Video Rewind tells the stories behind forgotten VHS favorites from the video store era, one rental at a time! This month’s movie is 1989’s “Little Monsters”.
Andrew Licht and Jeffrey A. Mueller met in 1980 at the University of Southern California while attending the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program. The program was named after the late son of producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl, Annie, Steel Magnolias), and aimed to teach participants all about the film business. Upon graduating, Licht and Mueller formed the Licht/Mueller Film Corporation, which, according to Licht, consisted of business cards and a phone in his apartment. The producing duo would eventually sign a deal with Warner Bros. that included an official office on the studio lot in Burbank, California.
Word spread that the young producers were willing to read everything and anything, and the Licht/Mueller Film Corporation was soon flooded with scripts. After producing their first feature film, the 1988 Corey Haim/Corey Feldman comedy License to Drive (future films would include Waterworld, The Cable Guy, and Idle Hands), the producers found a script that stood out from the rest. Although that particular script was ultimately rejected, it was so well written that Licht and Mueller set up a meeting with its writers, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot.
They asked the writing duo what other ideas they had, and after 7 different pitches, they offered a story that caught the attention of Licht and Mueller: a story about a boy who discovers monsters under his bed.
While Licht and Mueller gave notes on the pages that came in from Rossio and Elliot as they worked on the script for Little Monsters, the producers had Fred Savage in mind for the lead role from day one. Savage, 12 at the time, was a child actor in high demand, having starred in The Princess Bride in 1987 and more recently as Kevin Arnold in the hit, critically acclaimed debut season of The Wonder Years. Playing the role of Kevin Arnold would garner Savage two Golden Globe and two Emmy Award nominations for a lead performance in a television series, earning him the distinction of being the youngest nominee for that category in the history of both award shows.
While on break from The Wonder Years, Savage would play the role of Brian Stevenson in Little Monsters when filming began in August of 1988.
Brian is a boy who just moved to a new town and feels lonely without any friends. Sneaking out of his room one night to watch late night TV and eat a peanut butter and onion sandwich (eyebrow raising, but Brian’s favorite), leads to Brian getting blamed the next morning for a string of incidents the boy insists he did not do.
But when his mom, Holly Stevenson (played by Margaret Whitton) finds the evidence of the half eaten peanut butter and onion sandwich left on the couch, his story is hard to believe. Who else could have been up for a midnight snack? Who else could have accidentally put the ice cream in the cupboard instead of the fridge, causing it to melt and fall out all over Brian’s dad, making him late to work? Who else would have left Brian’s bike out in front of the garage, causing his already-late-to-work dad to hit it with his car while backing out, breaking the tail light?
Brian says he didn’t do it, but certainly it wasn’t the monster his little brother screamed was under his bed the night before, right?
Playing Brian’s dad, Glen Stevenson, is Daniel Stern, an actor who shares an interesting connection to Fred Savage in The Wonder Years.
Although Stern is never seen throughout the 6 season run of the hit TV show, he provides the pivotal voice-over narration of the adult Kevin Arnold looking back on his childhood as a young boy, who Savage portrays on the show. Daniel Stern has the perfect demeanor to effectively pull off the role as Brian’s stressed, overworked father. The actor can turn on that crazy glint in his eye in a nanosecond, giving the impression of a stern (stern, get it?) father figure who is often hard on Brian. But Stern also possesses that natural goofball quality, turning into the corny but loving father who really does care for his kids.
There’s a scene where Glen jokes around and tickles Brian while putting him to bed that was reportedly improvised by Stern, with the smiling and laughing from Savage being a genuine reaction. He’s a good actor in the way he can play both sides of the role like that, and his performance, like that improvised moment, deepens the story by layering the relationship between father and son.
Brian’s troubles continue as he gets into a fight with the school bully, Ronnie, played by Devin Ratray. One year after Little Monsters, Ratray would be forever known as Buzz, the older, constantly teasing brother to Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin in Home Alone, the biggest box office hit of 1990 (also starring Daniel Stern).
The one benefit of getting into a fight with the school bully is it indirectly leads to Brian talking to a fellow classmate named Kiersten (Amber Barretto). The interaction goes well, and Brian is feeling pretty good having potentially made a new friend.
Back at home, Brian’s younger brother, Eric, still insists he saw a monster in his room the night before.
Brian thinks he is being ridiculous, so Eric and his friend Todd (William Murray Weiss) bet Brian money to spend the night in Eric’s room and see for himself (keep an eye out for the License to Drive poster).
