‘Monstrous’ review

From family favorites “Casper” and “The Addams Family” to darker features like “Sleepy Hollow” and “Cursed,” Christina Ricci has rightfully secured her status as Scream Queen. (Ricci’s cannibalistic Showtime horror-dramedy series “Yellowjackets” is still on my to-watch list.) Screen Media’s “Monstrous,” directed by Chris Sivertson (“All Cheerleaders Die”), furthers her horror filmography.

I tried to avoid spoilers about “Monstrous” before watching, but I knew the synopsis: Laura (Ricci) flees from her abusive ex-husband with her seven-year-old son Cody. Still traumatized as they settle into their new life, they soon encounter a new terrifying horror that threatens their already fragile existence. Despite vowing to steer clear of spoilers, I read through Facebook comments. A few people theorized that the monster might be a metaphor for the ex-husband, so I kept that in mind and prepared for a “Babadook-type” film. I love “The Babadook,” so I was more than okay if it went in that direction.

Ricci delivers a fantastic (and tear-jerking) performance. My friend Anthony Yb and I agreed that, had the film starred someone with maybe a little less caliber, it might not have the same draw or appeal. Ricci is a popular actress and many of us grew up with her movies; she’ll be a huge reason people see the film. Her character Laura is jovial and bright, much like the yellow sweater she wears. She’s hoping for a fresh start and a better life for her son Cody (Santino Barnard). She treats the move-in to their secluded country house like a fairytale, marveling at the elegant wallpaper and the possibilities. Cody’s room overlooks an inviting lake. But Cody’s uneasy about something. The viewer could easily dismiss this as nervousness about being in a new living situation.

Something’s Not Right
“Monstrous” is set in the 1950s. This is shown through Laura’s turquoise Chevrolet, the music, the lighting, and the outfits – the polka-dot dresses and Laura’s teal/pink/yellow combinations. Her home décor is high-end and stylish, pulled from her home living and fashion magazines. The kitchen appliances are sleek and top-of-the-line, all included with the house.

Under all that charm though, something’s wrong. There’s lots of distortion – scenes are filmed through layers of glass, fabric, and water. In a dream at the start of the movie, we see Cody through ripples of water. Cody wakes, hides under his blanket with his flashlight, and through the fabric, faintly sees his mother approach him. Laura chats with Cody during the drive to their new home and the scene’s filmed through the windshield. We also don’t see much of Cody’s face in the first few scenes – he’s hiding under a blanket, or his head’s looking out the car window. Even when Laura meets the property manager, we don’t see his face as he walks up to her. So, the tone from the start is that things are veiled, unclear, not what they seem.

Cody’s initial scenes also seem blue, gray, and gloomy, while Laura’s are soft, warm, and “bubblegum-happy.” Right away this sunshine-jolliness and gloomy-gray battling with each other puts you on alert.

A Slow and Secretive Start
The story initially proceeds slow, simple, and minimalistic. We aren’t given lots of details at first about Laura’s past, her ex-husband, or her reasons for moving. The viewer can only guess what the ex-husband did. We’re going by what little Laura reveals to us. This reminded me of Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” (2020) in that we have to trust the character’s unseen experiences as fact while they’re leading us on this journey. We have no reason not to believe that Laura’s ex-husband did something awful, we just don’t know what. We do know that under her happy exterior, she’s trying to keep everything as bright and cheery as possible.

There are slow tell-tale signs that Laura is hiding something. She has a box of mini-vodka bottles in her room. Okay, fine, no big deal. At this early point in the film, she doesn’t show signs of an alcohol dependency. But the yellow home telephone she refuses to answer? Something’s up. We learn it’s her ex-husband, and the “monster coming for us” seems like it could represent the ex, as theorized by the internet.

The Lake Monster
As with most supernatural films, something slowly starts to make itself known. Cody sees something outside his window, the TV breaks, and lights flicker – basic paranormal stuff. The film escalates in a way that you know something is coming and biding its time. Meanwhile, Laura convinces herself that everything’s under control.

