Monstrous takes straightforward creature-feature horror in a bonkers direction
Christina Ricci is one of those actors who had both the luck and the misfortune to be perfectly cast in an iconic role at a very young age. As a preteen in the early ’90s, she played Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family and its sequel, and the role haunts her. In the public imagination, she will always be a pallid, creepy child, simultaneously sinister and adorable, with an air of Victorian spookiness. It doesn’t help that she’s retained a girlishness into her 40s, with a tiny, birdlike frame; enormous, wide-set eyes; and the precise, buttoned-down manner of someone who had to grow old before her time.
While her contemporary Kirsten Dunst parlayed her ethereal performance in Interview with the Vampire into blockbuster leading roles and arthouse acclaim, Ricci got typecast and faded from view, not unlike Winona Ryder a decade earlier. It turns out the solution wasn’t fighting the typecasting, but leaning into it. With her spectacular turn as the sociopathically cheerful loner Misty in 2021’s breakout series Yellowjackets, Ricci finally exorcised Wednesday Addams by summoning a new demon child to take her place. Misty trades off Ricci’s image but is fully under her control, and she’s layered with unexpected comedy, pathos, and malice. It’s enough to finally shift how people think of Ricci and her career.
Which makes this a good moment for Ricci to take on a leading role. She owns every minute of the modest creature feature Monstrous, a 1950s-set chiller with a cunning secret. She plays Laura, a bright and brittle mother to 7-year-old Cody (Santino Barnard). The pair are settling into a new life in a remote rented house in California in 1955. Cody is quiet but not sullen, while Laura is fiercely upbeat. It soon becomes clear that they’ve fled a terrible situation. Cody wants to go home, but Laura rules it out. Cody says he forgives his father for whatever horror he’s committed, but Laura can’t.
Laura presses ahead firmly with building a small-town idyll for them, enrolling Cody in school and finding a job as a typist. But Cody is being stalked by something awful that drags itself out of the lake near the house. Whatever the monster is, its aspect keeps changing: sometimes liquid and oily, sometimes skeletal, sometimes billowing like a mass of pondweed or rotten fabric. It’s spooky stuff. After one horrifying encounter, Cody is suddenly drawn to the lake rather than repelled by it. He says “the pretty lady” wants him to join her there. That’s when Laura’s world starts falling apart.
Like the superb 2020 UFO movie The Vast of Night, Monstrous is riffing on 1950s pulp fiction, Twilight Zone chills, and the mix of fear and desire inspired by something foreign and unknown ruffling the smooth surface of a hermetic, orderly society. But where that film told a simple yarn with an audacious, lived-in, widescreen style, Monstrous, directed by Chris Sivertson and written by Carol Chrest, brings a straightforward approach to material that has more going on under the surface.
It might be too straightforward. There’s something rote and inert about the world the film builds: the gleaming chrome of Laura’s turquoise station wagon, the crisp outline of her A-line skirts, the needle-drop of The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman.” There isn’t a note out of place in a tune we’ve heard a thousand times before. The dialogue feels constrained and lifeless, barely more than functional, and Ricci initially strains uncomfortably against it, pushing her performance into prim fussiness. The film only comes to life in a few fleeting moments: in Laura’s strangely testy encounters with the landlord and his suspicious wife (Don Baldaramos and Colleen Camp); in a silent, unexplained long shot of another boy running away from Cody in the playground; and in the appearances of the monster, a multifaceted creation that’s all the more unsettling for being so difficult to pin down in the mind’s eye.
As it turns out, some of these choices may be intentional. Monstrous is upended at a point in the story that wouldn’t work nearly so well if everything that preceded it wasn’t so deliberate and plainspoken. The late-film choices are effective, but maybe arrive too late to redeem what’s come before. If Chrest and Sivertson had invested less in planning for this twist and more in fleshing out the world and characters that build up to it — or, for that matter, in dealing sensitively and persuasively with the implications of its closing stretch — Monstrous would be a more satisfying film overall.
What Monstrous does eventually offer, though, is a chance to watch Christina Ricci drop the constructed artifice and ferocious control of so many of her performances and give us something raw and unfiltered. For a moment, we get to see past Wednesday, and Misty, and even the Laura Monstrous has us following, and see the overwhelmed vulnerability beneath the surface. It’s a moment of truth from an actor who’s usually asked to play to our preconceptions about her, and it’s a welcome jolt of reality in an otherwise strangely detached little movie.