You’re about to see a mountain of Halloween-related content pouring onto the streaming sites. That’s a great thing, obviously, since staying inside and binging is a lot safer than going to any holiday gatherings, but whittling down all the options isn’t so simple. Fortunately, Hulu’s Monsterland handily earns a place in the spooky-priority queue while diving into an episodic-anthology structure, which is all the rage again with CBS All Access’ Twilight Zone revival and Shudder’s successful Creepshow. That’s more intense than Hulu’s seasonal-anthology horror show, Castle Rock, since each Monsterland episode has a fresh cast and must accelerate tension within a new story, and so on. Well, the show does a fine job of executing scares with at least half of these attempts.
This might not sound like an entirely positive review so far, but I believe that, overall, Monsterland is worth a binge. It’s a hell of a challenge to pull off eight stellar episodes with eight different directing personalities, even if creator Mary Laws also penned several of the screenplays. What I really think is happening is that each of these episodes will appeal to many audience members, but by design, not all of them will appeal to all horror lovers. Those fans can be pretty picky, after all. Some viewers prefer less shock and more suspense, some dig gore, and then there are the fans of a slow burn, which is almost impossible to pull off while packaging a story in an hour-long format. The good news is that the stories are inspired by the best-selling short-story collection, North-American Lake Monsters, which embraced the something-for-everyone approach.
Describing the set-up is simple enough. Each episode dives into a penny-dreadful (emphasis on the dread)-style tale that layers on complex manifestations of monsters that source from human shortcomings. Stories get named after the story’s setting, and in particular, the New Orleans and NYC-set episodes integrate the local architecture, sights, and sounds. That’s especially the case with the NOLA episode, which stars Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow) and will not only rattle your eardrums but your soul.
There are a lot of familiar faces, like Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi), who stars in the “Iron River, MI” episode, where she plays a neglected daughter who forges a new life (and identity) for herself that’s eerily reminiscent of a dead frenemy. And the below creature (I’ll refrain from naming the episode to avoid spoiling) is portrayed by an actress from a wildly popular, long-running series from another streaming service.
The season begins strong with the “Port Fourchon, LA” episode starring Kaitlyn Dever, who’s beloved in so many projects, including Booksmart, Unbelievable, and Justified. Her performance as a down-and-out waitress with a nightmare of a daughter is one of the best of the season. Dever’s character is world-weary and has seen some sh*t, and she’s overwhelmed in the same ways that all single mothers are overwhelmed with several additional stressors at work. And Dever does more-street-smart-than-her-years better than almost any young actress out there. She’s so compelling that Mary Laws knew damn well that Dever shouldn’t be confined to only one episode. So, I’m pleased to report that she briefly surfaces in a few other places throughout the season.
I highly encourage you to have fun with the sport I just invented called “Dever-spotting.”
Many of the episodes work well. A few of them are fantastic, even. I did not love all of them, but again, that’s down to horror-taste (mine happens to sway toward psychological horror and morally ambiguous reckonings, and those boxes do get checked) more than matters of execution. There’s a major humans-are-more-monster-than-monsters-themselves component at work, and that’s a well-treaded approach, but there are enough creative twists to keep things fresh. Some stories will stick with you for awhile while inviting you to debate who the “monster” might actually be. And the show prefers to place more emphasis on how humans handle monstrous threats, rather than the actual monsters. Some of these creatures are figurative and/or symbolic, too, with pieces of puzzles sliding together in the most unsettling of ways.
Don’t get me wrong, though, there are definitely some literal monsters and other freaky creatures. If that’s your jam, no worries there. Yet even more notably, these stories are often challenging — not in a sense that they’re overly intellectual but that many of these stories arrive in a way that might make you second-guess who you’re rooting for and why. The end result with Monsterland is frequently emotional, often cerebral, and favors an insidious sense of dread over the cheap-and-easy jump-scare-type tactics. Shadows are often more frightening than what lurks within them, and if you’re a horror lover, you’ll be challenged (and possibly frustrated) but ultimately rewarded for your efforts. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an engrossing one. I also strongly believe that everyone will be able to find something in this season of horrors that will scare the bejesus out of them and keep them up at night. Monsterland is all over the map, literally, but it’ll burrow into your American skin.
Hulu’s first ‘Monsterland’ season streams on October 2.