There are some well-done creepy moments with the mysterious lake wraith. While Laura’s outside looking around, we see it crawling up the side of the house. Sometimes the creature will use a window to enter, and other times it’ll emerge from a puddle inside the house. (There’s never a moment where Laura spills water and the creature appears that way – that would’ve been cool.) Sometimes the creature uses a woman’s voice, and other times it sounds like a squealing pig. The viewer is left with lots of questions and head-scratching, and rightfully so. This is definitely one of those movies where you’re supposed to be confused – but confusion eventually becomes clarity.

Cody draws “the pretty lady” from the pond, something that has certainly been overdone in horror films (the kid drawing something creepy and unsettling). However, it’s probably realistic that a child would process traumatic experiences through drawing and through art.

The demon befriending the child is also a trope that has been done quite a few times in supernatural horror films. The kid is tricked so the demon can get closer to the family and establish a connection, then it latches on, and the family has to figure out how to vanquish it (an Exorcist, paranormal investigator, or psychic medium will usually do). I actually like that the church doesn’t get involved because I didn’t want to watch another cookie-cutter paranormal film. The thing is, those elements are certainly there, and you think you’re watching a regular haunted house film, but there’s lots of purposeful confusion and misdirects. “Monstrous” eventually pulls the rug out from under you.

Bait and Switch
As “Monstrous” progresses, your perception of events constantly shift as the layers peel back. Those moments you were confused by the monster or by Cody? You were supposed to be. We also start to question if Laura’s just seeing things, but in Cody’s scenes where he’s alone, he sees things too. Having that extra set of eyes, and us seeing things when Laura can’t (like the creature crawling up the side of the house), gives credibility that this is happening – but there’s still a missing puzzle piece. What aren’t we being told? Watching “Monstrous” is a constant search for the truth.

At the surface level, “Monstrous” depicts a terrified single parent trying to make ends meet, trying to rebuild her life even when the odds seem stacked against her. The property manager’s wife (the impeccable Colleen Camp) often makes life miserable for Laura. At her breaking point, Laura has a night of drinking, smoking, and browsing fashion magazines. She clearly wants to have it “together” and craves a picturesque life, as depicted from the happy families and models in her magazines. It’s clear that Laura’s trying to escape from something – it could be her husband, it could be the monster, or it could be something else entirely. And while the viewer searches for this truth, Laura runs from it.

“Monstrous” contains lots of purposeful confusion and, as my friend Anthony says, “bait and switch.” The movie ultimately has you asking:

  1. Do we have an unreliable narrator?
  2. Is Laura’s ex-husband coming for her?
  3. Is there actually a monster? If so, what does it want?
  4. Is Laura having a breakdown? If so, is it caused by the monster or something else?
  5. Could a combination of these things be true?

    On top of the horror, “Monstrous” is most definitely part-drama and part-mystery. I think you’ll be surprised, shocked, and even saddened as you unravel the story.

    For further watching, other films that came to mind while viewing “Monstrous” include “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” “Black Sabbath” (“A Drop of Water” and “The Telephone” stories), “The Voices,” “The Babadook,” “The Monster,” “Lake Mungo,” “The Uninvited,” “The Dark and the Wicked,” “The Prodigy,” “Hide and Seek,” “The Drownsman,” and “The Invisible Man.”

    “Monstrous” releases in the U.S. on May 13th. A special shout-out to my friend Anthony Yb, creator of the horror podcast Fatal Follower Presents, for sharing the screener with me. Check out our companion episode where we chat about “Monstrous,” coming soon!

    Rating: 4.5/5 stars

    Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan in Massachusetts. He contributes film reviews regularly and supports independent horror films through social media. His flash-fiction tale “The Shell” is featured in the DarkLit Press anthology “Beach Bodies.”

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