Written by Nathan Ballingrud, Mary Laws, Scott Kosar, Wesley Strick, and Emily Kaczmarek
Directed by Anne Sewitsky, Kevin Phillips, Craig William MacNeil, Eagle Egilsson, Logan Kibens, Nicolas Pesce, Desiree Akhavan, and Babak Anvari
Oh, dear. As I have said many times before that television horror anthologies are a tough feat to pull off. So, I want to acknowledge that making this series had to be a challenge. You have a new cast every episode with a new director. That can’t be easy to do. You have between forty-five minutes to an hour to tell a full character arc, which is another near impossibility. All of this said, I really hated Monsterland. It was a real slog to get through all the episodes, and I found myself forcing the last two down just so it could be over.
Monsterland is based on North American Lake Monsters, a horror anthology by the brilliant Nathan Ballingrud. I loved this book, and his subsequent collection Wounds was even better. That second book had one of the few horror stories I’ve ever read that made me cry. It’s titled “The Maw” and about a man trying to find his runaway dog while his city cracks open and entities from Hell emerge. It’s a story about love and not processing your grief when you lose someone you love. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Man, how I wished that level of beauty was present in Monsterland. At some point in production, the show’s name was changed and half the episodes written weren’t based on Ballingrud’s work. So I guess this show is inspired by his work? I’ll be talking about the episodes divided into two halves: the Ballingrud adaptations and the original stories.
Of the eight episodes, half were based on Ballingrud’s work. Those are “Port Fourchon, LA” (based on You Go Where It Takes You”), “Eugene, OR” (based on “SS”), “Plainfield, IL” (based on “The Good Husband”), and “Newark, NJ” (based on “The Monsters of Heaven”). These were the better episodes of the season but not perfect. They stick fairly close to the source material, which is good because Ballingrud has excellent ideas and tells fantastic stories. There were little details changed, like the married couple in “Plainfield, IL” being turned from straight to lesbian that never detracted but helped add diversity to the stories. Of these four, I think “Newark, NJ” is the best executed. It really delivers on the emotional core of that short story. However, it does deviate by bringing in a character who appeared in the first episode for what amounts to really nothing. Her presence doesn’t add anything to the story that’s going on; it’s just a strange aside that I think was unnecessary.
The other half of the episodes, the original stories, are “New Orleans, LA,” “New York, NY,” “Palacios, TX,” and “Iron River, MI.” These are all pretty terrible, with some slightly better than others. I liked parts of “Palacios, TX” it tells the story of a Vietnamese-American fisherman scarred by a toxic chemical spill. One morning he discovers a mermaid washed up on the beach, secrets her away to his house, and begins imagining a life together with her. It’s a pretty standard horror story, and you can easily see where it is going, but it was still pretty okay. The other episode I don’t have much of a problem with is “Iron River, MI.” It has a pretty decent hook, a young woman is about to get married, having been taken in by her dead friend’s mother as a surrogate daughter. What happened between the friends years ago is a mystery. The biggest flaw in this episode is some horrendous acting by supporting actors. And the ending goes in a direction that straight-up sucks and doesn’t track with the rest of the story. “New Orleans, LA” and “New York, NY” are borderline unwatchable crap.
I was a bit disheartened when I saw Ballingrud take to social media to say critics don’t know what they are talking about and don’t understand the horror or weird fiction genre. As someone who loves those literary genres, the critics are right. Monsterland is a major disappointment. The horror stories are trying to also have a message, which I like, but it’s handled in such a clunky, obvious manner. They hit the audience over the head with the themes and end just feeling dumb. This should have been a slam dunk for me; it’s the very type of horror I love. I think Hulu doesn’t handle their horror content very well. I had the same feeling about their adaptation of the novella Wounds and Clive Barker’s Book of Blood film. It’s pretty disappointing stuff that misses the mark entirely.