With a title like MONSTERLAND, you might start up Hulu’s new horror anthology series expecting a host of supernatural beasties. While the series does deliver on that front — featuring zombies, mermaids, witches, shifters, and more — the true monsters in MONSTERLAND are human beings and the oppressive systems they prop up through fear, greed, and hatred.
MONSTERLAND is a bleak show that horrifies in unexpected and devastating ways. (A list of major trigger warnings is included at the end of this review.) Each episode shares a common sensibility — using a slight touch of the supernatural to explore guilt and grief and usually taking place primarily in the main character’s home — but the series never feels formulaic. The universally stellar cast and variety of talented directors keep each episode feeling fresh yet still cohesive within the series as a whole. Characters and plot lines occasionally weave through subsequent episodes, but each installment stands alone as a piece of intriguing modern horror.
Each episode takes its title from the location of the story. The first episode, for example, is called “Port Fourchon, Louisiana.” It follows young single mother Toni (Kaitlyn Dever, impressive as always) and her struggles to afford specialized childcare for her troubled young daughter. Toni feels trapped. Working as a waitress at a sleazy diner, she has no health insurance and makes less than minimum wage. She knows that her daughter needs more than she can give her, but she also yearns for the days when she had no responsibilities and a world of possibility open to her. Dever delivers a monologue that is heartbreaking in its cynicism and utter relatability, saying that people are born with infinite possible selves. With each seemingly innocuous choice a person makes, you kill off a potential self until you’re stuck with a life you never wanted and never expected. The choices you have left, the episode suggests, rarely allow you to do the right thing.
The show explores the lengths people will go to in desperate situations, focusing a great deal on dilemmas that people find themselves in due to issues of class and race. It also holds a particular fascination with traumatic parent-child relationships. “New Orleans, Louisiana” features the incredible Nicole Beharie as Annie, a hotel maid who marries a wealthy doctor in order to give her son a better life. When Annie realizes that she sold her soul — and her son — for financial security, she’s haunted by a trumpet player who represents the sins of her past. Craig William MacNeill‘s poetic direction and Beharie’s mesmerizing performance make this gut-punch of an episode one of the most memorable installments.
MONSTERLAND depicts monsters both internal and external, exploring the ways that we hurt other people and the ways that we hurt ourselves. Standout episode “Plainfield, Illinois” is one of the most authentic and wrenching depictions of bipolar disorder I’ve ever seen. It provides a sympathetic but unflinching picture of the way that mental illness actually feels and the way that it affects relationships with loved ones. Kate (Taylor Schilling) and Shawn (Roberta Colindrez), who both deliver stunning performances, are a couple dealing with the consequences of Kate’s mental illness. After each of Kate’s destructive manic episodes or suicide attempts, they attempt to rebuild their marriage over and over again. Nailing small details about the reality of living with mental illness, the episode uses a unique approach to a popular horror creature to explore the depths of bipolar depression and the hellish process of discovering personal triggers via trial and error.
The eight-episode run of MONSTERLAND ends on an oddly hopeful note, but this show’s definition of “hopeful” still carries with it a great deal of sadness and repulsion. The series doesn’t shy away from gore or violence, and the redemption that grieving parents Brian (Mike Colter) and Amy (Adepero Oduye) find in “Newark, New Jersey” is equal parts gruesome and touching. Their weaponized sorrow is as visceral as any bodily trauma that the series visits upon its characters, but their boundless love for their lost daughter helps heal some of the wounds from earlier episodes. It is a finale that feels like a tiny but much-needed ray of hope in a bleak and devastating look at the evils of which humanity is capable.
Though some of MONSTERLAND‘s episodes fall flatter than others, the series is worth watching for the incredible performances alone. In addition to the aforementioned actors, Kelly Marie Tran, Charlie Tahan, and Jonathan Tucker impress in their respective installments. The series examines issues as varied as online radicalization, mental illness, abuse, loss, racism, and corporate greed. Its horror tropes are just as varied, but they all circle back to the demons we face in our own mundane lives. The supernatural creatures of MONSTERLAND are frightening because of how sharply they reflect humanity’s occasional monstrousness and constant desperation.
While this series is a worthwhile watch, it is not an easy watch. Trigger warnings for the episodes are as follows:
- Episode one, “Port Fourchon, Louisiana” – animal cruelty, domestic abuse, gynecological trauma
- Episode two, “Eugene, Oregon” – gun violence
- Episode three, “New Orleans, Louisiana” – child abuse, sexual assault
- Episode four, “New York, New York” – religious trauma
- Episode five, “Plainfield, Illinois” – suicide, self-harm, particularly upsetting to those with bipolar disorder
- Episode six, “Palacios, Texas” – mention of incest
- Episode seven, “Iron River, Michigan” – child abuse
- Episode eight, “Newark, New Jersey” – self harm, loss of a child
MONSTERLAND will be released on Hulu on October 2, 2020.