Producers: Robert Yocum, Sasha Yelaun, B.I. Rosen and Johnny Remo Director: Chris Sivertson Screenplay: Carol Crest Cast: Christina Ricci, Colleen Camp, Nick Vallelonga, Lew Temple, Santino Barnard, Don Baldaramos, Lola Grace, Sally Ebert and Rachel Edlow Distributor: Screen Media
A mixture of a mid-twentieth century American version of “The Babadook” and an even better-known supernatural thriller that won’t be named because doing so would constitute an egregious spoiler, Chris Sivertson’s chiller has some of the quirkiness that made Bob Balaban’s “Parents” so intriguing back in 1989, but not enough to sustain it to the end.
Christina Ricci is Laura, who, with her colorful outfits and perfectly coifed hair might have stepped out of a 1950s family sitcom—the devoted wife and loving mother. But under the surface she’s roiling: she’s introduced hustling her reserved, solemn seven-year old son Cody (Santino Bernard) into a Chevrolet station wagon to escape what appears to be an abusive marriage. They settle at a rental house in southern California, and she enrolls Cody in a nearby school while taking a job as a typist at an insurance agency run by stern but solicitous Mr. Alonzo (Lew Temple).
Cody is immediately attracted to the lake that lies outside his bedroom window, where he sees a monster lurking—something that looks like a mass of moss and ooze, but has limbs that, once it makes its way into the house, can grab him as he cowers under the covers. Laura, meanwhile, is unnerved by calls from her mother and her ex, by plumbing problems, and by a commercial for a dishwater that seems to be running on a loop on radio and TV.
As time slowly passes, Laura becomes increasingly frazzled and Cody more and more withdrawn. She tries to keep up his spirits, enthusiastically hosting a big birthday party for him. But none of his classmates show up, and it turns out he didn’t even pass out the invitations. He just wants to go home. Laura’s distress grows, and her landlords the Langtrees (Colleen Camp and Don Baldaramos) begin to suspect there’s something wrong with her. Her calls to her former doctor asking to be put back on her medication, and her habit of taking nips from small bottles, suggest they could be right.
For a while “Monstrous” intrigues with its peculiarity, with Ricci’s over-the-top performance and the bright period detail of Mars Feehery’s production design and Morgan DeGroff’s costumes, as well as some modest but creepy effects, gleaming cinematography by Senda Bonnet and a reasonably effective score by Tim Rutili (complemented by a wide collection of fifties pop songs) carrying us along.
But over time the beats grow repetitious, and weaknesses in the supporting performances—particularly by Barnard, whose demeanor is meant to be eerily remote but comes across as just dully uncommunicative, and Camp as the buttinski Mrs. Langtree—take their toll. A few odd digressions, like a dreamlike visit by Laura to a bar, where she shares a dance with a tourist (Nick Vallelonga)—are just puzzling. When the big reveal arrives, though it’s been prepared for by numerous fragmentary flashbacks and contemporary winks, it feels limp, especially since Sivertson and editor Anjoum Agrama present it with a solemnity it hardly deserves. And a coda is more perplexing than enlightening.
“Monstrous” deserves credit for being something more than a gory creature feature, but the execution of its moody narrative isn’t sufficiently assured to make it more than an interesting also-ran.