[Review] 'Monstrous' is Light on Actual Monsters but Leaves a Big Footprint with Exhilarating Characters
The horror film climate of the last decade has been populated with several Sasquatch related films, and as a casual Sasquatch/Bigfoot enthusiast, I’ve seen most of them...
...Many of the lot are the kind of insultingly bad horror movies you’d find at a Redbox, with poorly rendered cover art. All too familiar with getting my hopes dashed, it’s always a delight when a winner sneaks up on me. There have been a few exceptions throughout the years, with some even becoming a part of my revisited film rotation. As I sat down to watch Monstrous with crossed fingers and cautious optimism, I desperately wanted it to be one of those exceptions. Director Bruce Wemple and actress/writer Anna Shields have certainly made something that defies expectation and is full of surprises, but these genre defying twists and turns may not be as satisfying as intended.
After a brief scene introducing our hairy forest roamer, Monstrous kicks off its tale of intrigue with a newsreel compilation of mysterious sightings and disappearances in Whitehall, New York. Sylvia (Shields) and her best friend, Jamie (Grant Schumacher) have lost all contact with their friend Dana, who had reportedly been driving up to Whitehall. The conspiracy/cryptid hunting Jamie thinks he has a lead on what happened to Dana, after obsessively studying connections between several other disappearances and “Squatch,” as he calls it. Sylvia, being more of a skeptic, initially tries to temper Jamie’s theory, but, after he reminds her of Dana’s trouble and sets up a meet with another person traveling to Whitehall, her guilt sets in and she decides to make the trek. On the day of travel, Jamie calls the whole thing off because of food poisoning but Sylvia, now determined to find answers, goes against his wishes and sets off with their contact, Alex (Rachel Finniger). A quiet road trip with two quaint girls getting to know one another turns into a tension filled disaster as each woman learns the true identity of the other.
After watching Monstrous, I felt a myriad of emotions. I felt part emotionally invested, part deceived and misled, part angry, and part impressed. On a script and story level, Monstrous is its own worst enemy. The setup of the story is intriguing enough, but once things get rolling, the film doesn’t know where it wants to take you. Sasquatch is pitched to us as the centerpiece of the story, but midway through, the legend that has so much mystique and intrigue is thrown on the backburner. The famed creature is in the film for roughly ten minutes. Instead of focusing on what I was most interested in and what had been teased, the film takes an unsatisfying turn, and becomes a psychological thriller that’s so far removed from the initial setup, it feels like another film entirely. I’m a cheerleader for films that want to fuse genres together and I applaud Shields for trying something different, but it has to have connective tissue that gives the story meaning, or at the very least, coherency. Sasquatch could have been removed from this film altogether and it wouldn’t have any impact on the overall story.
Anna Shields carries the film with an impeccable performance as Sylvia. An intriguing backstory revealing the origins of her insecurities and flaws mixed with her earnestly presented vulnerability create an effectively sympathetic and well-written lead role that makes up for the focus and identity issues elsewhere in the film. Her past traumas could have easily been heavy handed and mishandled, but Shields gives an understated, subtle performance. In several scenes she is forced into extremely uncomfortable situations and we squirm in our seats with her as we witness her suppress a barrage of emotional distress. Even when the film falls apart, I still found myself rooting for Sylvia and wanted to see her return home to safety and comfort. Another notable cast member is Rachel Finniger, who plays the overbearing and cryptic Alex. Finniger exudes possessive confidence and boldness through Alex just as effectively as Shields handles Sylvia’s vulnerability, and the dynamic between the two makes their anxious and sometimes erotic interplay exhilarating to watch.
Visually, Monstrous looks just fine for the majority of the film. I’ve seen many films with little to no attention paid to specified locations, so the establishing shots of Lansing, Michigan and Whitehall, New York were a surprisingly authentic addition. As someone familiar with a wide range of Michigan, I’m happy to say they went the extra mile by ensuring the proper aesthetic details were on point when recreating Lansing for earlier scenes. My only visual gripes, in fact, come from the ever-shifting color grading. I was a bit put off from the onset when I noticed how oversaturated the film was, but I can chalk that up to stylistic preferences. If everyone in a Michael Bay film can have orange-tinted skin in a world of overly vibrant objects, Monstrous can be oversaturated. The inconsistency of the color grading, however, is harder to ignore. Toward the end of the film, there is an outdoor sequence with cutaway shots between the landscape and one of the characters. With every alternating shot, the color grading would shift in such a way that it took me out of an otherwise tension-filled scene.
Monstrous uses the framework of a creature feature and injects a “we’re the real monster” metaphorical narrative into its core, resulting in a far different film than the fun monster flick we’re led to believe it is. Part of the reason for this disappointment is the “Squatch”-focused buildup we never get to see carried through. Had the film not teased us with such an exciting hook, its metaphoric tendencies would be easier to forgive. In spite of all its misgivings and flaws, Monstrous is worth checking out, if only for the mesmerizing performance of Anna Shields. Just don’t go in expecting another Exists (2014) or Willow Creek (2013), as this film differs in tone, story, and most notably, a severe lack of the “Squatch” himself.
Monstrous comes to VOD/DVD from Uncork’d Entertainment August 11th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth
Leave a Reply.