a board game from Milton Bradley).

Over the decades, however, the Monster Squad TV series has frequently been mistaken for the 1980s cult film of the same name. But the story here is slightly different: the classic monsters (Dracula, Werewolf and Frankenstein Monster) appear as campy, tongue-in-cheek superheroes! In fact, the series exploits two trends from the pop culture of the disco era: a fascination with superheroes (seen in TV productions as diverse as Shazam, Isis, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman), and young Generation X's introduction to the Universal Monsters thanks to TV reruns of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and other classics on local stations around the country.

Monster Squad was finally released on DVD on June 23rd of this year. And you know what? After watching all the episodes, I kinda wish it had stayed buried in my memory instead of excavated for fresh reappraisal.

Monster Squad tells the story of Walt (Fred Grandy), a nerdy criminologist who wears a yellow sweater all the time, and during his off-hours at a Wax Museum, constructs a super "crime computer" (located in a vacant sarcophagus). The "oscillating vibrations" of this crime computer mysteriously bring to life three wax figures: Drac (Henry Polic II), Frank N. Stein (Michael Lane) and Bruce W. Wolf (Bruce Kartalian). Although these creatures are "cursed and feared" by mankind, they are nonetheless "determined to make up for their past misbehaving by fighting crime wherever they find it." This means, essentially, that Walt sends out the three monsters from their HQ, "The Chamber of Horrors," in a black van (with siren on the roof...) to hunt down nefarious no-goodniks threatening domestic tranquility.

One of those no-goodniks is "The Astrologer" (Jonathan Harris), a ninny who plants a "30-year old atomic bomb" in the "San Angelica" Fault (which is located somewhere between "Old McDonald Farm and Frankie Valley...") in order to make his prediction of an Earthquake come true. Dracula (code-named "Nightflyer") de-activates the bomb using instructions from a textbook titled "How to De-Fuse a 30 Year Old Atomic Bomb" and then kicks it, just to make sure the procedure worked. Meanwhile, Frankenstein and the Wolfman are incapacitated by the Astrologer's "Knock Out Drops."

Another villain is Queen Bee (Alice Ghostley), who -- in the tradition of Batman's Egghead (Vincent Price) or Catwoman (Julie Newmar) -- speaks in an endless string of puns related to her name. Here, every line of dialogue is a riff on the word "bee." You know, "Bee-lieve me," "bee-ware," "bee-dazzling" etc. Like every super-villain featured on the series, Queen Bee has exactly two henchmen, no more and no less. Her strategy is to take over the world with South American killer bees who, according to Walt, buzz with a "Spanish accent."

Monster Squad's other villains include Ultra Witch (Julie Newmar) -- who delivers an "ultra-matum," etc., Mr. Mephisto, who creates an evil doll of the city mayor so as to raise property taxes 1000%, and on and on. If you've seen one episode of the 1960s Batman, you get the idea in short order. Monster Squad appropriates that Batman playbook with glee, down to the obsessive labeling of every "super device" (from the crime computer to a typewriter, to an atom bomb). Even the cliffhanger aspect of the Batman series has been retained here, with almost every Monster Squad episode featuring the monsters getting caught in a terrible trap before escaping. In "The Astrologer," for instance, Frankenstein Monster and the Wolfman get caught in a giant clam named Carlo.

Accompanied by an incessant and insanity-provoking laugh track, Monster Squad makes Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl look like the epitome of high art. The special guest villains are encouraged to over-act to the point of madness and beyond (and believe me, you don't want to see Jonathan Harris overact to the point of madness...), and the titular monsters are mostly just fang-less, toothless boobs...reduced to silly shtick. It's kind of ignoble, really, especially if you are a fan of the Universal monsters. Even the Abbott and Costello flick treats these screen ghouls with more respect.

Monster Squad functions best today as a time capsule of sorts. Much of the humor is aimed at adults, and references events of the Bicentennial Era. For instance, various episodes poke fun at Barbara Walters ("The Astrologer"), Sonny and Cher ("Ultra-Witch"), Smokey the Bear ("Queen Bee"), or involve Cold War jibes about Russia ("Queen Bee") and even the Energy Crisis and OPEC ("Ultra-Witch). Unlike Batman, however, Monster Squad isn't really very amusing and it certainly isn't produced with the same verve. Honestly, it's more headache-inducing than entertaining

It's also a cheap-jack production. One prop that gets used again and again is the Mego Star Trek communicator/walkie-talkie. This recognizable toy serves as Walt's remote control for his crime computer and also (painted pink...) as the Queen Bee's radio transmitter. And the timer on that 30-year old atom bomb looks like a paper board game spinner stuck to the device. Yikes! I know shows were produced cheaply, but each Monster Squad episode features only two or three sets: the Chamber of Horrors dungeon and the villain hq, usually.

I absolutely adored Monster Squad when I was seven years old, but after watching it again as an almost-40 year old, I am reminded that all live-action Saturday morning TV series are not created equal. At the top of the hierarchy is Sid and Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost, which remains watchable, consistent and intelligent (and which doesn't talk down to children...). A rung below that is such expensively-crafted, visually-dazzling Filmation fare such as Space Academy, Ark II and Jason of Star Command.

Monster Squad lands somewhere near the bottom of the Saturday morning barrel. If Batman isn't available, and you can't find Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl, Monster Squad might suffice for a seven year old in a pinch. But otherwise, this is a really dire show. Watching the opening credits montage, and hearing the theme song again gave me a real nostalgic thrill, but once you get over your fond memories and settle down with the actual program, you're bound to be disappointed.

Why couldn't Will Ferrell have starred in a remake of this Saturday morning program instead of Land of the Lost? As silly, inconsequential and tongue-in-cheek as it is, Monster Squad is perfect material for him.


  1. I loved this show as a kid and always believed that if I had a chance I'd pick up the series. But now that it's available, I realize that it's a show I really don't want to relive.

  2. Hey Jeff,'s one of those things. The memory is better than the production; and you may just prefer to leave the memory unsullied.

    I'm going to sell my disc set. Cheap! :)