The role of Eric came down to one young actor who the filmmakers thought was terrific and essentially perfect for the role. The one thing that held back producer Andrew Licht from hiring him was the kid looked nothing like Fred Savage, and it was important to Licht that the two brothers in the film resembled each other. So Macaulay Culkin was passed on in favor of Fred’s real life brother, Ben Savage.
While Culkin would take Hollywood by storm with Home Alone, Ben Savage wouldn’t do too bad for himself either. Like his brother Fred in The Wonder Years, Ben landed the lead role in the coming of age sitcom Boy Meets World in 1993, which became a hit and ran for 7 seasons. Ben would again play Margaret Whitton’s son in the 1992 film Big Girls Don’t Cry…They Get Even.
A determined Brian tries to lure out this alleged monster by setting up booby traps and laying out Doritos around the bed. Who can resist Doritos? In the middle of the night, crunching can be heard, the booby traps collapse the bed, and the monster is trapped in the room!
Brian is rightfully scared at first (this is a monster, after all), and armed with a flashlight he learns that light hurts the monster and turns him into a pile of clothes. What Brian quickly realizes is this “monster” isn’t anything to be afraid of. It has sharp teeth and blue skin, but it’s really nothing more than a leather vest-wearing, goofy teenager just looking to have some fun.
During pre-production, when designs for the monsters were drawn up and finalized, the filmmakers had a good idea who they wanted for the energetic and crucial role of Maurice, the blue monster who would befriend Brian.
In April 1977, Howie Mandel was in a comedy club and was dared to go on stage by his friends. With no act prepared, he accepted and was spotted by a producer in the crowd. This chance meeting led to a successful stand-up career for Mandel, as well as writing, producing, and appearances in television and film (the little noises that Gizmo makes in Gremlins is Mandel). In 1990, Mandel would become a Saturday morning superstar to kids everywhere as the creator and star of the hit cartoon Bobby’s World, which would air for 7 seasons.
Mandel was a comic veteran and known to audiences as Dr. Wayne Fiscus (alongside Denzel Washington) on the TV show St. Elsewhere by the time he was offered Little Monsters in 1988. The role of Maurice was based on his stand up, with Mandel just being himself and energetically riffing.
Mandel bounces around the room like a popped wine cork using the space and objects in the room for comedic opportunity. Maurice sits on the bed next to Brian, scooching closer and closer, smooshing him against the wall more and more as he frantically talks. Another moment finds Maurice getting wedged while standing up between the slanted, attic bedroom ceiling and the floor, trying to wiggle loose and needing to push off the ceiling with his hands to free himself. All the while, Maurice flies around Brian’s room, turning his attention to this and that in a hurricane of activity and voices.
In this way, Mandel’s Maurice is a lot like another lively blue character played once again by a frenzied, improvising comic: the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin, voiced by the legendary Robin Williams.
In addition to sharing high energy and blue-skinned characteristics, Maurice and the Genie shared the same writers, with both Little Monsters and Aladdin being written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot (they also wrote Shrek and The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). In addition to the characteristic connection between Mandel and Williams, there’s a little nod to Williams and his famous line “Goooood morning, Vietnaaaamm,” from Good Morning, Vietnam (1988) when Brian’s teacher yells, “Gooood morning, Mr. Stevensoooon,” as he struggles to stay awake at his desk after a long night of monstrous mischief with Maurice.
This mischief takes place over the course of several nights after Brian befriends Maurice and joins him for prank filled adventures as the two journey through the monster underworld.
The gateway to this underworld is under the bed, but only a monster can get through, unless you’re invited by one — as is the case with Brian. The two enter several houses and set up pranks within (peanut butter on the earpiece of the phone, shaving the dog, etc). Remember Ronnie, the bully that Brian got into a fight with earlier? He didn’t enjoy his cat litter sandwich the next day at lunch, nor did he care for the urine that Maurice swapped out his apple juice for. Gave the whole school a good laugh when he spit it out though, and the bully got a taste of his own medicine, which apparently was urine flavored.
The monster underworld itself is a dimly lit and dizzying, endless dark warehouse full of countless tall, twisting spider web connected wooden pallet staircases that lead up to underneath the beds of children all over the world. The monsters run amok doing what they want, much like kids without adult supervision. They play all the video games they want and eat endless buffets of hamburgers, junk food, and soda.
