Plot: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels, and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts in Monsterland, an anthology series based on the collection of stories from Nathan Ballingrud’s “North American Lake Monsters”.
Review: For a while, horror on the small screen was relegated to The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Since streaming services have continued to expand their library of original programming, horror has been a go-to genre and the anthology format has seen a resurgence. From The Twilight Zone to Creepshow and even Blumhouse’s holiday-themed Into The Dark, we have quite a lot of options to scare us. Halloween is fast approaching and Hulu’s latest offering, Monsterland, wants to keep you awake at night with an interconnected series of standalone stories set around the United States. While the overall series offers some interesting stories, there are just not enough monsters here to earn the title Monsterland.
Based on the collection “North American Lake Monsters” by Nathan Ballingrud, the trailers make Monsterland looks like your standard horror anthology. But, each episode is a deliberately paced and character-driven piece rooted in psychological horror with supernatural overtones. Having seen all eight episodes, I can say with certainty that this may be one of the most depressing shows of 2020. In a year already rife with real-world problems ranging from racism to politics, pandemics, and more, these series debuts with a focus on the monsters inside us all. While this certainly makes for some intense subject matter, these self-contained tales only scratch the surface of these themes and only a few of them manage to delve deep enough to wrap with a satisfying conclusion.
While this is an anthology, there is an intentional order to these episodes that I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, there are connections here that become more apparent if you watch them in release order. But, there are up and down moments through all eight episodes. The most noticeable thing I found in Monsterland is that the stories don’t wrap up. There is a lot of build-up using supernatural elements or teases of actual monsters before you realize that these are all truly broken individuals with the horror elements all things that could be experienced in real life. From parenting a special needs child to caring for a sick parent, child abuse to mid-life crises as well as the insurmountable grief of losing someone, these tales all demonstrate some gory make-up and special effects but very sparingly. So much so that you may forget this is supposed to be a horror series at all.
Each episode is named after a different American city. Starting with “Port Fourchon, LA”, we meet Kaitlyn Dever and it becomes very clear that the source material of this series is adept at showing us very different lifestyles in the United States. From the poorest of the poor in Louisiana and Eugene, OR to the upper class as seen in “New Orleans, LA” and “New York, NY”, we see characters from all walks of life who are haunted, to various extents, by the circumstances of their lives or poor choices made in the past. Scenes are dripping with atmosphere and some truly unsettling images on screen, but each story feels rushed and forced to fit into the approximately fifty minute run time, which leaves the endings with something to be desired. While I have no issue with stories featuring ambiguous endings, these episodes don’t even end in a way that makes much sense
Some of these stories still fail to come together fully but are buoyed by some excellent acting. The “New York, New York” episode has a great turn by the under-appreciated Bill Camp as an oil company executive dealing with a crisis. Camp is a great actor who can do fury better than anyone. Adria Arjona plays the creepiest mermaid you will ever see in “Palacios, TX” and Luke Cage star Mike Colter delivers a powerful turn in the “Newark, NJ” episode. But, the scene-stealer in this series has to be STAR WARS actress Kelly Marie Tran in the “Iron River, MI” episode which may also be the overall best executed of these eight stories.
Monsterland had so much potential and as I watched each episode I held out hope that they would stick the landing. But, this series is not scary enough to be considered horror. Yes, there is evil in each episode and it makes you question whether real people are scarier than fictional monsters. it is a worthy question and many of these tales may have worked as feature-length stories to do the source material justice. Instead, we are left with episodes that force in the supernatural elements in a way that feels like an afterthought. Monsterland ends up as a missed opportunity that will leave audiences underwhelmed and more disturbed than scared.
Monsterland premieres October 2nd on Hulu.