It’s difficult to make more room for horror movies about struggling mothers managing trauma and grief while protecting their children. Perhaps the story resonates so deeply that it begets many adaptations and a lineup of creators. Following the footsteps recently tread by the likes of The Babadook and The Others comes Monstrous, an atmospheric haunt about a wandering mother and her vulnerable son.
Christina Ricci leads as Laura, the mother struggling to keep her and her son, Cody (Santino Barnard), afloat. They’ve recently fled from an unspecified somewhere and someone to move into a large farmhouse a decent jaunt from the city. They’re looking not just to hide, but to settle into a more relaxed life. This proves difficult for Laura, who’s haunted by a ringing phone, one that features the voices of her worried mother and her fear-inducing ex-husband. Old ghosts don’t leave with ease, and Cody is haunted by a monstrous lady lurking in the nearby pond. Laura struggles to create a normal life for her and her son but each time the phone rings, and each time the night falls, parts of her idyllic new life start to crumble.
There are shades of Bates Motel lighting the path for this story, one set in a 1950s-style farmhouse led by a manic matriarch in billowing A-line skirts who tries desperately to calm the shrieks of her son. It’s a pleasure to watch the spooky Ricci glide through ’50s housewife cliches, as her natural association with the macabre suggests contrast long before the story does. It’s her movie, and it’s the success of her strong but naïve performance that allows the themes to glow. Monstrous’s strength is in its portrayal of the complexities of motherhood, and the beauty in how a meek woman can be truly powerful.
The narrative wants to tackle deeper themes of trauma and motherhood but stumbles over itself on the way to doing so. It can be wise for a horror feature to play its card close to the chest, but Monstrous keeps too many secrets for too long, which thwarts its ability to create any stakes. Too much time is spent watching Ricci tiptoe through her spooky house, not allowing the audience to grasp onto a conflict, or even what we should fear. Then, crumbs of other conflicts muddy the through-line, feeling like it’s grasping on to too many elements of its inspirations. Time is spent meandering around a misbehaving son and a shady landlord that could have been better spent developing the narrative or cementing that there isn’t enough of one. The film gets a bit lost in its own abstract visuals rendering the metaphor unclear. It all culminates in an unearned and double-layered twist that unfortunately only serves to undermine its lead.
Though somewhat in the way of the narrative, said abstract visuals are a showcase of the director’s greatest hits. Chris Sivertson, who helmed other spooky female-led tales, I Know Who Killed Me and All Cheerleaders Die brought his bag of tricks to create a pretty and spooky feast for the eyes. He positioned the genre mashup as a character story, and the film never loses sight of Laura, even as it dances through an uninvited creature feature.
Monstrous throws a fishing net around many things, catching a smattering of horrors from a veritable feedbag of genres. But on its most basic level, it’s a story of motherhood and what any threat to a mother’s young can bring out of her. It’s all about Laura, the mild-mannered woman with a meticulously placed hairstyle who won’t hesitate to fight off a sea monster with “get away from her, you bitch” energy if it comes to it.
Monstrous is in theaters and on demand on May 13, 2022
Header Image Source: Screen Media