[Review] 'The Arbors' Interweaves Heartfelt Horror Within a Monstrous Web of Despair
There’s nothing more terrifying than growing up...
...Increased responsibilities, changes to your body, and the pressing reality of valued relationships with other people beginning to alter at warp speed—whether from moving, starting families, or simple drifting apart—all combine into one big, disconcerting feeling of powerlessness. But there is power in accepting that which we cannot change, and sometimes we just need a hellish Cthulhu monster to show us that.
With The Arbors, writer-director Clayton Witmer and co-writer Chelsey Cummings weave a story of family and the growing pains that come with age within the familiar construct of a monster movie.
We meet reclusive locksmith Ethan Daunes (Drew Matthews), who is stuck. He’s stuck in a job he’s indifferent to. Stuck in a town he can’t seem to leave behind, shackled by his yearning for the past. He attempts to hang onto a dwindling relationship with his brother Shane (Ryan Davenport), but everyone seems to be moving on with their lives.
Everyone except Ethan.
Until Ethan stumbles upon a mysterious spider-like creature embedded inside a deer carcass, that is. This sudden fostering gives him a sense of purpose, something to break the monotony of his norm—until the creature escapes and begins killing people in his community. Now Ethan finds himself grappling with trying to contain his hand in the creature’s ravaging his town and trying to understand his strange connection with it.
It’s important to realize that The Arbors’ narrative focus isn’t primarily on its monster. While there is a body count, the film’s story is more focused on Ethan’s character arc of coming to accept that it’s time to let go of the past.
Drew Matthews’s performance as Ethan is suitably awkward. Matthews never reveals too much of what Ethan is thinking but constantly impresses upon the viewer just how socially detached from those around him he is. It’s a role that, on some level, everyone can connect to, even if it evolves into someone unrecognizable by the end of the film. Ethan’s attempts to grasp his nostalgia for the past as it slips between his fingers is hauntingly relatable.
In an early scene, Ethan gives Shane a figure from a board game they played as children. While this object carries a great deal of sentimental value to Ethan, Shane barely registers it and carelessly discards it. The contrasting forces between brothers who are opposites is as heartbreaking as it is fundamental to the film’s structure.
While the film does drag on a bit longer than I’d like, running just under two hours, the blending of family drama and monster moments is exceptionally well done. The monster itself, a spider-like Cthulhu creature with an appetite for human flesh, is never quite the star of the show but is shown enough that it’s definitely memorable.
Throughout the film, the creature grows from infancy to its monstrous final form. While this process is more than a little terrifying, its spindly legs and fangs growing ever more prominent, it also helps to represent the passage of time. The camera rarely lingers on the monster for long, revealing bits of it before changing perspectives or cutting away. This deprives viewers of traditional long-take monster money shots but adds to the sense of dread and unease that makes for a more nuanced and suspenseful monster movie.
And while we often see the aftermath of creature carnage rather than the actual moments of violence, the audience is treated to skin-crawling scenes of those long spindly legs emerging from holes in the wall or dragging its most recent victim into its nest.
Ultimately, I found the mystery tied into the monster and Ethan’s relationship to be equally compelling to the film’s narrative. About halfway through the film, as people from the town are falling prey to the monster—though this is attributed to a supposed serial killer—Ethan realizes that the people being killed have a direct connection to him; often a volatile one.
This places Ethan in a precarious situation of attempting to conceal the monster’s killings so as to avoid his connection to it. This further complicates and adds yet another facet to the film’s genre influence when Ethan’s standing within the community comes into jeopardy. A vigilante mob of local townsfolk and a police officer begin to look inwards at the community for those who could be behind the killings. This adds a neo-noir flavor to The Arbors that looks at the ways in which people react to crisis situations and how this can spiral out of control into violence.
The Arbors is exactly my kind of monster movie. Using an otherworldly creature as a metaphor for the plight of a human protagonist, representing their inability to grow and feeling anchored by the past, gives more significance to the narrative. If you’re just looking to satiate your appetite for creature carnage, I would recommend readjusting your expectations before going into the film. But if you’re looking for a monster film with heart, The Arbors delivers.
The Arbors comes to VOD from Gravitas Ventures March 26th.
By Jay Krieger
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