4 out of 5

Created by: Mary Laws

covers season 1

Anthology series – wherein each episode is a separate entry – are generally incredibly promising, and occasionally very entertaining, but are also often limited by their structure. Sometimes it’s that the one-and-done format prevents depth which could help sweeten the potential of explored themes (the recent Twilight Zone being a good example of this sensation); sometimes it’s that the focus can only go so far – Black Mirror – before all its ideas have been played out; and sometimes the concept is just so narrow that unless you really have an idea that plays into it, it comes across as forced (a la many Into the Darks).

Monsterland, based on / inspired by short stories from Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters: Stories, found the theme, within those stories, that keeps on giving – the horrors of our own muddled humanities – and maintains Ballingrud’s mingling of the realistic and the fantastical, in which serial killers can literally morph into their victims, or angels crash from the sky and are butchered in order to partake of their psychedelic blood… The genius of this, which is presented with surprising consistency across the first season’s eight episodes, is that it avoids the trend of indie horror (film) of the past few years of using the genre for commentary, meanwhile forgetting the genre along the way. This has led to intriguing flicks which seem brave and terrifying and then lose their way with obvious messaging and faux scares; Monsterland doesn’t mess with this: it places the horror – the reality – right up front, and lets the monsters of its title sink into the background. This is true bravery: making us confront the decisions that can lead to situations we might think we’d never be in; and true terror in juxtaposing that with the fantastical elements that seem lesser in comparison to actions we take of our own accord.

While some episodes admittedly don’t bring these pieces to the strongest of conclusions – either hitting too broadly, with an episode focusing on Big Business, or perhaps coming to their point too slowly, as in an episode in which Kelly Marie Tran lusts after her friend’s life – all of the episodes are equally visually compelling, taking place in realized locations (locations are used for episode names), and feature characters with lived-in histories, brought to life by a slew of fantastic actors, Tran included. There’s also occasional links between the episodes, which does serve to underline how all of these tragedies are of one world, but somewhat act as distractions as well, seeming like Easter Eggs when the focus should be on what’s happening in that episode.

…But your attention will be rapt back in place as soon as these links pass by, struck by how dark Monsterland is willing to go, and putting to shame films and shows that would bill themselves, more directly, as horror.