Mary Laws adapts Daniel Ballingrud’s supernatural short fiction about the evil that humans do.
“Humanity is the real monster” is a theme as old as storytelling itself. Brought back in the last decade of antiheroes and grim zombie stories, it’s become stale. We don’t need to be told humanity is terrible anymore, because the hopes that it is good have been beaten out of us by years of corruption, and real-life villains escaping punishment. This is the major failing of Hulu’s new anthology Monsterland, which mixes cryptids and supernatural happenings with the worst of human impulses. In a real world driven by these terrible impulses, this brand of darkness doesn’t exactly make for entertaining TV.
Created for television by Mary Laws (The Neon Demon), Monsterland is based off Daniel Ballingrud’s collection North American Lake Monsters. Ballingrud’s fiction does not seem particularly suited for adaptation, with his fiction’s strong suit becoming the show’s hinderance. The dark parts of the human psyche that Laws and company are interested in exploring make for downright depressing television. The show stays interesting thanks to performances from actors like Kaitlyn Dever and Mike Colter. Dever anchors the series pilot, playing a single mother confronted with an impossible decision after running into a person with a trunk full of human skin (I know). In a performance that consists mostly of a bad accent and reactions, Dever powers through on the sheer force of her charisma, keeping the audience on her side as she commits a truly heinous act.
The characters of Monsterland are far apart and unrelated, with episodes taking place all over the country. The main connection is that all of them have or are about to make a decision that haunts them. Whether that be an oil executive whose figurative corruption manifests into a scripture spouting demon, or a man (Colter) letting his marriage die after the disappearance of his daughter, no one is ever happy, or ever will be happy after a brush with the supernatural in Monsterland. The monsters and forces beyond comprehension all exist to either punish the characters, or push them into making decisions they didn’t think they were capable of.
The dark parts of the human psyche that Laws and company are interested in exploring make for downright depressing television.
When the show indulges in its more supernatural side, things become a tad more interesting. Insane imagery and creative ideas come from the cryptids, including one of the most terrifying depictions of demonic power that I have ever seen, manifested in an upsetting, jutting rectangle in the center of an oil executive’s stomach. The show becomes what it is trying to be when the supernatural elements hit, which makes the lack of those elements for most of the show’s runtime even more frustrating. Things like hallucinogenic angel blood and shapeshifting killers only exist at the fringes of the stories told, spoken of in hushed tones and experienced by grieving people who are not acknowledging the insanity of the world around them, because their own terrible circumstances are so pressing. All of this makes for a wonderful short story collection, and a difficult to watch television show.
Monsterland is not for the faint of heart. The darkest and angriest parts of humanity are on full display, and they can be difficult to swallow for those with weak stomachs. If you have a strong constitution and an interest in these corners of the human experience, you might have a completely different experience with Monsterland than I did. For those with a taste for aliens bleeding like geysers and a man peeling his face skin, welcome, this place is for you. For the rest of us, it’s better to stay out of Monsterland.
Monsterland premieres on Hulu October 2nd.