Christina Ricci’s Unstructured Horror Film
It seems wildly unfair to blame a film’s on-screen creative failures on something as innocuous as its credits, and perhaps that’s true in most cases. But in the case of Monstrouswhich brings together 41 (yes, 41!) executive producers (not counting four producers and seven other co-producers), the shoe seems to suit him.
This inert psychological horror movie is so extraordinarily boring and pointless on a purely narrative level that it feels like the product of endless financial haggling, tax shelter investment, and a thousand other compromises and accommodations. It’s easy to imagine Monstrous begins life, perhaps in the mind of screenwriter Carol Chrest or even director Chris Sivertson, as something exciting or unique. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a more stillborn finished product, an exercise in boredom that ticks the strictest “finished movie” boxes and perhaps offers unknown benefits to some of those executive producers, but no. offer anything that can engage an audience.
Monstrous opens with Laura Butler (Christine Ricci) and her 7-year-old son, Cody (Santino Barnard), pack up and move to California. Apparently they’re on the run from Laura’s abusive husband, but there’s no great urgency or panic in their journey. The couple take up residence in a furnished rental house belonging to the Langtrees (Don Baldaramos and Colleen Camp) in the middle of a vast rural expanse bordered by a pond.
Laura gets a generic office job with an equally generic boss, Mr. Alonzo (Lew Temple), and sets about trying to restore some sense of normalcy for Cody. Unfortunately, Cody is certain that a monster from the pond is visiting his room in their rented house. Turns out this monster isn’t a figment of teenage imagination – after a gnarled, tendril-laden creature terrorizes him one night, Cody turns an emotional corner and begins adding it to the drawings of family, calling her the “pretty lady”. Laura seems a little put off by this, but is mostly worried about Cody fitting in at school.
The key to engaging with almost any horror movie is understanding its vocabulary, as well as its story. Does he work in the shadows or does he touch on the supernatural? Does he seek above all to shake viscerally, or rather to irritate? Do we perhaps know the killer(s), or is the threat external and anonymous? Mash-ups, of course, mix storytelling modes all the time and aim to subvert expectations. It’s part of their fun.
Monstrous, however, just doesn’t seem to have a solidly developed and cohesive idea of what it should be. For most of its runtime, it is primarily invested, boldly and emphatically, in an airless evocation of the 1950s. This preoccupation extends from Mars Feehery’s production design and Morgan Degroff’s costumes to a radio music tracklist and its golly-gee dialogue (“I know you and I are completely safe, like two insects snug in a rug”), as if a period setting magically elevates the story told. All aspects of Chrest’s script exist to serve this function first.
There are some hints, early on, of additional folds and layers, of possible narrative twists awaiting. Laura took medication, but may have stopped. She misnames a co-worker during a conversation with Cody. Then, late in the movie, she seems to have a drinking problem. But Monstrous has no structure or flow, and appears to only exist long enough to tick the clock and qualify for feature length.
Director Sivertson, whose credits include All the cheerleaders die and Lindsay Lohan’s thriller I know who killed me, has a lot of experience with psychological and supernatural horror genres. Here, however, he weakly oversees a sort of ghost ship production, which lacks the cohesive vision and internal discipline of continuity. (There’s a scene where Laura emerges from an underwater nightmare sequence physically wet, but is then immediately dry in the next shot.) The film’s special effects work is laughable, if at least sparse. Editor Anjoum Agrama struggles to establish any kind of pacing and is apparently left to guess basic concepts such as atmosphere or tone, resulting in scenes with a nosy neighbor which turns out to be alternately annoying and inexplicably threatening.
Ricci is a gifted actress, but she never finds here a convincing guideline for her character. She plays Laura as buttoned up, neither harboring a big secret nor caught in the backwash of something she doesn’t understand. The film’s tagline (“The past can pull you down”), along with some flashbacks to Laura in her teenage years, points to a premise tied to trauma and grief, but Monstrous does not unpack any of these issues in a satisfying, or even substantial way. Most damningly, he doesn’t even seem to try. Devoid of fear, tension, unease or any fleeting curiosity, the film offers a viewer nothing to cling to. But hey, 41 people got executive producer credit. Maybe there is a real story there.