The film was Monsters, a movie Charles had been especially curious to see since we located a copy of it in a $3 bin at Vons of DVD’s in cardboard sleeves (rather than the original plastic cases) labeled “Treasure Hunt!” Its central premise is explained in an opening title card reading, “Six years ago... NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A space probe was launched to collect samples but broke up during re-entry over Mexico. Soon after new life forms began to appear and half of the was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE. Today... The Mexican & U.S. military still struggle to contain ‘the creatures’... .” Written and directed by Gareth Edwards for a $15,000 budget and shot entirely on location, with the “extras” simply being the people who happened to be present at the time, Monsters is the sort of movie that’s frustrating because it’s mediocre and could have been great. The basic plot line is the struggle of two people, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) — a photojournalist who’s ended up south of the “infected zone” and turned into a slacker — and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of Kaulder’s editor. The editor has ordered Kaunder to look after his daughter and get her safely north of the “infected zone” and into the U.S. so she can marry her fiancé. They miss both the train and the ferry that can take them back safely and as a result Kaulder has to use Samantha’s diamond ring to bribe some of the Mexican authorities to smuggle them through the infected zone to the U.S. side of the border. The result is a chase film that rips off classic sources ranging from It Happened One Night and The African Queen to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, and for the first 45 minutes of the film’s 94-minute running time not much happens except we get to know our rather boring and uncharismatic leads. Monsters suffers from the problem of a lot of modern-day movies: a directorial point of view (and, as I’ve said before about disappointing movies that were written and directed by the same person, the director is also the writer so he has nobody but himself to blame) that looks at the characters with the detachment of lab rats. It doesn’t help that Edwards makes both his leads such actively unpleasant people — he’s supposed to be a professional but he seems more interested in drinking, partying and sleeping in afterwards than anything else, and she’s neither sympathetic (à la the heroines of It Happened One Night and the other classic-era screwball farces about runaway heiresses paired with proletarian men) nor actively bitchy. She’s just blah, and it also doesn’t help that neither of the leads is particularly sexy (though Scoot — not Scott, Scoot! — McNairy has a nicely hairy chest that we get to see a lot of, praise be).
The film gets better when they actually cross over into the Infected Zone — and Edwards unexpectedly turns out to be one director who actually tried to copy the Val Lewton approach to horror and make it work in a modern context. For much of the film we hear the monster aliens but we don’t actually see them — and when we finally do see them it’s generally in a background of dark or fog, much the way producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin “teased” us with the appearance of the Martians in the 1953 War of the Worlds. They’re shown, all right — with modern-day digital effects you can do a surprisingly convincing alien monster even on a $15,000 budget — but it’s hard to get too much of a make on just what they are: they appear to be lobster-like body with multiple snake-like limbs that double for propulsion and manipulation, and they’re huge but also oddly delicate — powerful enough to overturn a truck and kill a four-year-old child therein in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, but also literally afraid of the dark (trapped inside a convenience store and menaced by one of the things, Samantha gets it to go away by unplugging the store’s security TV monitor. When I’ve seen Wes Craven’s films (which is rarely) I’ve had the feeling that Craven should have lived in the 1940’s and had Lewton as his producer — he’s certainly talented enough to scare audiences with Lewton-style indirection, but he’s also aware enough of what his market wants from his genre to oblige them and splash blood all over the screen in his final reels. Well, Gareth Edwards did in Monsters what Wes Craven and other potentially talented modern-day horror directors haven’t dared: he made a Val Lewton movie for the 2010’s, and as far as the horror elements are concerned he made it surprisingly well. Edwards is also a director with a spectacular visual eye — even though he had to cobble together a landscape from Texas, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica to do it (one key scene takes place on the ruin of the Mayan temple at Yaxha, Guatemala, though we’re told it’s on the U.S.-Mexico border — where there aren’t any Mayan ruins: the big ones in Mexico are on the Yucatán peninsula); the film is full of spectacular twilight scenes and cruel beauties of nature that contrast vividly with what the story is about, particularly the Avatar-like sequences of the monster aliens attaching themselves to trees and literally budding off them with an unearthly light.
But what’s beautiful and what works about Monsters can’t make up for what doesn’t work about it, particularly the weak leads (we’ve seen some cheap modern-day movies with people who could act quite well, but this isn’t one of them) and the failure of Edwards to give us much of a reason to care about these people. Monsters has some thinly veiled elements of social commentary — when Kaulder sees the huge fence that has been built across the U.S.-Mexico border to keep the monsters out it’s hard not to think of the ferocious agitation of people on the Right to build a similar fence to keep the so-called “illegal aliens” out (though a “trivia” post on imdb.com claims that Edwards said that was not his intent), and the final scene is a chilling one in which just as Kaulder and Samantha kissed (which seems more a bow to movie convention than any serious plot turn; they haven’t shown each other one jot of either physical or emotional attraction all movie until that point), they’re greeted by a team of U.S. soldiers in trucks whom they’ve been told were going to rescue them … and instead arrest them. But a story that involves putting your leads in mortal danger can’t work unless you can get the audience to root for them to survive — and that means making them, if not totally heroic, at least sufficiently sympathetic that viewers will like them and want to see them live, which the makers of The African Queen did and Gareth Edwards did not.