Monstrous is set in a small, idyllic California town sometime near the end of the 1950s and the start of the 60s, if the film’s sets and costumes and oldies soundtrack are any indication. There’s a sort of nostalgic comfort for Americans in reminiscing about those “good ol’ days”, filled with color and whimsy and an almost romantic kind of naïveté; a detachment from the man-made horrors that we can’t seem to escape from in the modern day.
But the reality is that there were, of course, still plenty of avenues for terror to penetrate the era’s outward suburban bliss. Taking off the rose-colored lens is only part of what director Chris Sivertson and writer Carol Chrest have in mind with Monstrous, a film that resides somewhere between supernatural horror, psychological thriller, family drama and creature feature. While it doesn’t quite explore every idea to a satisfying degree, it does make an admirable attempt and deliver a pair of noteworthy performances along the way.
The film begins with newly single mother Laura (Christina Ricci) driving through the country with her seven-year-old son Cody (Santino Barnard) in tow. The two arrive out in the plains of California, far from where they used to call home. There’s an adjustment period as mother and son try to settle into their new remote house, which stands tall next to the nearby picturesque pond. Cody has a hard time making friends at school and is desperately homesick, while Laura is stretched thin between a new job and caring for her boy. Add in the stress of why exactly the two have moved so far away in the first place and it’s a recipe for eventual disaster.
Monstrous takes its time in ramping up the tension and revealing its secrets. As the days go by, seemingly trivial yet strange occurrences begin to occur in the house. The television goes in and out. Doors lock by themselves. Ghostly footsteps echo through the halls and make the floorboards creak. But what at first appears to be a classic case of a haunted house becomes a bit more complicated when Cody visits the pond one evening only to encounter a mysterious and threatening entity that emerges from it. And it begins visiting him every night.
Dealing with her son’s nightly terrors and claims of a monster in the house only exacerbate the strain on Laura as she struggles to keep things together. Frequent calls from her ex-husband – who shouldn’t even have her new number – add to her paranoia, as do the impatient and judgemental eyes of landlady Mrs. Langtree (Colleen Camp). As her mind steadily begins to fray at the edges, Laura’s cheery facade starts to fade as the overwhelming demands placed upon her threaten to become too much for any one person to handle.
What’s obvious from the start is how in control Ricci is of the entire picture. The film hinges almost entirely on her performance and she delivers in spades, crafting a fully realized character that highlights her complications and contradictions just as much as it garners empathy. The film wisely reveals the intricacies of its story through select flashbacks and subtle bits of dialogue rather than monotonous exposition. The more we learn about Laura and what led her and Cody to California, the more complex their story becomes, and Laura can also start to be considered a somewhat unreliable narrator with buried secrets of her own.
The twists and turns of Monstrous’ slow burn of a story is what will keep audiences reeled in and guessing as to the actual nature of Laura and Cody’s plight, but all of that intriguing setup ultimately leads to a bit of a lackluster ending. The film’s biggest reveal is a solid bit of fun, but the implications of it never really become realized, leaving what should feel like crucial emotional moments to fall flat, or at least inhibited. The more interesting ideas are the ones that end up feeling undercooked and the film’s tone never quite manages to become as harrowing as it ought to be.
If not for a reliably strong and layered performance from Ricci, Monstrous could come and go without a second thought. But the work she’s doing in the role is worth the uneven moments of storytelling, and even gives the film enough merits to warrant a second watch.
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Christina Ricci is the not-so-secret weapon of Monstrous, whose performance makes up for the film’s at times lackluster execution of its various intriguing ideas.
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