Towards the end of Hulu’s new eight-part anthology series Monsterland, a character describes what it feels like to get high on a new street drug distilled from the blood of angels. (That’s not poetic; they’re taking actual angels who fell out of the sky and drinking their blood.) “It opened my eyes to the truth ... I’m a monster,” she says, over a shot of her eyes dripping thick, black, oily blood all over the sink in a New Jersey diner bathroom. In that moment, the series’ thesis—basically, that all monsters represent difficult and distressing human emotions, in one way or another—becomes literal.
Not that it’s been especially subtle up to that point; one thing Monsterland has in common with contemporary “elevated” horror is that it emphasizes the metaphor over the mayhem. As a result, the drama and the performances are also foregrounded, making this more of a drama-horror hybrid than straightforward popcorn fare. You’re more likely to well up with tears than dig your fingernails into your palm watching these (mostly) standalone one-hour episodes, each of which is either adapted from or inspired by Nathan Ballingrud’s 2013 short-story collection North American Lake Monsters. Series creator Mary Laws, who also co-wrote Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, handles adaptation duties on two out of the three Ballingrud episodes, with playwright Emily Kaczmarek stepping in for the third.
That would be the series’ best episode, “Plainfield, IL,” which tweaks Ballingrud’s story “The Good Husband” to be about a lesbian couple, Kate (Taylor Schilling) and Shawn (Roberta Colindrez). Other than that, the dynamics remain intact, using a zombie-movie premise—Kate, who has a long history of bipolar illness, dies by suicide, then reanimates as a walking corpse decaying before her wife’s eyes—to explore bleak themes of marriage, guilt, and codependency. Many stories stemming from this premise would linger on exploring Shawn’s grief, and indeed, it is a very sad hour of television. But through Colindrez’s outstanding performance, director Logan Kibens draws out the thorny subtleties of Kate and Shawn’s relationship, asking whether refusing to let go might be bad both for the one leaving and the one left behind.
A similar emotional complexity marks “Newark, NJ,” another story about loss starring Luke Cage’s Mike Colter and When they See Us’ Adepero Oduye as the parents of a little girl who disappeared nearly a year before the story begins. Amy (Oduye) needs closure, but Brian (Colter) cannot accept that his daughter may never be coming back. That puts a strain on their marriage, one that receives supernatural intervention when Brian finds one of the aforementioned angels shivering and injured in a dumpster. (In this series, the angels look less like radiant androgynes and more like aliens from The X-Files.) Powerfully acted and culminating in a surreal, moving final sequence, “Newark, NJ” is a redemption of sorts for director Babak Anvari: He’s clearly a fan of Ballingrud’s, given that his film Wounds (2019) was also based on the author’s work. But where that film was half-baked and off-putting, “Newark, NJ” just clicks.
The remaining six episodes of Monsterland aren’t as stunning as those two, but, for the most part, they’re still quality work. Only two episodes—“New Orleans, LA” and “New York, NY”—fail to strike the right balance between their uncanny elements and their human ones, tipping into rubber-mask artifice that undermines their emotional power. “New Orleans, LA” in particular squanders the acting talents of Nicole Beharie on a clichéd demonic jazzman, although Beharie brings everything she’s got to the role.
On the whole, the casting in Monsterland is excellent, giving under-appreciated actors like Beharie, Kelly Marie Tran, and Kaitlyn Dever meaty leading roles. For her part, Tran gets to explore her wicked side as a good girl with a dark secret in the true crime-obsessed Rashomon riff “Iron River, MI.” And series opener “Port Fourchon, LA” places Dever—the unofficial mascot of the show, and the only character to show up in multiple episodes—at the center of a cyclone of emotions as a diner waitress and single mom whose toughness and cynicism belie her young age. Those traits come in handy when she encounters a serial killer played by Jonathan Tucker, however, establishing Monsterland’s place at the intersection between the human and the monstrous in suitably creepy style.
The roster of directors is impressive as well, featuring talents like The Miseducation Of Cameron Post’s Desiree Akhavan, The Eyes Of My Mother’s Nicolas Pesce, and Super Dark Times’ Kevin Phillips alongside Anvari, who also serves as an executive producer. Each of these directors is matched with a story that reflects their strengths: Pesce, loneliness and body horror in the vicious mermaid tale “Palacios, Tx;” Phillips, adolescent male angst and shadow monsters in “Eugene, Or.” It speaks to the clarity of Laws’ vision how thoughtfully she’s put together these ensembles. And although Monsterland does suffer from the unevenness that seems to be inherent in all anthologies (horror or otherwise), its highs are among the best genre work of the year.