Director: Chris Sivertson
Stars: Christina Ricci, Colleen Camp, Santino Barnard
Fleeing from an evidently abusive husband with her son Cody (Santino Barnard), pretty-’50s housewife Laura (Christina Ricci) takes up residence in a spacious farmhouse out in the rolling hills of California. While Cody struggles making friends at his new school, Laura starts to feel relatively at ease. She takes a job in a typing pool that she sounds jolly about – at least at first – while the house (recognisable to viewers of Annabelle Creation or season two of Carnivàle) is filled with the cheery sounds of bygone radio ads for Hotpoint washers. Indeed, their insistence and repetition becomes one of the first uncomfortable itches director Chris Sivertson makes damned difficult to scratch.
Cody encounters a slithery menace at a nearby lake; one that looks suspiciously like the monster from a B-movie Laura was watching on television. However, Cody’s story changes. On reflection he believes a beautiful woman resides in the lake, and is keen for his mother to meet her too. Laura, meanwhile, has her own encounters with a watery menace, and starts to feel the new normalcy of their lives slipping away.
In one scene, attempting to control her escalating anxiety, Laura turns to the soothing words of those Hotpoint ads to focus herself; a scene that speaks to the materialistic domesticity that post-war America so rosily sold it’s citizens. The link between consumerism and comfort drawn directly.
Sivertson has some great casting coups to work with. Ricci brings with her her own unique brand of appealing outsider kook, and fits well into the film’s bygone aesthetic. She can make being cheery subtly eerie while still evoking our sympathies. Also in the mix one will find cult movie mainstay Colleen Camp as Laura’s snooping landlady Mrs. Langtree. Camp’s very appearance dictates a kind of quality all of it’s own. It isn’t all roses, however. Young Barnard, for instance, seems to have gone to the Babadook school of child acting. Make of that what you will.
Sivertson showcases some aesthetically pleasing filmmaking here, infrequently let down only by budgetary constraint. The film’s B-movie monsters might’ve been better served with period-apt practical suits as opposed to the kind of cheap-looking CG soup offered up instead. It’s an unfortunate area of lacking that plays directly against the intended aesthetic, evidenced much more handsomely elsewhere. Hair, costumes, lighting and production design fare considerably better.
Monstrous lays out it’s coy mysteries with enthusiasm. It may even be a little too enthusiastic. Loaded dialogue tells us lies by omission. Secrets become negative spaces in conversation. What will constitute the other shoe dropping? We’re actively encouraged to guess – and guess correctly – where this is all going. Laura’s mental stability and indeed mental health history are called into question. It’s all too easy to start pondering the likes of The Village or Shutter Island as potential reference points, stitching theories together between the two. When that shoes finally drops, it feels a little too inevitable, a little too familiar. Monstrous joins a very crowded genre of horror movies that act primarily as heavy-handed trauma analogies. That isn’t a bad thing per se. It can be exceedingly rich and effective. But it’s recent popularity renders Monstrous a little lacking in surprises.