‘Monstrous’ Film Review

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Christina Ricci plays a troubled mother in Monstrous, a supernatural thriller that premiered in the FrightFest strand of the Glasgow Film Festival and was recently acquired by Screen Media for North America. Written by Carol Chrest (The Prophet’s Game) and directed by Chris Sivertson (The Lost, I Know Who Killed Me), it morphs from stylish psychological drama to creature feature, delivering an impact that’s best appreciated after the credits roll.

The immaculately-dressed Laura (Ricci) drives her turquoise Chevy to a remote new home in California. With her is her seven-year-old son, Cody (Santino Barnard). They start to settle in, but sinister phone calls indicate that Laura’s abusive husband is intent on tracking them down. Meanwhile, Cody becomes fascinated by the nearby lake, where he claims a monster is lurking.

Christina Ricci leads Frightfest favourite Chris Sivertson’s latest genre take

The presence of evergreen favourite Christina Ricci in the lead role will undoubtedly be a draw for Monstrous, an uneven chiller which deals in well-worn horror conventions but has great fun doing so. There are some intriguing ideas about trauma, trust and maternal guilt in this story of a single mother starting a new life with her young son in 1950s California but, as is typical from director Chris Sivertson (I Know Who Killed MeAll Cheerleaders Die), the film largely favours genre scares over anything deeper. 

Much rests on strong performances from Ricci and Barnard, and both deliver turns that keep the attention and play with the script’s ambiguities.

Retro styling is also key: this is a purposefully idealized version of the ’50s, from the brightly colored flared dresses to The Chordettes’ “Mr Sandman.” The pop hits are alternated with an ominous score from composer Tim Rutili — it is clear that all is not as rosy as it might seem on the streets of the small town nearby, where people shoot suspicious glances at Laura and her son.

Visually, the monster draws from appropriate sources such as ’50s B movies, and its role eventually becomes clear. But it has mixed success in terms of horror scares. Monstrous is one of those tricky films that plays a little slowly, but invites a second viewing after the pay-off. Nonetheless, it’s a quietly thought provoking watch that will resonate with those who connect to its themes.

Monstrous has an effectively unsettling atmosphere from the off; despite the picture postcard Americana on display — a glorious technicolour palette of gleaming Chevrolets, ice-cream sundaes and bright full skirts — nothing feels quite right. The dark shadows of the past have clearly followed them to the Golden State; despite Laura’s best efforts, Cody is introverted and distant, the connection between the pair by turns intimate and strained. 

And just as her son seems to drift, untethered, through his new surroundings, Laura is often overwhelmed by them, repeating advertising slogans to quiet the physical pain she feels in her stomach, closing her eyes to escape bizarre visions of waterlogged walls and dissolving pictures. It’s a committed, involving performance from Ricci, while the cinematography from Senda Bonnet also does some impressive heavy lifting, contrasting the expansive California horizon and seas of whispering grass with the oppressive, creaking night-time interiors of Laura’s home and the pressure-cooker environment of her office job and Cody’s school.

Producers: Robert Yocum, Sasha Yelaun, B.I. Rosen, Johnny Remo

Screenplay: Carol Chrest

Cinematography: Senda Bonnet

Production design: Mars Feehery

Editing: Anjoum Agrama

Music: Tim Rutili

Main cast: Christina Ricci, Santino Barnard, Don Baldaramos, Colleen Camp

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Lee Clarke
Lee Clarke
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