“Monstrous” is a supernatural thriller that digs much deeper than it first appears: On the surface, Laura (Christina Ricci) is simply a mother looking to restart her life in a new town with her young son Cody (Santino Barnard, “8-Bit Christmas”). Considering the 1950s setting, a time when it might be unusual for a woman to raise a child alone in a town unfamiliar to her, it’s almost immediately clear that something is up with Laura. Figuring out what that is, however, is what fuels the mystery.
Making matters more curious, Laura and Cody’s new home is remote and near a pond. It’s one of those movie homes that screams “ghosts” and “monsters.” And true to the cliché, the house, while picturesque and perfect in Laura’s eyes, immediately has issues.
Before they can even unpack, Cody doesn’t feel well in the house. When his mom suggests a nap, he claims monsters visited him as he slept. As frightened as he is, Laura dismisses it. Though Cody later continues to reference seeing a monster and then a “pretty lady” from the pond, Laura remains in denial, even as she, herself, begins having strange experiences.
Those initial dismissals, coupled with her insistence that Cody will make new friends and be liked, suggest the impeccably dressed Laura with the perfect hair is a bit unstable. As the drama continues, it becomes clearer that what Laura wants to see is not quite in step with reality. On top of that, she is fighting her own demons, both internal and external. By the time she begins wrestling with the monsters for Cody’s sake, her “mama bear” instincts seem even more off. Near the film’s end, the drama unravels in a manner that may not completely pay off as intended.
There’s no denying that “Monstrous” is largely a good and clever story. Ricci has a flair for off-kilter performances and does not disappoint with Laura. Even as she presents an outward air that’s calm, cool and collected, her eyes betray inner turmoil. As she has revealed as recently as “Yellowjackets,” Ricci is a master of complexity. Her Laura is both troubled and vulnerable.
Barnard impressively holds his own opposite his more seasoned co-star; as Cody, he is innocent and vulnerable. It is also clear to see why his mother loves him but also why he has no friends. Cody represents so many young kids who can easily slip under the radar; his susceptibility to harm is no surprise, and neither is his lack of protection. While the film’s payoff is less than gratifying payoff, it’s in no way a reflection of Barnard’s standout performance.
“Monstrous” offers a strong premise and some fresh twists, particularly in a genre where gimmicky filmmaking has prevailed. (Screenwriter Carol Chrest’s only other credit is a 2000 feature called “The Prophet’s Game.”) Psychological thrillers aren’t easy to pull off, and while “Monstrous” doesn’t entirely succeed, neither does it fail. It’s an engaging enough story with a punch that might warrant a second watching to make it easier to follow along, especially with such strong performances from the leads.
Chris Sivertson, whose “All Cheerleaders Die” made a strong impression almost a decade ago, provides very steady direction that impressively maintains the film’s mid-century period feel. The monsters and other disturbances, like the light fixture shaking or a strong wind knocking a person to the floor, fall in line with how a 1950s filmmaker might have portrayed them, making both his technique and the film itself an exercise in nostalgia. No one will confuse “Monstrous” for Hitchcock, but echoes of the master’s touch can be found here.
Ultimately “Monstrous” is less about the story on the screen than the lesson underneath. For those who get it, it’s a film with a unique and poignant twist. Those who don’t, or who refuse to buy into it, will just feel cheated.
“Monstrous” opens in U.S. theaters and on demand May 13.