Monstrous is the latest metaphor-heavy Babadook knockoff that viewers could do without.
Imagine, for one brief moment, if the man behind the infamous 2007 Lindsay Lohan-starrer I Know Who Killed Me tried his hand at remaking the critically acclaimed Aussie creeper The Babadook. Well, wipe away the cold sweat, because that dream/nightmare is a reality with Monstrous, a heavy-handed allegory on grief, loss, and acceptance courtesy of the one and only Chris Sivertson, who somehow managed to avoid director jail after giving us a film where Julia Ormond had to feverishly clean her kitchen in a futile effort to drown out the sound of her daughter getting enthusiastically railed by her boyfriend in the next room.
There’s nothing as remotely tawdry or provocative as that in his latest feature, which stars Christina Ricci as a ‘50s-era mother and housewife who, with young son in tow, flees a violent and abusive husband and winds up in a secluded home in SoCal that may or may not be haunted. Young son Cody (Santino Barnard) sees a shadowy figure emerging from the pond out back and is plagued by vivid nightmares, while mom Laura hears lot of strange noises and has unnerving visions involving both water and branch-like appendages pulling her into the depths. Adorned in an era-appropriate flip hairdo and tulle-heavy dresses that look like they emerged from the set of a classic sitcom, Laura tries her hardest to put on a smile and project a positive attitude for her son, who desperately wants to return to the home he loves, regardless of his father’s actions. Yet cracks are beginning to show in the seemingly perfect facade Laura is trying to will, and as events at their new home become more sinister, her tenuous grip on reality begins to loosen.
Monstrous desperately wants to be a slow burn in the manner of the aforementioned Babadook, methodically building in tension and dread as Laura’s fragile emotional state spins wildly out of control. Unfortunately, neither Sivertson nor screenwriter Carol Chrest are up to the task, the film a series of frustrating starts and stops that only serves to rob it of the momentum it so desperately craves. One minute Laura is in full control, while the next she is downing mini bottles of vodka and yelling at her boss. Meanwhile, Cody’s relationship with the so-called monster takes a peculiar turn far too early in the proceedings to make much of an impact, leaving the character of Laura to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining any sort of viewer interest. Ricci is certainly up to the task, an actress who has maintained a steady workload for 30 years and occasionally thrilled but who still has yet to find the one role that will elevate her star — she’s as reliable as ever here, but can only do so much with a character this thinly-sketched. As is ultimately revealed, part of that is by design, as Monstrous has a huge twist up its sleeve that admittedly surprised this writer in the moment. But the majority of the film feels like nothing more than a waiting game leading up to that big reveal, which only partially informs what the viewer has seen prior.
Primarily, though, as with I Know Who Killed Me, the film’s biggest problem is that it seems to firmly believe that the metaphors its presenting are somehow both clever and profound, when in reality they are tailor-made for audiences who don’t know the definition of the word “metaphor.” It’s true that The Babadook certainly wasn’t subtle, but at least it was able to fall back on some impressive filmmaking that knew how to manipulate prone viewers for maximum, edge-of-your-seat, pants-wetting terror. Sivertson, meanwhile, does nothing in the way of creating or maintaining an appropriate atmosphere of unease, instead opting for the occasional dripping faucet, a soundtrack of ironically placed ‘50s pop tunes, and some dubious CGI. There’s nothing particularly monstrous going on in Monstrous, even as the winds howl, the trees creak, and the violins squeal. Turns out, we’re all running from something; if that blows your mind, you and Monstrous deserve each other.