Just in time for Halloween, Hulu has dropped their latest series, Monsterland. An anthology series based on a collection of short stories by Nathan Ballingrud, each episode tells its own self-contained story of people coming into contact with the spooky and mysterious aspects of the world. But while some might expect for a show with that title to be full of things that go bump in the night and designed to make you jump, Monsterland uses the supernatural as Black Mirror uses technology: to hold a mirror up to humanity with oftentimes terrifying results. Sure, Monsterland works as a straight horror show; there were several moments I jumped in my seat, and the cinematography is enough to create an eerie feeling in viewers. But where it really shines is in its characters, played by a group of actors who all bring their A-game to each episode.
Take Kaitlyn Dever, who has been excelling for years now in many roles, including on Justified and Unbelievable, as well as in the movie Booksmart. She anchors the first episode “Port Fourchon, LA” as Toni, a young single mother with a challenging child who finds herself in the crosshairs of a serial killer (a creepy Jonathan Tucker, who also worked with Dever on Justified). But the episode takes many unexpected turns with the focus squarely on Dever. She sells Toni’s desperation, her feeling of being trapped in a life she never wanted for herself. The choices she makes are startling, but by watching Dever, you understand them – and whether that’s good or bad is a question with an uncomfortable answer.
Dever certainly isn’t the only actor in the series who does the brilliant writing justice. Kelly Marie Tran is as you’ve never seen her before in “Iron River, Michigan” as she plays a woman longing for a different life. Tran has to sell a major twist while keeping the audience invested in her character, and she more than succeeds. Charlie Tahan is also phenomenal in the episode “Eugene, Oregon” as a young man who finds a community on the Internet among those who believe shadows are causing their bad luck in life. Many of Monsterland‘s episodes connect to current events in subtle ways. Still, this one felt startling and relevant as we watch Tahan’s character get sucked into a world of conspiracy thought. Mike Colter and Adepero Oduye break hearts in the finale “Newark, New Jersey,” playing a couple holding on to grief after a horrific tragedy. “Plainfield, Illinois” is an absolutely gutting episode about what it is like to love someone with a mental illness – and what it is like to live with one yourself. It’s a scary episode, but it’s heavingly emotional, and it only works because Roberta Colindrez and Taylor Schilling make you believe in their love for each other and the consequences of that love.
The way this series is written also makes it unique. Viewers will find themselves glued to the story (and likely holding back tears). Each episode is written as a character study, giving us insight into what makes the human and monster characters tick. None of the protagonists are people who typically lead movies or TV shows, both because of who they are (waitress, fisherman, typical suburban couple) and what they represent. Monsterland is a diverse show that doesn’t spend time pointing that fact out, instead choosing to showcase actors of many backgrounds playing characters with equally diverse stories. It was refreshing to watch a horror show that reflected the real world in the stories it told.
Monsterland is a gem of a show that should not be watched in one sitting, both because the subject matter can be heavy and because it works best as a slow burn. Waiting between episodes lets their individual strengths shine even more while giving viewers time to contemplate their own actions in relation to the characters’ choices. Every one of the characters has a monster within them – it’s just a matter of the degree to which they let that monster win. The same is true for all of us as humans, and one of the most unsettling aspects of the show is how often the line between human and monster is blurred. It’s a trope that’s been overdone in horror recently – maybe WE were the REAL monsters ALL ALONG – but in Monsterland, the brilliant character development and world-building makes that theme feel earned. The villain is almost never who you expect it to be, and in some episodes, you’re hard-pressed to find a true villain at all. Anchored by strong performances, great writing, and stunning production values, Monsterland is a great October watch that asks tough questions with no easy answers.
Monsterland is now available on Hulu. Check out the trailer below!