The set of the underworld was constructed and filmed in a huge abandoned building that was formerly the Roanoke Cement Factory in Castle Hayne, North Carolina, just outside of Wilmington where production took place (fun fact: Weekend at Bernie’s was filming in the area at the same time, and the cast and crew of both films stayed in the same hotel). The abandoned factory was hot and stuffy, and a lot of the crew wore masks to protect themselves from dust and potential mold spores in the air.
It’s clear to see that Fred Savage is genuinely enjoying himself during the filming of these scenes, being mischievous with the older and cool, Mandel.
Savage said he found Mandel to be so funny that he had to try constantly not to laugh during filming. He also said that he learned a lot about improvisation by just watching Mandel work. In turn, Mandel also appears to be having a blast, relishing the opportunity to be so off the wall. Fred Savage had his family flown out to live in Wilmington during production and the co-stars bonded off screen as well. Since the Savages and Mandel are both Jewish, they celebrated religious holidays and ate dinner together almost nightly while filming. This camaraderie and chemistry between Savage and Mandel is very apparent in the film, and their relationship is the absolute heart of Little Monsters.
As much fun as Mandel is having on screen as the blue-skinned, mohawked Maurice, there was one major issue the funnyman experienced during filming that luckily doesn’t show up in his performance.
The actor has said that Maurice was a wonderful role and everyone on set was great, but the painstaking process of transforming into Maurice was almost too much for the actor to handle. Mandel, a known germaphobe with ADHD, was not pleased with the makeup application process that took up to 4 hours to complete. “I can’t sit,” the star explained, “but you have to sit. Not only was it four hours of sitting, but four hours of — I don’t want to be touched. I thought I was going to snap.”
Mandel also stated that the process made it difficult to get into the mindset of his character saying, “once I was finished, I had to be this happy and joyful Maurice. I really wasn’t that happy and joyful. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into.” Once done with filming for the day, Mandel’s nightmare continued as the makeup took an hour to remove. “It was glued on me and my skin.” The experience was borderline torture for Mandel. “It was nice and I met a lot of nice people, but physically it almost killed me.”
In charge of the special makeup effects was Robert Short, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Beetlejuice, sharing the top prize with Ve Neill and Steve LaPorte.
Short originally wanted to be a stuntman, but didn’t have it in him to leap off of buildings and really put himself in harm’s way.
He got the job on Little Monsters because Alan Munro was the visual effects supervisor on Beetlejuice. And when Munro was hired to work on Little Monsters, he brought Short along with him. Short remembers Mandel as a complete professional on set, always asking if his character was coming through the makeup and being game for the application process. So while Mandel was in secret torment while being transformed into Maurice, the actor, according to Short, never complained and was devoted to giving a good performance as Maurice.
The mischievous fun of pulling pranks all night on unsuspecting children with Maurice and other monsters begins to take its toll on Brian. He struggles to stay awake in school, wearing sunglasses to hide his sleeping eyes. But one night the monsters go too far, scaring a newborn baby against Brian’s insistence not to, and when Maurice rips Kiersten’s homework to shreds thinking it’s funny, Brian questions the intentions of his new friends. But it’s here where Brian has a startling revelation as he runs through the night back to his house, having left Maurice and the monsters behind. When Eric’s friend Todd shines a flashlight from his tree house on Brian while running through his backyard, Brian’s arm shrinks and twists up to nothing but clothes indicating that he himself is slowly turning into a monster!
Although Maurice genuinely cares for Brian, the plan was to turn Brian into a monster (because all monsters are former children), and have him live in the underworld and pull nightly pranks with the rest of the little monsters.
Maurice failing to do this angers Snik, the right hand man to the leader of the monster underworld. Snik isn’t like Maurice, he’s a much more cruel, more evil-hearted monster. So to please Boy, the leader of the underworld, Snik enters the Stevenson home and kidnaps Brian’s brother Eric.
Playing Snik is Rick Ducommun a very strong comedic co-star known mostly for playing Tom Hanks’s neighbor in The ‘Burbs and father to Anna Faris’s Cindy in Scary Movie.
In an amazing coincidence, Ducommun started in comedy the same way Mandel had. While at a comedy club in Vancouver, Ducommun was dared to go up on stage by friends and try to do stand-up comedy. He was asked back and bitten by the show business bug, and like Mandel, Ducommun began playing clubs in Canada.
