Sometime in the 1950s, as signalled by an album’s worth of bright poppy tunes, Laura (Christina Ricci) and her seven-year-old son Cody (Santino Bernard) move into a rented old house by a lake. Laura is fleeing her abusive husband and hoping to settle in a new town, job and home, but Cody – who, in an infuriatingly believable whine, says of his father ‘but I forgive him’ – is a spectre of gloom throughout, refusing to make an effort to fit into his new school, then talking about a ‘pretty lady’ (actually a skeletal sea-hag) who appears in and perhaps out of his dreams. Meanwhile, the house is afflicted by all sorts of problems, which the cheery landlord (Don Baldaramos) promises to try to fix without ever actually doing anything while his hostile, suspicious wife (Colleen Camp) bristles at every modest request. Laura, who arrives in a gleaming finned car with ad-perfect hair and clothes, starts fraying immediately, assailed by TV commercials about dishwashers and magazines with Mamie Eisenhower on the cover that present a lifestyle she can’t hope to emulate. Furthermore, Cody might be developing psychokinesis and the ability to channel or summon monstrous entities.
Directed by Chris Sivertson, who’s tackled domestic supernatural horror in Still/Born and Z, from a script by Carol Chrest, who wrote the 2000 Dennis Hopper serial killer movie The Prophet’s Game, Monstrous is a showcase for Christina Ricci, who keeps being drawn back into eccentric, bizarre roles as a mature actress (most recently in Yellowjackets). It’s an added layer of irony that she now plays a mother of the kind of alienated child she used to specialise in, matched with Santino Bernard in a scenario that echoes that of The Babadook or The Witch in the Window as a parent and child are locked in conflict yet feel under threat from sinister external forces (one sequence even riffs on a forerunner of these films, The Curse of the Cat People).
It’s sparing with clues, though they are sprinkled in fairly and all make sense when the third act sums up and explains the mysteries. Sivertson has a knack with terrifying set-pieces, like the appearances of the lake monster, as well as the unsettling seepage of the sinister into an ordinary world. The 1950s setting is intriguingly used, not just as an excuse for the lack of mobile phones or the internet or an opportunity to get The Chordettes or Buddy Holly on the soundtrack. There’s a Lynchian sense of the decade as a surface idyll with rot beneath, as shown in Laura’s oppressive work place or the general assumption (even by close family members) that whatever went wrong in the heroine’s marriage is her own fault.