In both the 30-minute and 60-minute format, storytellers were able to string their audience along amiably with some narrative sleight of hand. Even though these watchers likely knew that some big surprise was lurking right around the corner, I’d argue half of their fun was staring closely enough to see the seams. They got to play the part of the amateur sleuth who’d capably deduce the big finish well before it arrived – maybe they’d even announce it to others on the couch beside them – and a good time was had by all. These episodes didn’t always just entertain, mind you: on most occasions, they dished up some good moral-to-the-story – a bit of a life lesson – and viewers could go to bed thinking about what they learned in a modest investment.
Because this formula worked so well, a whole host of screenwriters and directors nudged it from the small screen to the big one; but selling a two-hour opus of misdirection hasn’t always met with quality box office receipts. In fact, one need only examine the ups-and-downs of M. Night Shyamalan’s career to see how big a risk it can be. Though he’s squeezed in a few solid blockbusters across a few decades, he’s also been criticized for being unable to ‘think outside this box,’ so much so that several of his features have been silver screen duds. When the audience knows what they’re getting, they’re not always pay good money to be fooled … unless the trickery is just that good.
Monstrous (2022) tries to break similar ground, wrapping up a tale of a mother’s grief and her son’s troubled existence in the framework of a kinda/sorta 1950’s monster movie. While period details and lead performances are good (not great), in the end I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this creature feature had enough bite. For my tastes, it fell a bit shy.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“Story centers on a traumatized woman fleeing from her abusive ex-husband with her 7-year-old son. In their new remote sanctuary they find they have a bigger, more terrifying monster to deal with.”
Christina Ricci is an actress I’ve always admired.
Essentially, I think she roared onto the screen with some exceptional work in genre projects. Her work in The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993) is particular fetching, mostly because as a young talent she certainly displayed the propensity for taking a supporting role into the big leagues, captivating viewers with a pitch perfect ‘Wednesday Adams.’ In 1999, she crossed over into more adult fare in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow – starring opposite Hollywood wunderkind Johnny Depp – a role that even saw her take home the 2000 Saturn Award for ‘Best Actress.’ And though most critics dismiss 2008’s Speed Racer as a major blow to the Wachowskis hold on their big screen clout in Hollywood, I actually enjoyed this kid-friendly flick which saw the actress transform ‘Trixie’ from a small screen animated sidekick to her big screen incarnation.
Without divulging too many of the film’s secrets, what viewers are treated to here is intended to be more of a character study – especially given the final reel’s reveal. The horror element is really part and parcel of that magical misdirection required to keep the audiences invested so that they’re distracted enough away from what’s really taking place. For that reason, Chrest should’ve invested more in helping us understand Ricci’s Laura; the few clues dropped here and there are so vague that nothing can be truly gleaned from them, and I can’t help but wonder if some who showed up expecting something scarier are bound for major disappointment.
Still, it’s a tricky business to mislead anyone – much less the folks who paid to see this – but Monstrous works efficiently when it veers seriously into the supernatural. Relative newcomer Santino Barnard (as Cody) manages to straddle the childlike wonder of coming face-to-face with a monster and the ‘holy-crap-it’s-a-monster’ responses quite well, and his work here makes it easy to forgive the storytellers for maybe kinda/sorta botching the finish when reality intercedes. Its real-world focus does end up feeling a bit of a disappointment because we never got to know these characters all that well, so the conclusion feels a bit gimmickier than was probably intended. Leaving a film caring more about the monster isn’t anything new – certainly not for fans of genre entertainment – but I should’ve had a much stronger reaction to learning more of Laura’s ‘hole in her heart’ than I did.
Monstrous (2022) was produced by Burning Sky Films, Willow Pictures, Tip-Top Productions, and a few other participants.
What Monstrous offers is definitely a mixed bag of tricks, one that would probably be better received were this a 45–60-minute standalone episode of a solid anthology television series instead of a 90-minute major motion picture. Alas, Carol Chrest’s script is somewhat razor-thin on development – what matters most in films built around the ‘twist ending’ is, in fact, the twist, and this one’s been done (to death!) before – and Ricci’s work, excellent period detail, and some rather obvious misdirection can only carry this idea so far. Those showing up for the advertised monster movie are likely to be disappointed, but perhaps that’s what everyone involved intended, after all.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Burning Sky Films provided me with a complimentary streaming link of Monstrous (2022) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.