It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for housebound horror fans.
Every major streaming service is debuting original horror entertainment this Halloween season, but Hulu has a few literary-inspired selections that are perfect for the well-read gorehound (in addition to a new Marvel horror show and a movie about demonic Bad Hair). The road to production for Clive Barker’s Books of Blood film was appropriately tortured, but fans of more recent award-winning horror have been looking forward to Monsterland since news of its adaptation was announced two years ago. Based—sometimes loosely—on Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collection North American Lake Monsters, the eight-part anthology series is as unusual as it is uneven.
Yet that’s the beauty of streaming: you can skip around at will. But there are definitely some episodes that aren’t to be missed if crushing existential terror and some really good acting is your thing.
Presented as a road trip across the darker parts of America, Monsterland introduces a gallery of utterly broken, terrifyingly haunted people. Producer and director Babak Anvari certainly has great taste in books; his prior film, Wounds, was another Ballingrud-inspired story that made up for its small budget with a mostly compelling emotional pull. Monsterland definitely feels more “inspired by” Ballingrud’s beautiful and disturbing prose than a direct adaptation of his stories, so it’s probably no coincidence that the episodes I liked best were the ones that stuck a bit closer to the source material.
“Port Fourchon, LA” is a strong opener. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Justified) plays Toni, a young single mom waiting tables at the country’s greasiest diner. She can’t escape the responsibilities of her furious, unwell daughter and resents all of her life’s choices, making her primed to flirt with danger in the form of a mysterious stranger. Jonathan Tucker (also of Justified) drips with menace and possibility, but the real horror comes from Toni’s ugly final decision. Both leads set the tone for what’s to come and sharp-eyed viewers will see Toni pop up a few more times in the season.
The most harrowing episode by far is “Plainfield, IL.” I was not prepared for the frank and utterly painful representation of a clinically depressed woman and her illness’s impact on her marriage (though in Hulu’s defense, it did come with the series’ only content warning). Based on the story “The Good Husband,” Monsterland departs from the text by casting two women in the main roles, with Taylor Schilling of Orange is the New Black giving a believable and empathetic performance. While some might take issue with suicide being played for scares, the tension of the situation never felt cheap or exploitative, and the supernatural element was tied in most closely with the characters’ development. I definitely needed to put on something stupid and light after watching this one.
The final episode of the season, “Newark, NJ” is also one of the few episodes adapted from a specific story in North American Lake Monsters. Directed by Anvari, the director doesn’t quite nail the atmosphere that he was so good at creating in Wounds. Mike Colter (Luke Cage) is instantly sympathetic as a doting father whose little girl went missing; however, it’s a controversial choice to end the season with its least traditionally horror-centric episode. This isn’t true of the story “The Monsters of Heaven,” so I have to wonder if given a second season, Monsterland wouldn’t branch out to other genres.
The Black Mirror vibes are deep, here; there are a few overlapping characters throughout the series, but the overlap doesn’t amount to very much—just a point of mild interest. But it’s more that, like any anthology series, there are some good episodes, some bad (“New York, NY”), and more than one that starts off with a lot of promise, then falls short of its mark.
I was really primed to love Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as a mistreated young girl who maybe kills her frenemy and spends a decade stealing this dead girl’s life. But the spooky twist in the final act of “Iron River, MI” is so out of left field as to just feel absurd. Reexamining classic tropes should be an opportunity to say something new, but Monsterland‘s witches and mermaids aren’t as interesting as the human cast, nor as scary as anything these people might do. It makes me wonder why more of Ballingrud’s stories weren’t mined instead. Maybe Hulu is saving something for a hoped-for second season.
I’m not sure if Monsterland will get one, but there’s definitely a lot to build upon. The cast is diverse and talented, and lead writer Mary Laws (of Preacher, as well as Nicholas Winding Refn’s stylish horror film The Neon Demon) has a sharp ear for dialogue that quickly establishes compelling character drama. Gustavo Santaolalla, most recently of The Last of Us game series, provides a thrilling, unusual score. Combined with the inspiration provided by Ballingrud’s superlative, disturbing tales, Monsterland could certainly visit many more impossibly dark places.
Monsterland is currently streaming on Hulu.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. Her fiction has appeared in Tor.com and Strange Horizons. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about pop culture for Boing Boing, Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast and Den of Geek. Howl into the void with her on Twitter.