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The first episode of Monsterland opens with a man murdering a teenage girl, thus posing the eternal question, “Who are the REAL monsters among us?” Eventually the show gets around to answering that question, the answer being, “These creepy actual monsters who are all over the place”. This comes as quite a relief, as for a while there you might’ve thought the name of the show was just a metaphor.
Jonathan Tucker in Monsterland.
Monsterland is an anthology series, a format one can’t help feel has not been used to great enough advantage in the modern era. Back in the day, anthologies seemed to be everywhere: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt. These days we have shows like the wonderfully mad American Horror Story and the unfortunate American Crime Story, which tell a different story each season. Monsterland is more in the vein of Black Mirror, with each episode telling a new tale of terror that is not connected to the others – or is it? That’s for you to find out. The important thing is the monsters.
Although, as stated, the monsters referenced in the title are proper supernatural beings, it’s also true that Monsterland is greatly concerned with the darkness in the hearts of human beings, and in the society that they’ve created. What ordinary people do to each other can be monstrous, and what they do to survive in a world full of peril can be disturbing – but in the Monsterland universe, that darkness warps and morphs and takes on the physical form of real-life abominations that plague both the guilty and the desperate.
In one episode, a diner waitress who is barely surviving faces the nightmare of poverty and single motherhood, before confronting the terror of a serial killer stalking her town, and then discovering something even more horrifying. In another, a teenager quits school to care for his invalid mother, only to discover a mysterious shadow creature and learn of the nightmarish forces impacting his life.
The stories are diverse, but there is a recurring theme of pasts, traumas, and the ways in which our histories haunt us – in real life figuratively, in the show often quite literally. The characters in Monsterland tend to be beset by misfortune and misery already, the monsters moving in to capitalise on those parts of themselves they strive to eliminate or forget. In one episode, the protagonist is a fisherman suffering health effects from a catastrophic oil spill – like the tragedies befalling innocent victims of the spill, monsters arise from the murky muck that humanity creates.
Kaitlyn Dever plays a single mum at the end of her rope in the horror series Monsterland.Credit: Barbara Nitke
Monsterland is, for all its existential dabbling, a genre piece – or collection of pieces. The shots, the lighting, the music, the mood, all are situated quite deliberately and unselfconsciously in the horror milieu. Though it can at times go a little over the top, there is nothing of American Horror Story’s camp playfulness here: Monsterland is not interested in winking at the audience or going so extreme you have to laugh. It spooks with well-built atmospherics and the steady ratcheting of tension and dread, rather than with blood and guts or jump scares. It’s unlikely to make you leap out of your seat, but it does have the power to grip and to send currents of unease prickling through your body. It’s also liable to make you sad – happy endings are not a priority for this series, and there’ll be no reassurances that everything is going to be OK.
Its other commitment is to surprise. A horror series about monsters that spends the great majority of its run time focusing on the natural travails of regular humans, often revealing its dreadful creatures only fleetingly, and sometimes quite late in proceedings, runs a little against the grain already. But the greatest attribute of Monsterland, and that which more than compensates for its tendency to the dour and depressing, is the makers’ determination that nothing is to be as it seems. Even more than the array of horrors – from gruesome mermaids to murderous shapeshifters – it’s the stories’ insistence on zigging when you thought they’d zag that elevates them.
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