I love anthologies. Truthfully, the anthology format is where horror can thrive, either in short form through small vignettes in one film, or as separate stories told per episode in a series and even the occasional full season of television. Coming off of my love of Shudder’s Creepshow and the continued phenomenal Into the Dark features from Blumhouse and Hulu, my horror heart was bursting at the seems with Hulu’s announcement of their original anthology series Monsterland.
Produced in partnership with Annapurna Television, Monsterland is an eight-episode anthology series starring Kaitlyn Dever, Marquis Rodriguez, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Kelly Marie Tran, Mike Colter, Adepero Oduye, Diego Aguirre, and many more. Written, and executive produced by Mary Laws, the series showcases characters that have encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts. Based on the collection of stories from Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters each episode is focused on a broken person who is pushed to desperate acts.
Each and every character in these episodes are hit by trauma, tragedy, or circumstance that pushes them to their breaking points and that’s where the creatures intersect but more specifically how the main characters of each story are pushed away from humanity. While there are elements of classic creature features, body horror, and even possession stories, the heart of each and every episode is the human. And each episode will leave you with a hole in your stomach.
Covering topics like motherhood, mental illness, grief, radicalizing internet chat rooms, addiction, sexual abuse, and more, each episode hurts to watch. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re disturbing. Not in a “look away” or “too much blood” sort of way, but rather in a way that gets under your skin. While this happens to varying effect per episode, with some feeling shocking for shocking’s sake and others feeling like solemn explorations of open wounds, this through-line of the series is what holds the anthology together as a whole.
In “Port Fourchon, LA” you see a young woman battling poverty as a single mother of a child who seems too different from others and a mysterious man who offers her money for a place to stay and a way out of her life. Then, in “Eugene, Oregon” we see a tonal shift as the story focuses on a young boy, struggling to care for his sick mom while attempting to ease her worries for his school life. That is, until he’s visited by a mysterious entity and everything changes. Next, “New Orleans, Louisiana” centers on a family haunted by a monster that reveals itself to have been born of the matriarch’s own refusal to acknowledge the reality around her. Then, in “New York, New York” an evil politician is touched by something biblical when confronted with his negligence. And in “Palacios, TX,” a former laborer discovers a mermaid on the beach who consumes his life.
Now, each of those stories carries their own weight and merit. They are all disturbing and will be hit or miss with audiences given the subject matter and the choices that each of the main characters make by the end of each episode. Truthfully, the not-so-well hidden twist of each human being a monster in their own way is a hard pill to swallow. Especially with the choices made in the aforementioned episodes, viewers will have to be okay with seeing hopelessness and even evil in some cases.
That said, there are three standout stories that will grip the viewer, two deal with grief and one with jealousy. In “Plainfield, IL” we meet a married couple who got together in college and raised a daughter together. However, one of the spouses is dealing with mental health crises that pushes her wife to the edge. We see them as they fight and do everything they can to stay together. Then, in “Iron River, Michigan” we get a story of jealousy and what happens when a young woman achieves the life she’s always wanted, seemingly at the cost of her friend’s future.
Each of these two boast powerful performances form its lead actresses, Roberta Colindrez and Taylor Schilling give us a powerful story of love, grief, and pain in “Plainfield, IL” while Kelly Marie Tran steals the show in “Iron River, Michigan. But while these two stories offer up a deeper commentary with the same bleak endings, they also dive deeper into their themes and aim to make the audience feel loss instead of shock. Finally, “Newark, NJ” offers up the only catharsis in the entire series. This one is led by Mike Colter as a father dealing with the loss of his child and the fallen angels that seem to have come at the right time.
Overall, watching the kind of horror Monsterland thrives on is never easy, but the meanness of the stories and the complete unsettling dread of being beholden to the darkness hits like a sledgehammer in 2020. I don’t know how to unpack my feelings towards Monsterlands’ individual episodes, but I do know this series made me feel things. It dropped me into despair and fear and ager and it wasn’t until episode five when I started to crawl out of it. There is pain here, and I’m not sure most viewers who have had tough years will be ready to watch it.
Honestly, the bleak fairytales told may even feel like they end abruptly for some, but for me, that’s their point. There is no hope in Monsterland, that’s its strength but its also what will alienate a lot of viewers. A true mixed bag of thoughtful storytelling and tropes played for shock, the eight episodes offer up pain, and that’s about it. Even if you can’t tune into for each of them, “Newark, NJ” will offer the small piece of catharsis you may need right now.
Monsterland premieres all eight episodes exclusively on Hulu, October 2, 2020.
Overall, watching this kind of horror is never easy, but the meanness of the stories and the complete unsettling dread of being beholden to the darkness hits like a sledgehammer in 2020. I don’t know how to unpack my feelings towards Monsterland’s individual episodes, but I do know this series made me feel things.