Abe Forsythe’s Aussie horror comedy strands a school field trip in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, to delightful results.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
The reality is that horror comedies are surprisingly difficult to pull off. If the balance between the two opposing genres is off, or if the tone isn’t perfectly pitched, a film can easily fall flat. Thankfully Little Monsters, the latest feature from Australian director Abe Forsythe (he’s also the film’s writer) doesn’t suffer from these problems. The horror comedy, about a school field trip that goes disastrously awry when the undead (slow, not fast) attack the petting zoo next to a US military base where an outbreak occurs, is incredibly funny, surprisingly gory and delightfully romantic in all of the right ways.
For some audiences, the film’s action-less first act may prove a touch too long as Little Monsters requires audiences eager for children fending off zombies to exercise patience. After a montage of pathetic heavy metal rocker Dave (Alexander England) making an ass of himself at a variety of public and familial gatherings, the film opens with the emotionally stunted man-child living with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her adorable son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca). Dave’s long term girlfriend has thrown him out, his band imploded years before and he’s directionless, but unwilling to work on himself or his relationships with others.
England does well to make Dave an emotionally compelling character and not just a slacker idiot stereotype, even when he’s interacting with or using his nephew in exceedingly inappropriate ways. This is where the comedy plays a significant role: it would be easy to make Dave a self-centered jerk (and, to clarify, he is), but he’s also surprisingly relatable. Complaining about cheese-less broccoli pizza, being upset at the discovery of your ex sleeping with someone new and being attracted to your nephew’s school teacher are all relatable things. It is the way that Dave handles these events – with profanity, with sad violence and by self-pleasuring himself using Felix’s class photo – that hilariously cast Dave in a bad light. His lack of filter, his unwillingness to look beyond himself and his inconsiderate attitude about the needs of others give the character plenty of room to grow over the course of the narrative.
And, of course, he does.
Part of the reason that the first act works so well is that it’s entirely character-based and, like any good screenwriter worth his salt, Forsythe knows well enough to pay these moments off later in the film. Little Monsters is exceedingly good at this, making callbacks to references both small (Felix’s attempts to employ Darth Vader’s telekinetic powers, Dave’s dislike of popular music, fat kid Alvin’s demand to play mini-golf) and big (Chekov’s incorrectly administered Epipen, the rooftop accessibility of a getaway van).
[Little Monsters] is incredibly funny, surprisingly gory and delightfully romantic in all of the right ways.
Things get cooking when Dave volunteers to chaperone Felix’s school field trip to a local petting zoo. Dave is using the excursion as an excuse to get close to Ms. Audrey Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), the effervescent school teacher that he has become infatuated with. For her part, Lupita is endlessly adorable in the role, perfectly capturing the sunny disposition of a school teacher who commands the attention of a dozen demanding five-year-olds and the survivalist attitude of a Final Girl. Little Monsters gets plenty of mileage out of Audrey’s unwavering desire to protect her charges at all costs, regardless of whether that means endlessly singing cutesy songs or something more epic and cheer-worthy, like a frantic dash to recover a precious item in the middle of an army of zombies.
The third significant player rounding out the film is Josh Gad‘s Teddy McGiggle, an American children’s performer filming a segment for his popular TV series when the park is attacked. Naturally, Teddy’s demeanour is a complete fabrication for the cameras; the reality is that he is a sex-addict drunk with a penchant for colorful profanity. Audience mileage may vary; Gad’s dialogue – whether scripted or improvised – is vulgar and funny up to a point, but Little Monsters‘ too frequently allows that fine line to be crossed. Hearing Gad scream “f*ck!” at a group of children once is funny, but 15 times later, the charm has worn off.
The interplay between the three adults, the zombies and the precocious demands of the children is where the film excels. When the attack occurs, the survivors hold up in the gift shop and wait for rescue. As supplies dwindle and the threat level escalates, the adults must discover a method of escape that ensures the children’s survival without letting them know how dangerous the situation truly is. The solution is the conceit that they are playing a survival “game”, a lie that promotes a great deal of the film’s inappropriate, hilarious humor, as well as the singing of several a capella songs on Ms. Caroline’s ukelele, song work courtesy of the film’s composer Piers Burbrook de Vere. Never has Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ or Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ been used to such sweet, charming effect.
Little Monsters is a great example of a film that expertly blends comedy, horror, and heart. The performances are uniformly great, the humor is solidly offensive and frequently profane, and the action and effects are appropriately grisly. Aside from a bit too much of Gad, Little Monsters is nearly perfect; a sweet, charming, rude horror comedy that hits all of the right notes.