While filming Little Monsters, Ducommun also went through a transformative makeup process turning him into the hot-tempered, testosterone filled Snik, a thick, boorish mess of a monster with long hair, no neck, and a fanged under bite. Robert Short recalls Ducommun as a total gentleman who also never complained while going through the tedious makeup process. With 50 film credits to his name, Ducommun would pass away in 2015 at the age of 62.
At this point in the film Brian recruits Todd, Kiersten, and, in an extension of the olive branch, even Ronnie the bully to enter the monster underworld and rescue Eric. Since Kiersten has access to the janitor and supply closets at school, the trio arm themselves with several bright lights to shine away any monsters that get in their way, turning them instantly into clothes. As the kids march toward their big showdown with Boy, Maurice, being a true friend to Brian, agrees to help them get to the staircase that leads to his secret room (filmed not in the Roanoke Cement Factory but at Wilmington’s Screen Gems Studios).
There’s a cool scene that was cut from the film here that had the kids battling through a gauntlet of evil puppets while trying to get to Boy. Sounds like it could have been a really fun scene, but trimming the film’s run time found it on the cutting room floor.
Played by Frank Whaley, an acclaimed stage actor who would establish the theater company Malaparte in 1991 with friend Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Steve Zahn, Boy is a delicate looking and soft spoken schoolboy.
But further inspection shows the rotting skin on his hands and around his face, and we soon discover the villain has another person’s skin wrapped around his body covering his true, rotted self. This includes a face wrapped around his skull and tied in the back, an unexpected precursor to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. We see Boy in all his glory when Brian shines a light on Boy’s face, revealing a nightmare inducing, slime covered, rotted out face with unblinking, red eyes. The makeup effects are outstanding, and Boy truly is one of the scariest looking villains in any kids movie.
It’s a hell of a moment for the kids flick, and one of many scary (and very impressive makeup jobs) that could open a young kids imagination to horror. And that is why LITTLE MONSTERS is such a wonderful movie. It’s a kids flick shot like an adult movie.
This is exactly what Vestron was going for when they suggested Richard Alan Greenberg to direct the film (Brad Bird was originally brought on board, who would later find great success with The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). Greenberg had a background in special effects, having worked on Xanadu, Ladyhawke, and Predator. Greenberg wanted Little Monsters filmed like Beetlejuice with as many in camera effects as possible, a presentation that gave Little Monsters that extra something special. Greenberg recently passed away in 2018.
Setting up the many practical effects day after day pushed back production and made Vestron nervous about the film going over budget. Making matters worse was a set catching fire and burning down, destroying many of the costumes. Little did the cast and crew know, Vestron was on the brink of bankruptcy. Although Vestron produced a trailer that was advertised on some of their VHS releases at the time, the production company ultimately had to sell the distribution rights for Little Monsters to MGM and United Artists. The timing of this move didn’t leave much money to market the film and disrupted the initial plan for a wide release.
Opening in limited release on August 25, 1989, Little Monsters debuted in 179 theaters.
The lack of advertising and awareness of the film severely hindered its box office potential, resulting in a meager $253,834 opening weekend. Little Monsters opened one spot below a comedy-crime movie starring Peter Falk (Savage’s Princess Bride co-star) called Cookie, which debuted the same weekend in almost 100 fewer theaters (a film that Little Monsters director Richard Greenberg designed the main and end titles for). By the end of its theatrical run, the movie made less than 15% of it’s $7 million budget back, topping out at $793,775.
A VHS promo video from 1990 urged video stores and retailers to meet the “high demand” for Little Monsters by declaring it had the “magic of The NeverEnding Story and the zaniness of Beetlejuice!” Suggested retail is only $89.95 per video cassette!
The “high demand” wasn’t there, and when the film hit VHS and rental stores on April 2 1990, Little Monsters still couldn’t find an audience. The film debuted at #22 on the Billboard videocassette rental charts, fading out of the top 40 a mere 5 weeks later. It wasn’t until the film was shown on cable when Little Monsters began to be seen by audiences throughout the early to mid 90s, slowly building a cult following that endures to this day.
At the end of Little Monsters, during their inevitable goodbye, Maurice tells Brian, “remember, where there’s a bed, there’s a way.”
The film certainly did find its way eventually, making an impression on the kids who watched it on VHS or cable. This connection with the movie can be attributed to the fact that Little Monsters doesn’t play down to its young target audience, choosing instead to be straight with them by being openly scary and showing the frustration and loneliness that often comes with growing up. This theme is mirrored in Brian’s parents, showing the frustration and loneliness of being an overworked, stressed adult in a potentially failing marriage.