“Goddamn, man child.” The goddamn man child of Little Monsters is named Dave (Alexander England). At the beginning of the movie, he’s dumped by his girlfriend of nine years. It’s easy to see why. The first few moments of the movie are taken up by a harrowing montage, unoriginally
backed by cheery music, in which we see Dave being a jerk — essentially him and his partner getting in screaming matches in various settings (e.g., dinner with friends, on the street) for trivial reasons brought on by him.
We automatically don’t like Dave — an impression exacerbated when he’s soon taken in by his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and he immediately feels the need to emphatically behave just as callously around her kindergartner son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca). I hated watching the first half hour or so of Little Monsters in part because of Dave’s over-the-top man-childishness but more because I could tell the feature was en route to providing him with a redemption arc of some kind. When done right, such an arc can be effective, but I’m also very tired of characters like him, especially in movies that are evidently looking to be darkly funny rather than funny funny.
Little Monsters improves once it becomes a fully fledged zombie movie, though I suspect that that’s only because when it does, radiant co-star Lupita Nyong’o has made her entrée into the movie. Here she plays a ukulele-clutching teacher named Miss Caroline. She teaches Felix; when Dave drops the kid off for school one morning, he’s immediately smitten. A little after first meeting Caroline, Dave volunteers to help chaperone a class field trip. But the field trip, which sees Caroline and her kids checking out a farm, unsurprisingly winds up being the epicenter of a never-really-explained zombie outbreak. The subversion of Little Monsters, which conspicuously wants to be compared to cheeky zom-coms like Dead Alive (1992) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), is not only that a bunch of kindergartners are in the supporting cast but also that it co-stars an actress as esteemed as Nyong’o. (It’s like the movie knows that she’s too good for this.)
Once Little Monsters turns into a survival thriller, it’s serviceable and in patches can be fun. Even Dave’s predicted redemption isn’t as unnaturally heavy-handed as I was prepared for it to be. Serviceable, though, is ultimately the descriptor to best characterize Little Monsters. It’s humorous but never outwardly that funny; it’s affectedly rather than sincerely edgy (especially shown by one of the supporting characters, a Josh Gad-portrayed, caricatured children’s entertainer also at the farm who proves himself a sailor-mouthed egomaniac once the zombies start showing up); and the zombie showdowns are adequate but unimaginative. It’s good enough. On the plus side, though, this, alongside last year’s Us, demonstrates what a terrific scream queen Nyong’o is. Let her do more horror.
s I got to know the anti-hero of Little Monsters, a New Zealand zombie comedy from last year, I often thought of the opening line of Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” from her album of the same name:
horror, taking schlock as seriously as scares, the sporadically active Instagram-age Hammer would prefer to have more things in common with austere modern horrors like The Witch (2016) and Hereditary (2018). In line with the increasing hopelessness of the contemporary world, Hammer seems wary of a good time.
The Lodge is Hammer’s first co-production in four years. It's also the first movie co-written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala since 2014’sGoodnight Mommy. What's more notable about the film, though, is that it especially drives home that carrying the Hammer banner doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s a dour, convolutedly plotted “prestige” horror movie that wants to be the next Hereditary, made plain by its more-than-eerily-similar dollhouse motif, featuring of an increasingly deranged mother-figure character, and use of religious fanaticism as a tool for frights. Because it’s been competently made, and because its performances are fairly gradated, The Lodge does intermittently land as a horror film about the psychological oppressiveness of trauma. But it’s too reductive of other, better movies (particularly Hereditary) to lastingly unsettle. Our minds tend to wander back to its spiritual forebears.
The creepily languid film begins with a jolt — i.e., the violent suicide (shown mutedly, from beginning to end) of Laura (Alicia Silverstone), the mother of young teens Mia and Aidan (Lia McHugh and Jaeden Martell). (This is unequivocally a nod to the murder of Janet Leigh’s character during the first 30 minutes of 1960’s Psycho,
given Silverstone's stature.) Her death, the film makes clear, has been brought on by the family’s patriarch, Richard (Richard Armitage), from whom Laura is estranged, asking for a divorce. Although Richard and Laura have long been separated, the feeling as though she is being replaced by the former’s new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), had been gnawing at Laura. (Aside from the fact that both characters
are devoutly religious — something which has especially rubbed off on Mia — Silverstone and Keough have a sororal resemblance.)
It isn’t a surprise, then, that when a few months later, during Thanksgiving, when Richard proposes that he, the kids, and Grace spend Christmas at the family’s middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts cabin, the children are vocally unhappy. Richard not unreasonably figures that being holed up together for a few days might be a good way to bond, show the kids that Grace isn’t so bad. (They entirely blame her for Laura’s death.) Mia and Aidan can’t concretely argue with their father. While his vacation idea is formatted as a suggestion, it’s indubiously a confirmation of what’s to come. They go along with it without any more protest. Even after they find out that Grace is the daughter of a religious cult leader who years ago killed himself, along with all his acolytes, and then tasked the then-teenage Grace with spreading his dogma to a new generation.
