Monsterland (2016)

Ah, yes, the anthology film.

The truth is, it’s been around for a long time, one can even point at the silent horror classics, Destiny (1921, directed by Fritz Lang) and Paul Leni’s 1924 film, Waxworks, as two of the earlier examples.  I really have no idea what movie was the first anthology film, nor do I know whether anyone knows anymore, considering the fragmentary preservation of the silent film era.

But they’ve been around for a very long time.

Now there are two basic types of Anthology films: there are some — like the two I mentioned or all those Horror anthologies Amicus films made back in the Sixties and Seventies — which were made as a single production and more or less fit together.

Then there are those which collect a bunch of short films — either pre-existing or made by separate contributors to be released as a single movie — like all those “Alien Agenda” films Brimstone Productions made for the VHS store market or all those recent “ABCs of Death” and “V/H/S” “movies.”

Monsterland falls firmly into this category, as Dread Central put out a call for short film submissions then added a wild wraparound opening that ties it all in together.

Well…sort of.

It starts with a man making his way through monster filled streets, with people getting killed left and right, then taking shelter in a local movie theater filled with dead bodies.  But then, the movie starts and the shorts that follow are supposedly what’s he’s watching.

Yeah, I know.  Kinda weak.

As you’d expect, the films vary enormously in quality as well as content, and while every short does have its monsters, not all of them are science fictional monsters.

The first short, for example, is reasonably well done but very short monster in the lake film and ends just when it starts getting interesting.  It’s like only seeing the first kills of a teen horror flick.

It’s followed by “The Grey Matter,” a very weird comedy about a young man with a brain eating parasite in his head.  It’s about what you’d get if you crossed The Office with The Brain Eaters.  It is amusing in a quirky sort of way and not quite what you’d expect.

Two of the shorts are definitely not science fiction, as one, “The Hag” involves sleep paralysis and a mysterious creature (although it is rather scary), while the second (which many of you may be too squeamish to watch) is a very uncomfortable story involving a vampire and a dentist.

Equally uncomfortable is “Stay at Home Dad,” which revolves around a young slacker father who decides to take part in a disturbing experiment rather than go to work.  It’s amusing but leaves the audience feeling very uneasy.

There is an animated film, which is very short and made with what looks like some very simple sort of cut out animation, in which a geriatric monster hunter goes up against a big critter.  It feels a bit cheap, and a touch slow, and builds to a one-liner.  It’s amusing, but not much more.

Then there is a puppet film, “Happy Memories:” it is strange, silly, absurd and very Muppet like.  It is also completely incomprehensible.

Fortunately, it is short enough and weird enough to ignore.

This leaves the two best films in the entire anthology.

Curiosity Kills” is an absurd, wordless comedy, which feels like a cross between a John Hughes science fiction comedy from the Eighties and a Road Runner Cartoon.  A young boy’s scientist father brings home some nuclear samples from work, and the boy decides to play mad scientist by mixing them together.

Unfortunately, when he tries them on his pet mouse, it ends up superpowered and sends him on a manic quest to recapture the beast before his parents find out.  But things just go from bad to worse when the mouse starts using its laser beam eyes and the neighbors get involved…

There is a nicely strange look about the whole film, thanks in part to an odd color scheme and a set with a mildly surreal quality to it.  Despite the children’s film look and storyline, it proves to be surprisingly gory and even gets in a few gross out gags along the way.

Even better is the final short, “Hellyfish.”  It plays out like a cross between a movie trailer and a music video, telling the story of a sunken nuclear submarine which creates vast armies of giant mutant jellyfish which then attack a nearby beach.  It is silly, funny and offers non-stop monster action, lots of lens flares and even more style.  There isn’t much story, but who’s complaining when you get to see giant jellyfish running up the beach, or leaping out of the sea and eating helicopters?

It should come as no surprise that Patrick Longstreth, who co-wrote and co-directed, is a visual effects artist who has worked on a lot of films: his work here is incredible, with a consistent, hyper-real look and nicely realized creatures.  So far, no one has given him the chance to make a full-length film (and his latest feature film credit was for another anthology film which includes “Hellyfish!“), although he seems a far more promising choice than a lot of the Indie filmmakers who’ve been given a shot at the big time these days.  Unfortunately, you’ll have to stick around to the very end of Monsterland as “Hellyfish‘s” credits have been stuck at the end (along with those for the other shorts) and they offer us funny little cartoon glimpses of what happens next as the Jellyfish invasion continues.

As you’d expect, Monsterland ends with a quick return to the wrap around story.  But at least it gives us a quick glimpse of a reasonably impressive stop motion monster.  That’s always a plus.

I’ll confess that, on the whole, Monsterland didn’t entirely win me over: it’s too mixed a bag, and some of the shorts don’t add a lot.

But the two best, “Curiosity Kills” and “Hellyfish,” are weird, funny and memorable.  Admittedly, not everyone will love “Curiosity Kills” as it is a very strange sort of film and not at all what one expects in a monster anthology, but to me that’s a big part of its charm.

Some of you may prefer some of the other stories, which are all interesting and well-made.  But then, that’s one of the big plusses of an anthology film, that with an assortment of different types of stories in various styles, one or more of them might just appeal to us.

Whether that’s enough to carry you through the entire film is another question altogether…

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