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‘Monstrous’ (review)

Monstrous is a new psychological thriller starring Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow), directed by Chris Sivertson of All Cheerleaders Die and I Know Who Killed Me, and produced by Chicken Soup for the Soul’s film division.

While the film features a strong central performance from Ms. Ricci and a promising first act filled with genuine suspense, it falls apart under the weight of the needs of the plot which depends on some very predictable twists, and some weak supporting work.

Ricci plays Laura, a young mother in the early 1960’s who moves with her frail and sullen son, Cody (Santino Bernard) to a remote homestead.

Soon we’re to infer that she’s on the run from an abusive husband, and both Laura and Cody’s dreams are being invaded by a nebulous entity that lives in the nearby pond. This early section of the film is very inventive, atmospheric, and well-shot with a dreamy, Impressionist quality.

Ricci’s performance is committed; with a kind of quirky eccentricity that greatly enhances the disturbing quality of the first act’s horror.

Who can we trust? Is she all there?

There are sequences where she seems to be enacting a vision of a “proper” wife and mother of that period, and as things begin to go sour she conveys a sense that she’s practiced this facade and if she can just keep to it, things will be alright. That said, she never goes over the top, which in a movie built around a child in jeopardy, is always a temptation for the best of actors. She has that wonderful quality that all thriller protagonists require: the sense that the wheels are turning, but that we’re never quite sure exactly what she’s thinking.

The film’s third act twists, as often as we’ve seen them before, are given life by her performance which has clearly been the product of a lot of thought and careful layering. 

Unfortunately, the tension of the first act, which seemed suited to a Carnival of Souls style slow burn, gives way to a hokey computer-generated monster and a sinking feeling as the film sets up its final act twists which any devotee of the genre will see coming a mile away.

Ricci makes a valiant effort to hold the film together, but the other players don’t feel like they know they’re in a period piece and so she doesn’t have a lot to play off of. It also suffers from an issue a lot of independent films have where the best visual and thematic ideas are present in the first third of the film and as the production moves towards its finale they begin to drop away.

Carol Chrest’s screenplay which seems to take inspiration from A Tale of Two Sisters and the contemporary horror classic The Babadook desperately needs either the former’s baroque surrealism or the latter’s bracing emotional honesty.

As Cody begins to drift under the thrall of the creature stalking the family there was ample room for the exploration of a parent’s rage towards their own child that that film relied upon for its emotional core. Failing that, the film needed another character who the audience could invest in and who could keep the dynamic fresh and vital through the latter two thirds of the film. Laura’s landlords and co-workers are introduced early and remain one-note phantoms through the entire 90 minutes.

Director Sivertson is known for dynamic visual style, even previous projects which were troubled have a stylistic ambition which is commendable, and there are some strong visual moments: a child’s bedroom bathed in the setting set that looks like a Rockwell painting; a mock Universal Studios monster movie Ricci’s character has inserted herself into via a dream; shadows a motion across a pond that seems to be calling out to young Cody; an inventive sequence where we see Cody’s night terrors are prefigured in her mother’s behavior as a child.

Unfortunately, all of these moments seem to be contained in the first act of the film, and when the accumulated tension is cashed in the viewer finds they were waiting on a train that never arrives.

In summation, Monstrous is probably only suited for devotees of the genre or fans of Christina Ricci who want to see her carry a film. I hope that the next time she’s called upon to do so, the script can bring the same thoughtful attention and depth of feeling to the proceedings that she does.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

*  *   *  *  *
Produced by Robert Yocum, Sasha Yelaun, B.I. Rosen, Johnny Remo
Written by Carol Chrest
Directed by Chris Sivertson
Starring Christina Ricci, Colleen Camp,
Lew Temple, Nick Vallelonga, Santino Barnard

 

 

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