When the action of The Lodge finally gets to the titular, laughably remote spot, and after Richard is unsurprisingly called into work and leaves the kids alone with Grace, a guessing game of what kind of movie this is going to be ensues for the viewer. Is it going to be, with its flashes of visual unreality, a haunted-house movie, where a trio of unalike people learn to get along because of their shared experience of supernatural torment? Has Grace been planning, all along, to somehow trap the family (Richard, despite being an investigative journalist, seems to know nothing of Grace’s background) and “convert” them? Is the movie, in general, going to be about the snapping of Grace? The snapping of the kids? Grace, though outwardly kind and with good intentions (she makes a point to dress the cabin in Christmas decorations), is visibly tormented by something. She’s dependent on a vial of prescription pills. And she's prone to fits of sleepwalking where she might wake up out in the cold or standing above one of the kids’ beds with a gun in her hand.
The Lodge is a mélange of at least a couple of our inferences, with some not-very-imaginative sprinklings-on of 1944’s Gaslight. On paper it should work. Its plot twists are supposed to jerk us around as harshly as the massive narrative shifts of horror films like The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001). But I watched the movie not submerged in its suspenseful, mysterious nightmare world but rather unenthusiastically anticipating from what felt like afar how the film was going to pull the rug out from under me. The transitions into the dollhouse recreations of the action, the close-up-dependent photography, and the way the plot toggles back and forth between Grace and the children without giving us much of an idea of the objective picture make it obvious that if this film isn’t going to pull out all the plot-twist stops by the last act, it’s at the least going to go down some allegorical, No Exit (1944)-by-Sartre hole or something. The disappointingly literal finale, then, strikes us as anticlimactic. It's too facile for a movie whose narrative has swung us around so much and which for so long seems as though it’s going to lean into the double-meaning side of things.
That the ending underwhelms also lends itself to the always-lurking and irksome suggestion in the movie that mental illness, if not treated properly, will, spoiler alert, inevitably lead someone to act homicidally. It also oversimplifies how traumas inform how these characters subsequently move about life, eventually looking at them mostly in terms of how they relate to the narrative. Such is odd, since in other places, the feature can be fairly astute when it comes to showing how traumas stay encrusted in us, unable to really be hammered out. Keough, who as expected gives a shaded, delicate performance, almost saves the movie. But like most else in The Lodge, she gets snowed in by Franz and Fiala’s incohesions.
Riley Keough in 2020's The Lodge.
churning out campy, crayon-box-colored, usually Dracula-slash-Frankenstein-slash-Fu Manchu-related horror movies — needn’t get too excited about the fact that The Lodge has been co-produced by the cultishly loved studio. (I know I briefly did when, ahead of the film’s opening credits, its logo flashed on screen.) If the 2010s have proven anything for the studio, it’s that Hammer (financially all over the place since the 1980s) is not interested in harking back to what it used to be. Through features like Let Me In (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012), the company has shown itself eager to ascribe to “serious” horror-movie conventions du jour: unmoving grimness, a grey “gritty”-looking color palette. If the Hammer of yore was interested in emphasizing the fun possible in
ans of the features put out by Hammer Film Productions — the British movie production company who, from the 1950s to the ‘70s, specialized in
Notes on movies about descending into madness, zombies, and killer crocs, respectively.
The Lodge, Little Monsters, & Crawl,
Reviewed March 4, 2020
similarly determined to stand apart. But whereas the efforts of Little Monsters to appear unique feel mostly contrived, sometimes even strained, Crawl’s determination to be more brutal, more economic, more streamlined than other creature features doesn’t seem like just an ambition. It really is a lot more brutal, economic, and streamlined than most movies featuring killer monsters feasting on a hapless group of civilians.
In Crawl, directed by Alexandre Aja, the primary antagonists are a Stage 5 Florida hurricane and a phalanx of murderous alligators swimming in the swelling floodwaters. The main characters are daughter-father pair Haley and Dave (Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper); the conflict of the feature is that as the twosome becomes increasingly irreparably trapped inside their flooding family home, they must fight against rising waters as well as this armada of crocodiles, which were once stuck in a nearby enclosure. (Haley, fortunately, is a stellar swimmer; she’s on her college’s swim team.)
This goes on for 87 minutes; I wouldn’t want Crawl to be any more or any less. Aja is so preternaturally proficient at making doing-the-most B movies like this (see 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes, 2010’s Piranha) that he makes you feel, with some admitted hyperbole, as though you’re either watching a creature feature for the first time or that you’ve seen a lot of other creature features but just haven’t seen many as invigoratingly extreme. Scodelario and Pepper gamely do whatever Aja and screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen throw their way; I gamely responded to everything Crawl threw my way, too.
The Lodge: C
Little Monsters: B-
ittle Monsters, despite its bald-faced attempts to stand apart from other films in the zombie-movie crowd, earns the unfortunate distinction of being just another zombie film. Creature feature Crawl, from 2019, is