Rarely have I seen a horror-comedy as joyless as Little Monsters. Which feels like a weird (and sad) thing to say, because rarely have I seen a horror-comedy that is also so insistent in its humor, so determined to try and entertain me, as Little Monsters. It’s fast, loud, and impossibly shrill — except when it quiets down, which is when it briefly, belatedly comes to life.
The loudness and shrillness begin early, with the film’s opening montage of a viciously bickering Australian couple, has-been rocker Dave (Alexander England) and real-estate agent Sara (Nadia Townsend), as they scream at each other in a variety of settings — at the store, at home, in the car, at a restaurant among friends. Soon enough, loser Dave has moved in with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her 5-year-old, Felix (Diesel La Torraca), but he continues to cause havoc at her home — arguing over the food, wasting time on the couch with his VR video games, and yelling all sorts of absurd profanities in the child’s presence.
The sustained blast of unpleasantness with which Little Monsters kicks off might have been bracing had there been any wit or humor to Dave’s selfish, simple-minded jagoffery. Or even some humanity. We know of course that Dave will eventually learn his lesson and become a better man — because this is a movie, and he is its lead — but England and writer-director Abe Forsythe give him no sense of inner life, no hint of charm or charisma. He’s a profoundly uninteresting character, and by the time he decides to accompany Felix and his school chums on a field trip to a petting zoo in an effort to woo their cute teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), I had already checked out on whatever else this obnoxious dillweed might do. Then came Teddy McGiggles (Josh Gad), an aggressively annoying, alcoholic children’s-TV personality, because apparently the film wasn’t already irritating enough.
Have I mentioned that this is a zombie movie?
Well, it’s a zombie movie. There’s an American military base nearby, and a test has gone wrong, so soon zombies are invading the petting zoo, and Dave and Miss Caroline and Teddy McGiggles and the kids hole up at a gift shop. The undead slowly roam the grounds, pressing up against windows, munching on arms, and generally looking ridiculous. Forsythe attempts to mine so much familiar humor with these overexposed monsters that I can’t decide if he’s never seen other zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead, or if he’s only seen other zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead.
And then, suddenly, the movie grows a soul. Or maybe it was already there, but I couldn’t see it through the distracting haze of the characters’ noxious buffoonery. Amid the grotesque gore and profanity, Miss Caroline, armed with a ukulele and her bright demeanor, tries to keep the kids calm and safe and happy, cheerfully singing songs and playing games and speaking to them quietly. Nyong’o brings both grace and effervescence to the part, which makes for a welcome, pointed contrast to the insanity that surrounds her. Her scenes with the children are so effective that they become something more — a resonant metaphor for our need (be it as parents, teachers, or just plain human beings) to persevere and preserve some semblance of innocence in a world gone haywire.
That was probably the idea all along, and perhaps speaks to why so much of the rest of the film feels so manic, so unhinged and hostile — the better to highlight the oasis of kindness and goodness that Miss Caroline represents. Theoretically, it’s the right idea: to create a formal tension to echo the narrative one. But theory only gets you so far if you botch the execution. The most dispiriting thing about Little Monsters are the occasional glimpses of the film it could have been.