[Review] "Book of Monsters" is a wildly entertaining throwback to 80s creature features
When I was a kid, I made a book of monsters, which was an A-Z picture book of creatures with terribly scribbled drawings for each one. I was particularly proud of my creativity (laziness) to leave a blank page for the Invisible Man. But I can easily say that this childish endeavor wasn’t nearly as cool as Book of Monsters, coming from Dread…
…If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you know I’m typically a big fan of what Dread has been putting out, and Book of Monsters is no exception. Directed by Stewart Sparke and written by Paul Butler, the team behind The Creature Below brings us a new creature feature which dives head first into monster madness. The story follows Sophie (Lyndsey Craine), as she is having a party for her 18th birthday. Still haunted by the horrific death of her mom at the hands of a monster only she saw, Sophie isn’t much for parties, and isn’t too happy about some unexpected guests. Turns out, there are more than a few teenage assholes ruining the night, as a group of monsters show up to crash the party, leaving Sophie and other survivors in a bloody fight for survival.
There is no doubt in my mind that Sparke and Butler were heavily inspired by the over-the-top creature features of the 80s while making Book of Monsters. This film is like a modern-day Night of the Demons. Butler’s script gets things going right away, opening with a magnificent creature showing up under young Sophie’s bed, followed by just a few scenes in the modern day before monsters arrive to rain gory havoc on Sophie’s parade. Fans of 80s creature features and excessive gore will weep bloody tears of joy shortly into this film, as the initial invasion of monsters establishes exactly what we are in for: an insanely violent, fun, gore-soaked treasure of a film. Remember that scene in John Carpenter’s Vampires, where the vampire shows up and slaughters that asshole James Woods’ entire crew? This early scene is a lot like that. Within minutes of the creatures showing up, party guests are torn in half, gutted, have their heads torn off, and so on. Blood spills so heavily and frequently in this film that you’ll feel sticky, but a good sticky.
Being a creature feature, the most important test always revolves around how the creatures look, and in Book of Monsters case, Sparke and his crew get an A+. Sparke clearly dumped as much of his resources as he could into these creatures, which are varied and many. And not only are they shot well, often in bright light for us to gaze upon their gooey glory, but they look good enough to make a guy like Rob Bottin proud. Now, I’m not saying you can compare these creatures to the likes of the effects in The Thing, that would just be ridiculous, but Sparke’s team deserves major applause nonetheless for their own barrage of inventive baddies. Book of Monsters doesn’t just feature a couple creatures. The film lives up to its title, and is full of magnificent monsters storming Sophie’s party. Sparke keeps the film fresh by introducing new creatures all throughout, which keeps the audience on their toes, because we never know what to expect next from these things. All of them have their own M.O. when it comes to slaughtering humans. Hell, at one point, some adorably gruesome worms actually give birth to killer lawn gnomes (one of my few odd phobias), leaving “bitchy” character, Arya (Anna Dawson), to utter “You gotta be fucking kidding”. You gotta be fucking kidding is right, Arya. This film is a madhouse. Butler’s script introduces so many different types of body-ripping beasts, that there’s a little something here for all fans of gory monster movies.
Secondary to the creatures are the characters in Book of Monsters. Like many creature features of the 80s, you won’t find much depth to these people, since the film is focused more on the mayhem, but Butler still manages to create a group that we want to cheer for. It’s electrifying to watch Craine as she takes Sophie from a shy and timid girl to a badass, Ash-like heroine, but without the fuck-ups. Even the nasty Arya, who is perfectly played by Dawson, has some redeemable qualities. She, like the others, is actually smart, which is atypical to most 80s horror fare. For example, when Arya calls the cops, she doesn’t go on rambling about monsters, but instead makes something up, a point she emphasizes by mentioning how no one would believe them otherwise. What I love most about Butler’s characters is that, while they have a lot of the surface level qualities typical to these kinds of movies, certain tropes are completely smashed. The cast is largely women, all of whom can handle themselves, and Sophie is a badass lesbian hero trying to save her girlfriend, something which we just don’t see in these types of films very often. In that sense, Butler’s characters are a deep breath of fresh air.
If I haven’t already made it clear, Book of Monsters is a straight-up love letter to the 80s, between its creatures and funny gags, including some Tae-Kwon-Vibrator action that you have to see to believe. Sparke’s film is a monstrously good time. The story is minimal at best, but that’s okay, because Sparke moves things along at such a brisk pace, that there is never a dull moment during the all too short runtime of 76 minutes.
But in being a passionate expression of Sparke and Butler’s love for monster movies, Book of Monsters perhaps too strictly follows the structure of films like this from the 80s, beholden to various tropes to the point where we can predict a lot of what’s coming, right down to the inevitable chainsaw fight (which is still bloody and cool as hell). Book of Monsters is as straight-forward as it gets, with very little character drama, and is essentially boiled down to the basics, which is a bunch of monsters eating people and wreaking havoc. For some, that’s more than enough, and even a bit missed in today’s genre scene, which has largely shifted away from this mindless though exciting sort of horror entertainment. Even still, Sparke’s film is missing that little bit of extra, that meaty bit to chew on. Maybe it’s the lack of strong character relationships or a mostly absent atmosphere, which has a lot to do with the too-clean look of the film and the speedy pace which doesn’t allow Book of Monsters much time to breathe. Book of Monsters comes so close to being great, but is missing just those few elements that could’ve really put it over the proverbial monster hump.
Regardless, Book of Monsters is a crowd-pleaser, and one that will especially endear itself to anyone looking for a simple, wildly gory time. Sparke and Butler are a pair to keep your eye on for more fright-fare. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long, since the film ends in a way that sets up a sequel which I very much want to see. Don’t sleep on this one. There’s monsters under your bed anyway.
Book of Monsters claws its way to VOD from Dread on March 19th.
By Matt Konopka
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