‘Monsterland’ gets to the heart of horror

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 6:05pm

NOSELL

Hulu

The horror genre is no stranger to television. Paranormal activity and true crime stories have been a time-honored TV tradition since “The Twilight Zone.” In a genre so well-trodden, it’s often difficult to find something fresh and genuine in addition to the gore we’ve become so accustomed to onscreen. However, “Monsterland” is able to accomplish the ultimate goal of horror: To make the audience feel everything it throws at them.

Hulu’s new miniseries “Monsterland” is a collection of eight episodes, each set in a different American city. From Louisiana to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the show travels across the country to examine different intersections of reality and fantasy. While each installment involves a supernatural element, the main storylines focus on the horrors of everyday life like abuse, poverty and mental illness.

The series premiere, titled “Port Fourchon, Louisiana,” follows a young mother Toni (Kaitlyn Dever, “Unbelievable”) as she struggles to raise her violent and troubled four-year-old daughter. Working in a rundown diner to make ends meet, Toni cannot imagine spending the rest of her life caring for a child in her condition. In walks a mysterious stranger named Alex (Jonathan Tucker, “Westworld”) whose brutal murder of a fifteen year-old girl opens the episode with shocking violence. 

Unbeknownst to Toni, Alex’s vicious nature is hidden by his odd and pleasant exterior, and the two share a dark and unspeakable connection. With Alex inching ever closer to Toni and her daughter, the audience is left in constant suspense, fearful the killer will soon tear down the makeshift home Toni has worked so hard to build. In classic horror fashion, the call is coming from inside the house.

“Monsterland” succeeds where many other shows have failed. It respectfully acknowledges old tropes while subverting them. It presents a morally gray area while feeling entirely relatable. The delicate performances by Dever and Tucker make “Port Fourchon, Louisiana” one of the most tender and deeply terrifying stories to tell in the dark. 

What makes “Monsterland” different from other horror shows is its willingness to match gore with unnerving tragedy. The titular monsters may take lives and commit disturbing acts of violence, but the humans they torment are capable of just as much destruction. The relationship between Alex and Toni develops not out of manipulation; it is a kinship forged in shame. Dever’s Toni has internalized her monstrosity whereas Alex, a serial murderer, has not. And yet, the viewer is left wondering if they are not essentially the same.

In addition to its incredible writing and cast, this show connects the most taboo impulses of humanity with its American theme. With each episode set in a new city, “Monsterland” explores its subjects as they blend into their own backgrounds. The small, economically-depressed Louisiana town plays as much a role in the premiere as Toni, her daughter and Alex do.  

“Monsterland” has built an atmospheric and beautiful visual world for itself amid its unsettling content. Reminiscent of the classics, the Hulu series pays homage to the slasher flicks and spooky stories of the past. Still, it achieves originality and remains uncompromising in its critique of specifically American behavior. In time, “Monsterland” may soon find itself as canonical as its many inspirations.

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu.


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