IMDB description: `”Encounters with Gothic beasts, including fallen angels and werewolves, broken people are driven to desperate acts in an attempt to repair their lives, ultimately showing there is a thin line between man and beast”.
Why I took it off the list: I love me a good monster story, but decent creature tales are hard to come by. But I was recently spoiled by the excellent Sweetheart (2019), a worthy addition to the genre.
So when I realized there was a relatively new anthology series that promised to tackle a host of different stories with supernatural beasties at their core, my hopes were high that it could continue the revival of my appreciation for monster stories.
Not Many. I’ve always been a fan of horror anthology shows, right back to growing up on kiddle-friendly spook-fests like Goosebumps (1995-1998) and Are you Afraid of the Dark? (1990-2000) in the nineties. There’s recently been a major resurgence in the format, probably thanks to the success of American Horror Story (2011-), and in the past few years, there have almost been too many new horror anthologies to keep up with. Although I certainly try!
These type of shows are, by their nature, always a bit hit-and-miss. Like the individual seasons of AHS, episodic anthologies can hit an impressive high with one installment, and be a bit of a letdown with the next. And some have a far higher hit rate than others.
Of the recent efforts I have seen, I would put the fun series adaptation of Creepshow (2019-) in the former camp and the disappointing reboot of The Twilight Zone (2019-2020) firmly in the latter.
So basically, you never know what you’re going to get. The atmospheric posters and promos for Monsterland were certainly intriguing and promising, but from my experience of horror anthologies, I wasn’t holding my breath.
Still, I thought it was worth checking out to see if it was hiding any hidden gems, even if I had to wade through some less impressive installments to get to them.
Review of Monsterland
Monsterland is based on the short story collection North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, which I ordered on a whim halfway through watching the series out of curiosity to how faithful an adaptation it was.
As it turns out, not very faithful at all: Monsterland mostly presents its own collection of original tales about American monsters both literal and metaphorical, incorporating only a sprinkling of the ideas in Ballingrud’s stories. A few episodes are more direct adaptations, but even then they have been heavily modified for the screen.
This may have been a wise decision: the stories in North American Lake Monsters are uniformly bleak, and Ballingrud’s voice, somewhat reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk, is defiantly nihilistic. The series turns down this gloom somewhat, and thankfully cuts out most of the borderline misogyny in the author’s depiction of his female characters. However, the basic premise of damaged people being confronted by their own failings through encounters with strange creatures remains.
The unique thing that Monsterland has going for it is that every episode is set in a different city/town across the width and breadth of the US. This allows it to naturally explore a range of locales and characters and gives the unsettling impression of a widespread malaise affecting the underbelly of the American way of life.
Like the book, it employs its monsters in a far less literal way than most of the horror anthology series out there, practically to the point where they are almost inconsequential to the main story. However, this approach works much better in some episodes than others.
Boasts a Couple of Top-Notch Episodes
Like I said before, even the weakest anthologies tend to strike a little bit of gold. The stand-out installment of Monsterland for me was the second episode, New Orleans, Louisiana, pictured above. Grounded by a great performance from Nicole Beharie as an upper-class woman who gradually begins to unravel as secrets from her past literally come back to haunt her, the episode is tense, uncomfortable, and boasts a genuinely terrifying villain.
Palacios, Texas is a similarly unsettling and effective episode and deals with an out-of-commission fisherman who rescues a not-so-little mermaid from an oil spill. He then gradually comes to develop an alarming emotional attachment to the creature as he attempts to nurse it back to health. Filled with haunting imagery, it benefits from Nicolas Pesce (Eyes of My Mother)’s ace direction, and some impactful acting.
The last episode I would outright recommend is Plainfield, Illinois, a mostly faithful adaptation of Ballingrud’s The Good Husband with a gender-swapped twist, which uses its monster as a powerful metaphor for grief. Starring a perfectly-cast Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black), it’s the surprisingly affecting story of a manic depressive woman who finally fulfills her long-held death wish only to become a literal zombie, and the inability of her partner to accept this.
And…Many Weaker Episodes Somewhat Redeemed by Good Acting
The episodes of this series that fall down a bit for me are those that less successfully integrate their monsters into the story. The first installment, Port Fourchon, Louisiana, is mostly faithful to its source material, You Go Where It Takes You. But where the enigmatic narrative worked on the page, I think it needed to be fleshed out a bit more to work on the screen. Nonetheless, Johnathan Tucker gives a chilling performance as a man who is not quite what he seems.
Veteran character actor Bill Camp has a lot of fun cutting loose as an unscrupulous businessman seemingly possessed by a literal demon in New York, New York, and his increasingly erratic behavior makes the episode worth watching alone. But the narrative, completed invented for the screen, tries to tackle topical issues in a rather blunt and unsatisfying way and doesn’t really live up to his performance.
Similarly, Mike Colter (who I love, love, love in Evil) and Adepero Oduye (the excellent Pariah) are fantastically believable as grieving parents in Newark, New Jersey. This episode, easily the weirdest of the bunch, offers an agreeably strange interpretation of the concept of ‘angels’ and is effectively atmospheric, but the resolution is a bit too tidy and doesn’t totally convince.
Nevertheless, even the most underwhelming episodes of Monsterland are arguably more atmospheric and tense than the better installments of the so-far incredibly lackluster AHS spin-off, American Horror Stories (2021-). And, at the end of the day, whether or not an episode is ‘good’ is probably pretty subjective and will depend on individual tastes.
Final Score: 6/10
Worth Checking Out?
Whether you’ll enjoy this series probably depends on if you like your monster stories more metaphorical or flesh-chompingly literal. Like Ballingrud’s fiction, it really is more a slice-of-life look at downtrodden people dealing with intense personal issues than it is a horror show. It just happens to feature supernatural creatures as the catalyst for the drama to play out.
Of course, the best horror manages to combine both elements, but Monsterland only occasionally pulls off this feat. Still, when it works, it is pretty great, and I would at least recommend watching the 3 episodes I highlighted above if nothing else.
Created by Mary Laws
Stay tuned for my next post, a continuation of my list of underrated TV shows from 2000-2020, coming soon!