Imagine two scenarios: You and your better half are invited to a retreat in a remote setting with an old friend and their new spouse but upon arrival, you discover you are being watched and possibly even hunted. Second: you're invited to a weekend retreat but as soon as you get there, you discover that your old friend cannot make it and you're going to have to hang out with some guy you just met. I know which one I would pick but for the protagonists in Making Monsters they have to suffer through both...
…Writer/director Justin Harding has seen his short films collect awards and nominations at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as at numerous Horror Festivals throughout North America. Making Monsters is Harding's first feature length horror film and it too has enjoyed its' share of recognition. The film screened at Shriekfest to good reviews. With Making Monsters, Harding shows that he is capable of making much more than just short films--he is ready for the big time.
Making Monsters stars Alana Elmer (Harding's short film, Latched) and Tim Loden (NBC's Chuck [but very, very briefly]) as a soon to be married couple, Alison and Chris. The film begins with its focus placed squarely on Chris, a selfish and aggravating YouTube prankster who has made his modest fortune by broadcasting pranks of his fiancé Alison at least twice a week. One might think that watching a guy put on a silly mask and jump out from behind a shrub at his girlfriend would become tiresome to viewers. Or, at the very least that Alison would come to expect the pranks but, as the film tells us several times, Alison always screams and the clicks keep coming in.
We are given a quick, opening credit sequence that shows Chris' success as he talks at a YouTube conference and even seems to be giving a TED Talk on the nature of fear at one point. This last bit seems more suited for the reveal of The Scarecrow on CW's Batwoman but thankfully, this sequence wraps up pretty quickly. In the end of the little montage, we understand that Chris believes that the world is messed up and people enjoy watching other people get the shit scared out of them only to find out that things are okay. It is a strong (if not wholly original) theory on why audiences keep coming back to horror.
In what ends up being a surprising and solid decision, the film shifts focus away from Chris and his pranks and towards Alison and her desire for a stable, happy life. Alison wants children and no more scares. Bad news Alison, children are pretty scary on their own. At the world's nicest IVF clinic, Chris and Alison have a chance encounter with an old friend who invites them to his secluded home (a remote and refurbished church) with his new husband. Deciding to have a fun couple's weekend before attempting to conceive, Alison and Chris head to the spooky house that used to be a spooky church.
It is here that things become scary. The friend is delayed and Chris and Alison have to spend the night hanging out with their friend's new husband. Also, there are spooky masks, a cemetery in the back yard and probably ghosts. It will sound like a joke but the most unsettling part of the film up to this point is watching our heroes have to spend a night with some guy who is just...third wheeling it so hard. The tension and discomfort is as palpable as it is funny. The more conventional tension and scares will come but the film thrives in its first half by showing just the right amount of strain within Chris and Alison's relationship.
Watching the film and unraveling the mysteries of the plot, one does find that there is an underlying conflict within the script. The film wants to have supernatural horrors while also offering conventional slasher tropes. In the end, the film manages to have things both ways, giving us plenty of supernatural horrors and effects while also giving us a monster that is grounded in reality. Making Monsters manages this dichotomy better than any horror film in recent memory.
For a film with a lower body count than almost any episode of this season's American Horror Story, this film delivers a substantial amount of gore and some thrilling chase sequences. Some simple (and some not so simple) effects are executed convincingly and shot nicely. The scares are real and the plot motivates the surprises rather than where we are in the runtime.
As Alison, Alana Elmer delivers the heart and pathos that this film requires. Were we to watch 90 minutes of bad things happening to Chris, it would not be much of a movie and the audience would likely be rooting for his end rather than dreading it. Due to Elmer's performance, we end up hoping that Chris and Alison make it to the end credits. Elmer plays her part with hope, terror, and strength. We feel for her what we want to feel for all characters in a horror film. We want her to be scared but we also want to see her resolve, no matter what the end result may be.
Another bright spot in the cast is Jonathan Craig. Craig worked double duty on this film, serving as the special make up effects artist and playing the role of David. As David, Craig is just the right mix of weird and fun. Is he an overly excited fan boy or a creep? Or is he both? Can he be neither? You'll have to stay until the end to find out.
As a make up effects artist, Craig is fantastic. His designs and effects are shockingly realistic and look amazing on screen. Is he comparable to the other make up artists who have performed on screen? Not yet. But give him some time; he might be worthy of such a comparison in a few years.
At its heart, Making Monsters asks a simple question. It is a variation on the classic, "If you live by the sword…" cliché but it puts an exciting and unexpected twist on this timeless question. The film goes beyond its thematic question by looking at all the players in the YouTube prank empire; the person delivering the scares, the person being scared, and the audience who is thrilled by it. By subtly examining these elements of the horror genre, the film elevates itself beyond mere entertainment (although it is definitely entertaining) and becomes a thoughtful, low-budget horror film.
With Making Monsters Justin Harding shows himself to be an intelligent and effectual writer and director of feature length horror. Any film fan should seek this film out and be excited to see what he can do with a slightly larger budget. I look forward to tracking what will surely be a long and successful career.
By Mark Gonzales