A little while ago, on a fortuitous whim, I watched the 1989 Savage/Mandel joint Little Monsters with our 5-year-old son, Milo. I have very fond, very warm memories of this weird little flick. It was a regular on my movie rotation line-up when I was a youngster, most likely from ages 7 to 12.
And while Milo’s seen his fair share of non-animated, non-kiddie movies – including all three Ghostbusters installments – I hadn’t really considered the deep darkness and meanness in Little Monsters. Let’s be real – it’s totally kiddie horror in the vein of The Monster Squad. Yes, the audience skews young, but there’s some real shit to think about in there.
In case it’s been a while or, god forbid, you have not seen Little Monsters, here’s the gist (via IMDb):
“A child meets the monster that lives under his bed. He even becomes one of his best friends. Soon the child discovers a whole new world of fun and games under his bed where pulling pranks on kids and other monsters is the main attraction.”
That child is Brian (Fred Savage) and that monster is Maurice (Howie Mandel). And between the two of them, there’s a whole lot of questionable mischief going on.
Looking at the stuff Brian and Maurice do, there are three levels to their antics. Some of it is fairly harmless, i.e. putting peanut butter on a phone and blaming it on a poor random kid. Some of it feels justified like when they take revenge on bully Ronnie (played by Buzz McCallister himself, Devin Ratray). But really, what they did to Ronnie is pretty shitty – swapping out tuna for cat food on a sandwich and then pissing in the dude’s apple juice. Like I said, it feels justified, but really … it’s gross.
And then we get to the mean stuff. Against his bud’s better judgment, Maurice destroys Brian’s crush’s school report. His hand morphs into a rather gross looking dog which then shakily chews at the papers. It’s a disturbing, super-cool effect, but it starts to cross the line.
Brian reaches his trouble-making tipping point during one particular brutal scare session. It’s no longer about pranks and screwing with parents – hell, the parents (mostly) deserve the shit they get. But this time, his newfound monster friends simply want to terrorize a baby. Literally huddled around the unsuspecting tot’s crib, this fun loving crew growls and makes gruesome faces until the poor child is in frightened tears. And that’s enough to make Brian want to quit the monster gang. Which is good timing because he starting to turn into a night dwelling ghoul himself…
It’s certainly not unusual for kiddie entertainment — even PBS cartoons and sappy Pixar flicks — to have a bit of questionable behavior. That’s where the lessons/morals come into play. But what about the horror? There are two specific moments that come to mind in Little Monsters. This is the stuff was I suddenly nervous about showing my kid. (Because, you know, I did’t even really remember it until about 10 seconds before it was on screen.)
Scary make-up aside – they are monsters, after all – one big bad bully creature stands out: the late great Rick Ducommun (The Burbs) as Snik. First, he’s a shit. As a toadie to the number one villian, Snik is around to make sure the monster underworld abides by whatever unclear rules they have in place. And as the monster-like visuals go, Snik is pretty terrifying. He’s blue and spotted like Maurice, but he’s kind of shaped like a big egg. He has protruding lower fangs, no neck, and a big shell-like hump back. Snik also wears studded gloves and smokes – so, you know he’s a real bad ass. And while he has all of that going for him, he’s also scary AF.
In a cruel move, Snik breaks one of Maurice’s horns. But the real kicker happens when this bully corners a presumably newly turned monster (because the dude still has a normal kid’s head). Snik aggressively jabs him in the eye before ultimately ripping off his entire child-like head, replacing it with a doll’s head. Now, this right here made me a bit uncomfortable… with my 5-year old sitting next to me.
And then there is Boy (Frank Whaley, AKA freakin’ Arvid from Swing Kids). By adult standards, I would qualify Boy’s general presence and demeanor as creepy as shit. The guy is little soft spoken and polite, and also dresses like a school kid or Brian Johnson. But it’s literally all a facade because under the flesh, there’s a real monster with a tiny oozy, skin ripped face, and big bloodshot eyes. Boy – in his true form – is only there for a brief while, but holee shit. That’s horror. Henenlotter horror.
But it’s all OK
So, while there’s a good mixture of weird, scary, and even monster gore, it’s all OK because there’s also heart. Of course. And it’s not really about the actions and what’s right and wrong. This one is about friendship – between a boy and his monster. And, really, isn’t that all we can ask for?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Brian and Maurice’s final moments together, saying goodbye. There isn’t a lot of gooey dialogue, just a few simple sentiments. But they’re buds. Best buds. See for yourself:
So, maybe this one isn’t exactly made for 5-year-old’s, but I took a chance. And Milo adored it. It became regular viewing for a couple of weeks, and was the focus of a bunch artwork.
I was overjoyed when I witnessed our kid gingerly feel around under his bed to see if there really was an underground monster world. He may not have felt anything, but that didn’t stop him from setting up a barricade of books around his bed. You know, just in case.
As a parent, I live for these moments. It’s a magical feeling knowing that something that once influenced you as a child can still have that same effect on kids today – and specifically on your own kid. Next up: The Monster Squad. Very soon.