In today’s TV landscape, horror fans are spoiled across all platforms when it comes to the type of programming they have to choose from. Long before Netflix, or even cable for that matter, horror shows weren’t produced as abundantly as they are today and finding a show with a decent amount of suspense in it could be stretch. Shows like THE ADDAMS FAMILY and THE MUNSTERS, or even Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows like FRANKENSTEIN JR. AND THE IMPOSSIBLES and SCOOBY-DOO, made monsters more accessible on a semi-regular basis. SCOOBY-DOO in particular was played for both scares and laughs, even adding a laugh track for effect. It seemed like a no-brainer that a show in that wheelhouse and in live action form would eventually emerge, and it did in 1976 with MONSTER SQUAD.
The show featured the exploits of a young criminology student named Walt (Fred Grandy, better known as Gopher from LOVE BOAT). While working overnight as a watchman at “Fred’s Wax Museum”, he builds a sophisticated crime computer, hiding it in an artificial sarcophagus and passing it off as part of the exhibit. Once the machine is turned on, oscillating vibrations cause three of the wax figures to come to life: Dracula (Henry Polic II), The Wolfman (Buck Kartalian – billed as Bruce W. Wolf, the W standing for Were), and Frankenstein’s Monster (Michael Lane, billed as “Frank N. Stein”). Wanting to atone for their devious pasts, they decide to help Walt in his quest to fight crime throughout the city.
Based upon the premise alone, you would think that the show would have been dead in the water, but just the opposite happened. Airing on Saturday mornings on NBC, it was a big hit, and had merchandise to go with it, including coloring books and a board game. Unfortunately, it only ran for a single season of 13 episodes from September to December of 1976 before having the plug pulled on it once its popularity began to wane. Incidentally, Hanna-Barbera later came up with an animated show containing a similar premise called DRAK PACK.
Looking back at MONSTER SQUAD today, it’s clear that the folks behind it were aggressively going for a young audience. It’s stacked to the brim with corny one-liners, chintzy props and costumes, over-the-top villains, and even moral lessons. The monsters themselves are mostly bumbling buffoons who, despite their drawbacks as cartoonish nincompoops, manage to come through in the end and get the bad guys (or bad gals in some cases).
With the aforementioned crime computer, eccentric baddies, and even utility belts, it’s not difficult to figure out that the show was aping the BATMAN TV show formula. It’s not much of a surprise either being that many of the same people behind the scenes, including the writers, worked on both shows; not to mention that Julie Newmar, who is universally known as Catwoman, plays one of the villains. By the way, those utility belts that the monsters wear did not go to waste. They contained CB communicators with the Squad using the codenames “Nightflyer” (Dracula), “Furball” (Bruce), “Green Machine” (Frank), and “Chamber of Horrors” (Walt).
Speaking of villains, check out this roster, or Rogues Gallery if you will: Queen Bee, Mr. Mephisto, The Tickler, The Ringmaster, Music Man, No Face, The Astrologer, Ultra Witch, The Wizard, The Skull, The Weatherman, Lawrence of Moravia, and Albert/Alberta… talk about cheese.
Some of the folks playing these villains are also familiar; for instance, the parts of No Face and Chief Running Nose are played by none other than Sid Haig, while Geoffrey Lewis, a character actor who most horror fans remember from SALEM’S LOT, portrays The Skull.
The biggest revelation of all though is David Proval, who is not much more than a henchman in the No Face episode. Proval is actually the only actor who walks between worlds. In THE MONSTER SQUAD movie, which has nothing to do with this show at all, Proval is one of the pilots of the airplane that’s carrying Frankenstein’s Monster’s coffin. In a sense, that makes him the key to the MONSTER SQUAD multiverse. Trippy, huh?
While MONSTER SQUAD predates that movie by 11 years, it’s been overshadowed and is a mostly forgotten TV show that’s only been (as of this writing) released on DVD once, now long out of print. It’s strange that a show that was mega popular when it first aired has been otherwise discarded, even by the adults who saw it as kids. Indeed, I had never heard of the show myself until I came across a random clip on Youtube of the show’s opening credit sequence. I was both instantly intrigued and flabbergasted at how I had never even heard of it before. I bought a copy of it right away and I’m glad that I did because getting one now would, sadly, not be a cheap venture.
Truth be told though, pretty much everything about MONSTER SQUAD doesn’t exactly hold up. It’s an interesting piece of TV history that has a lot of old school charm to it, but nothing that anyone born in 1995 and beyond would probably be interested in. Besides the entire premise itself being kooky and the monsters serving as figures of fun, the diabolical plans of the villains turn out to be, well, not very diabolical. For instance, The Tickler (which predates that creepy documentary by many years) simply wants to get revenge against the Squad by tickling them to death, or something. All of these villains also have two blundering and ineffective henchmen by their side. It’s all very one dimensional.
Musically, the show is nothing to write home about either. The one saving grace is the main theme, which is upbeat and catchy, something that you’ll probably be humming afterwards. It’s similar in style to the BATMAN TV show theme, but with more of a late 1970s feel. It’s also worth noting that during certain moments in the show, particularly when one of the villains is up to no good, musical similarities to the PINK PANTHER theme can be heard, which is just bizarre.
While watching MONSTER SQUAD, you have to keep reminding yourself that it wasn’t meant for you. It was aimed squarely at ten-year-olds, which is fine, but it doesn’t lend itself much to a grown-up horror fan. However inept it may seem though, making fun of it seems unfair. There’s very little defense for it, but it’s pleasant and made with enough good intentions that you can enjoy it for what it is. It’s a fascinating little time capsule of an era when even the simplest of ideas could be utilized. They certainly don’t make them like this anymore… they wouldn’t dare. It’s also bittersweet that the show was popular enough to get its own board game, but not a second season.