Chris Sivertson’s “Monstrous” is driven by some interesting, if familiar, themes. Unfortunately, the director is not able to pull them off.
Written by Carol Chrest, Christina Ricci stars as Laura, a single mother who takes her young son Cody (Santino Barnard) to a remote new home, apparently trying escape her past and ex-husband. On the run from something dark, her new house certainly holds something sinister; a monster from the pond out back comes calling every night.
The creature’s first visit rates highly on the creep factor, as it lingers outside of Laura’s son’s window. The scene is crafted well, using the entire frame, and making good use of moonlight outside the window. It is a good moment that doesn’t last long, and with its passing goes the film’s wit and interest.
The film plays out from Laura’s point of view. The character feels happier amongst the sunny and colorful fifties, presenting an overly positive attitude for her son and surrounding them in the songs of the time, by Buddy Holly and Bill Haley, among others.
As his mother works at keeping their lives bright, Cody is plagued by living nightmares, as the creature comes to him each night. At first, he is terrified but Laura figures he is having nightmares due to whatever their plight may be.
Cody is an interesting character for too short a time. He is a sweet yet withdrawn kid, showing no interest in playing with other children or in the outside world.
“I want to go home” is his mantra but Laura keeps assuring him they have begun a new and better life. While obviously loving his mother, Cody withdraws even more.
Adding the characters of Laura’s landlords (Colleen Camp and Don Durrell), the film increases the mystery surrounding mother and son. As the questions add up, the film tries so hard to drop hints from scene to scene that answers become obvious.
Chrest’s script is a pastiche. To save the surprise ending I won’t name its influences, but each one is explicit making “Monstrous” frustrating and tiresome. The screenplay seems to have been started with the ending and Chrest struggles to build a story from there. Too many plot points fail to play out and, once the final reveal happens, much of what came before could never have happened.
As director, Siverston is zealous in hurrying to the finale, the slow build of the opening moments gives way to a rushed feel allowing the screenplay’s surprises to become too easy to figure out. In poker terms, the film becomes nothing but a series of “tells”.
While production designer Mars Feehery and director of photography Senda Bonnet get a chance to do good work, the creepy atmosphere of the opening scenes is betrayed as the film never quite achieves a balance between the real and surreal, resorting to horror film tropes instead.
The film’s saving grace is a performance from Christina Ricci, exuding a real energy and offering up an intense and committed turn; Ricci is underrated, Ricci is a smart actress, she has been in search of a film to match her talents and this is not the one.
“Monstrous” might have worked were it not the lack of a focused directing, haphazard editing and all-too-familiar themes.