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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'

Monstrous (15)

Director: Chris Sivertson
Screenplay: Carol Chrest

Starring: Christina Ricci, Santino Barnard

Review: RJ Bland

It's hard to believe that Christina Ricci is only in her early forties. It feels as if she has been around for that length of time. Her breakthrough performance (Mermaids) was 32 years ago but it was her appearance as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family in 1991 that really made her a household name. But whilst she has had a solid enough career, it feels as if she has never quite received the accolades that her talent deserves. She's having a bit of a renaissance though thankfully, starring in hit Netflix show Yellowjackets as well as being confirmed for the upcoming Addams Family TV spinoff, Wednesday. She's still somehow making time to do features though thankfully and her latest is psychological horror-drama, Monstrous.

 

It's the 1950s and Laura (Christina Ricci) and her son Cody (Santino Barnard) are looking for a new start after escaping a possibly dangerous domestic situation. Their new abode is a large house by a lake on the outskirts of a small town in rural California. Laura is determined to make things work and soon lands a job as a typist and does her best to encourage Cody to make friends at school. Laura's positive spirit is papering over some rather large mental cracks though and her constant sense of anxiety that her husband may have tracked them down is constant. Her hopes for turning over a new leaf and forgetting their past soon disintegrate however, despite her best efforts. She may dismiss her son's claim that there is a monster in his room after she hears him screaming one night but it isn't long before she is questioning whether perhaps there is something wrong with their new house after all...

 

Monstrous quickly and effectively establishes a delightfully wistful view of the 1950s. Vibrant Hepburn style dresses, ice cream shops and shiny chevrolets are aplenty. It's an era of American history that is often romanticised ( despite the civil unrest) and Director Chris Sivertson dives giddily into the candy coloured pool of nostalgia. However, it's also a film that feels slightly off from the outset. In the same way that Lynch gives us glimpses of an idealised Americana only to hint at something sick and rotten underneath, we're almost certain that not all is as it seems within a couple of minutes of Monstrous. It makes for an enjoyably curious - and at times unsettling – first act where we are invited to question the reality that our characters find themselves in. Unfortunately, the script gives one too many clues during the infancy of the plot and the result is that most viewers will have sussed out what is going on perhaps a little sooner than was intended. For a while you wonder if we are meant to have figured things out and there is something that will turn the story around in a different direction but alas, by the time the twist comes, it's hardly a surprise.

 

At the heart of Monstrous is Christine Ricci, who almost single-handedly propels the entire narrative. She's virtually in every scene. Which is a good thing, because as usual, she's bloody good. Carol Chrest's script doesn't give us too much of an insight into our rather capricious lead but Ricci does her best to get combine a sense of energy and sanguine, with dread and tumult. She possibly one of the most unreliable narrators you're going to see but despite the ambiguity of some of what she (and we) are seeing, Ricci's performance means that we are always on her side.

 

Although the actual horror elements of Monstrous are relatively light (it feels more like a psychodrama for much of the running time), when they do come they are done well. It's clear that the budget here is limited and Sivertson works within his means to give us a handful of dark, shadowy, foreboding scenes that work rather well and offer a neat contract to the bright, glossy aesthetic of most of Monstrous. Amongst the horror, there is solid exploration of some well-worn themes too and it's lean and focused enough for the film to never feel like a drag at any point. The journey itself is perfectly fine and the destination itself is satisfactory too. It's just a shame that it's signposted so clearly at the beginning of the trek.

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Monstrous is a solid if unremarkable psychological horror that gives us another reminder of the talents of Christina Ricci. It's just a shame that the mystery unravels so soon.