Horror has been one of the primary genre in cinema since its conception as a medium. Actually, the first films scared people first before sparkling their imaginations. The Train Station, for example, one of the first films ever presented to the public, scared its audiences by making them think they were going to be run over by the train itself. Of course, that didn’t happen, but the thrill of the scare was already there.
From that point forward, audiences started to go to the cinema to see imaginative stories that could spark that sense of fear. Stories that would make audiences retract in their seats, fear for their lives or for their mental sanity. Monsters, ghosts, vampires, and many more creatures began to appear to fulfill that role. Some were more successful than others, but the producers knew that there was something in horror that could not be found anywhere else.
Horror productions could be done for the cheap, and the profit could be, if they play their hand well enough, enormous. Like with anything that is successful, some producers became greedy. And they started to deliver more and more titles without really thinking about the quality of those, and then the horror genre became synonymous with cheapness and low production values.
It wasn’t until recently with the work of pioneers like Wes Craven, or the work of young master filmmakers like Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, and Jennifer Kent, that horror has been elevated. Elevated to a genre that can do more than just deliver scares. Horror can explain, and explore, the inside of the human mind. Horror can tell us how we tick and why we do the thing we do.
Monstrous, aims to be that kind of horror film. A movie that dwells on the trauma of its main characters and tries to explore it and take that trauma to its ultimate consequences. On paper, the idea sounds great, especially when you can get an actress such as Christina Ricci to play your main character. However, a number of strange creative choices, a predictable story and unfocused storytelling make Monstrous feel like it knows where it wants to go but doesn’t know how to get there.
Monstrous is directed by Chris Sivertson, and stars Christina Ricci, Santino Barnard, and Don Durrell. The film tells the story of Laura, a mother that runs away with her kid after escaping an abusive relationship. Laura and his son find a new life away from everything, but they don’t know that something dark and terrible has followed them to their new house, and it won’t let them go.
Of course, after reading that synopsis, it is very clear that the darkness that has followed Laura and her kid to their new house is trauma itself. Yes, they have to escape from the physical monster that was the abuser, but inside Laura’s mind the fear is still there, and it won’t disappear no matter how hard she tries. You cannot kill your demons, you can only live with them.
This is the frame device that the film uses as an exploration of grief. It is obvious, maybe a bit too obvious, and that hurts the film a lot because from the get go anybody who is watching will catch the meaning of the story. And from then on, you’re not seeing characters telling us their story, they become more like walking ideas playing their part of a lecture.
While the story itself is very predictable and thinks that it is more clever than it actually is, the movie is not all bad. The highlight of course is Christina Ricci herself. It is so nice to see her back on the wheel and getting more work doing stuff. We need Ricci’s strange and particular charisma. She is a great actress, and she should be used more frequently everywhere.
Ricci’s character is played well by the actress, but the writing makes her feel inconsistent, and sometimes completely out of character. Maybe it is the trauma, or maybe it is something else, but the story fails to define the character, and Ricci cannot save it all alone.
Thankfully, the production design and the costumes are very well done. Those departments really did their assignments’ justice, and the movie does feel like it is set in the 50s or early 60s. Simpler times for society, but not for the mind or the lives of the people living in it.
Nevertheless, the main issue with Monstrous is that we have seen this done before, and we have seen it done so much better. You just need to go and watch The Babadook, by Jennifer Kent, which pretty much has the same set-up. Or you can go watch Midsommar, by Ari Aster, and those two films are just some much better explorations on grief and loneliness than Monstrous would ever be.
Monstrous fails to scare the audience by being too blunt in its metaphor and revealing its magic trick a bit too early. Some members of the audience will love seeing Ricci’s comeback, but the slow pacing, weird tonality, and unfocused storytelling don’t make this a powerful or even decent horror experience. There are better options out there.