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by Karin Lowachee

The Monsters Within Us


Examining the monsters within us seems like an appropriate theme for horror in 2020 and early 2021. Divisive opinions, wanton disregard for the lives of others, and failing leadership painted the world in a real life creep show that nobody could quite escape. The conflict between external monsters and monstrous behavior, whether mental or physical, and our own internal impulses and damaging fantasies is the dichotomy examined throughout the Hulu series Monsterland, based on some of the short stories of author Nathan Ballingrud's outstanding collection, North American Lake Monsters.

Four of the stories in this eight-episode anthology series were inspired by or adapted from Ballingrud's work, while the other four were written independently of the book but reflect the same theme. Some of the episodes connect in various ways—through characters or events—while for the rest the only connection is in the titles: each episode is named after the city it inhabits, creating a kind of Americana horror road trip. While the fundamental idea of external/internal monsters that imbues both the story collection and the series is not groundbreaking, each narrative is often handled with stark and unflinching emotional scrutiny by well-equipped performers and capable directing, so that even the weakest of the series still leaves a lingering taste. If it sometimes becomes heavy-handed, it might be a risk of the genre, and those looking for jump-scares won't find any, but for those interested in gazing into an internal abyss, Monsterland delivers.

"You Go Where It Takes You" is the first story in Ballingrud's collection and it also leads the anthology series, newly entitled "Port Fourchon, Louisiana" Down-and-out waitress and young mother Toni (played flawlessly by Kaitlyn Dever) is aged beyond her years, not the least reason because she is struggling with guilt over her troubled daughter who occasionally violently acts out. When she meets a stranger on the run (a creepily restrained Jonathan Tucker), he introduces her to the idea of changing one's face—literally—in order to live a new life. The monster here is treated as an on-the-nose external manifestation of Toni's internal desire, which acts as a propellant for her "monstrous" act at the end of the episode regarding her young daughter, something that many would find irredeemable especially in her lack of regret. Toni leaves her old life behind in order to live for herself, but she turns up in the series' final episode "Newark, New Jersey," which is also based on Ballingrud's story "The Monsters of Heaven." In "Port Fourchon, Louisiana," as in many of the others, the monster here acts as a catalyst to the human's decisions.

In "Newark, New Jersey," a married couple—played with nuance by Mike Colter (Luke Cage, Evil) and Adepero Oduye (When They See Us and the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier)—are mourning the disappearance (read: abduction) of their ballerina daughter. The husband Brian carries guilt over taking his eyes off her for a second, and the wife Amy silently blames him for this, as well as his emotional immobility, drinking, and obsession to keep their household static for when their daughter is found. The pain is palpable between them; the wife cheats on the husband with her grief counselor in a last ditch effort to galvanize him, which it does momentarily. He finds himself in a diner and meets Toni. They exchange stories and Toni outright calls herself a "monster" for leaving her daughter. On his way home from nearly committing adultery himself, Brian stumbles upon a fallen "angel" in a dumpster. The creatures have been turning up and their bodies butchered and sold—Toni recalls her hallucinogenic experience with the "angel" blood and how she couldn't deal with what it showed her—so Brian takes it home, where he and Amy place its injured form in their daughter's bed. So begins a strange and bloody healing of both marriage and souls; here, the monster is a catalyst to forgiveness and acceptance, though in a predictably horrifying way.

The bookend stories of the series are two of the strongest emotionally, bolstered by variations on the internal/external and damaging fantasy/reality themes in the other six episodes. In "Eugene, Oregon" (based loosely on Ballingrud's short "S.S."), a teenager (a gaunt Charlie Tahan) responsible for his homebound mother gets radicalized against the "shadow" he finds in his home. Moody and visually dark, the final shot of the episode where the extremism in his own fantasy plays out to a horrible end in the real world drives home the idea of the potential for manipulation of one's own monstrous impulses. Episode 3, "New Orleans, Louisiana," breaks away from the source material and depicts Annie Keller (a wrought Nicole Beharie), married to a wealthy doctor who seems to love her son as his own. Her denial about the truth of her husband underscores the monster's ubiquitous existence in her life; the further she goes to run from the black-eyed trumpet-playing demon, the quicker she slides into her own internal demons.

"New York, New York" is perhaps the weakest of the lot, focusing on an oil baron who unsurprisingly tries to cover up a horrific environmental disaster for which his company is responsible. Heavy Christian sinew is woven into his tale of internal rot, reflecting the external to bind the narrative together, but it's less effective due to the viewer's total indifference to his fate. We all know people like that deserve comeuppance and rarely get it, so following the hour of his torture feels painful for all the wrong reasons. Episode 5 picks up again in "Plainfield, Illinois," wherein a young couple struggles with one wife's mental illness (chillingly portrayed by Taylor Schilling) to the point that her partner, Shawn, (a sympathetic Roberta Colindrez) makes a fatal split-second decision to ignore her wife's attempted suicide. Grief, guilt, and macabre humor embody this episode as Kate's zombie existence proves more and more unwieldy to Shawn, though Shawn refuses to let go this time, even in death. As an analogy for those living with mental illness in a relationship of love it is likely too pithy, but the pain on display feels real and gutting (and the increasing zombification of Kate is cringingly good).

Episodes 6 and 7—"Palacios, Texas" and "Iron River, Michigan" respectively—speak to the willing fantasies we build for ourselves and how they can become specters of horror in our lives. Both are original stories not based on Ballingrud's book, and "Palacios, Texas" picks up the plot thread of "New York, NewYork" by following a fisherman (a weathered Trieu Tran, Altered Carbon and The Newsroom) suffering from health issues because of the oil spill. He isn't the only casualty of the disaster—a marooned mermaid washes up on the shore, and he takes her home and begins to "care" for her while his colleagues encroach on his growing, sometimes antagonistic, relationship with the creature. They want to exploit her for money, but the fisherman, because of his own fantasy of belonging with the mermaid or the mermaid's enchantment, drives them away. Despite this act, the fisherman, whose job is to capture creatures from the ocean for consumption, gets no mercy from the mermaid. In "Iron River, Michigan," insecure Lauren (a compelling Kelly Marie Tran) seems to usurp the life of her passive-aggressive bullying best friend when the best friend goes missing. The narrative takes on the tint of a dark fairy tale as Lauren finds herself driven to the woods where other bodies had turned up, and gets taken in by a hermit witch who offers her a choice: One is a path of redemption, the other selfishness. It is no surprise which one Lauren ultimately chooses.

Monsterland captures to varying degrees of efficacy and fright how external horrors begin with an internal source, and whatever monsters may exist in the waking, physical world—they can't hold a candle to the selfish motivations, denials, fear, and guilt of the individual human heart.



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