Friendly monsters are everywhere in kid culture. On “Sesame Street,” Grover, Elmo and their monster cohorts teach kids their ABCs. Pixar’s delightful Monsters, Inc. played with childhood fears of monsters lurking under beds and in closets before ultimately revealing its monsters as cuddly and loveable, even going so far as to propose that they’re as scared of us as we are of them.
Even the macabre Halloweentown world of The Nightmare Before Christmas was more grotesque than malevolent, populated by ghoulish citizens who only wanted to put on a good show and scare everyone out of their wits without doing any real harm. More recently, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride offered horror moments of a somewhat more grownup sort, but again depicted a macabre vision of the uncanny that was more misunderstood than malevolent.
Even in grown-up culture there is an effort to humanize and rehabilitate our monsters. Witness the novel and Broadway musical Wicked, which proposes that the Wicked Witch of the West herself wasn’t really wicked, only misunderstood.
Are we perhaps protesting too much? Of course it’s convenient if our children believe (what is in fact true) that there’s nothing scary under the bed or in the closet. And yet if there were something there, or if we thought there were, how confident would we feel telling our children that whatever it was meant no harm? Perhaps there is nothing under the bed or in the closet, but I think there’s a sense in which it’s better and more wholesome to fear the monsters that aren’t there, at least sometimes, than to always try to befriend them.
In a way, Monster House is a bracingly icy breath of fresh air, a tween-oriented family film that is unabashedly out to frighten. It’s an excursion into primal fears of haunted houses and graveyards — of places you don’t want to walk past at night, of dark and sinister forces that are not just spooky or macabre, but downright sinister and even vengeful.
At the same time, for all the menace of the first half — and the outright peril of the second — the film’s sneaky denouement is remarkably redemptive and hopeful. It even turns out that misunderstanding and prejudice do play a role, though there’s no getting around the monstrous wrongness of what happens as a result. Mortality, guilt, adolescence and tragedy are all at work in a hair-raising tale about a point of no return waiting right across the street.
In a year with more CGI family films than ever before, Monster House introduces a new player in the marketplace, Sony Pictures Animation. It’s also the first film for newcomer director Gil Kenan, though the presence of executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis is evident from the opening shot, with the flight of a falling autumn leaf echoing both Forrest Gump’s white feather and The Polar Express’s train ticket.
Like the latter film, Monster House uses motion capture to transfer the movements of real human actors to CGI characters. On the other hand, the stylized character design, with plasticine-haired figures in the tradition of Jimmy Neutron, avoids the potential creepiness of The Polar Express’s near-photorealism, so that the really creepy stuff isn’t undermined by accidental creepiness. The effect is a bit like stop-motion figurines capable of startlingly lifelike movements that could never be duplicated in stop motion.
Monster House centers on a trio of young characters who, like the film’s target audience, are poised on the brink of adolescence. Young DJ (Mitchel Musso) and his chubby best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) are old enough to be transfixed by the sight of pretty young Jenny (Spencer Locke) sashaying down the sidewalk, but young enough to debate whether you can call dibs on a girl. In Jenny’s presence both boys rise to the apex of maturity and sophistication available to them, given that DJ’s voice has just started cracking while Chowder is not yet embarrassed to wear a cape around the neighborhood.
DJ, as fate would have it, has lived all his life across the street from the creepiest house in the neighborhood, inhabited by an ornery old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) who is the terror of every child unlucky enough to have a stray ball or kite go down on his property. Even local teenagers, such as the hooligan boyfriend (Jason Lee) of DJ’s babysitter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), harbor hair-raising memories of past encounters with Nebbercracker and of rumors about the grisly fate of his long-gone wife.
Then, however, comes a dreadful encounter with Nebbercracker that leaves DJ stricken with guilt and remorse — and unleashes the full fury of whatever else inhabits or haunts that house. Soon it becomes clear that Nebbercracker’s violent aversion to trespassers was nothing compared to the violence that is about to follow. With unsuspecting Halloween trick-or-treaters just around the corner, how can DJ and his friends prevent a ghastly calamity?
Monster House is genuinely scary — too scary, probably, for kids under 10 or 12, especially combined with the crass humor and innuendo and a generally cynical outlook. Take little Jenny: Under that sweet-looking exterior is a sharp operator who is not above dishonesty: Selling Halloween candy door-to-door, she tries to hard-sell Elizabeth until pegging her as the sitter, then immediately shifts gears and offers to cook the books and put money in both of their pockets.
Elizabeth herself — or “Z,” as she wants to be called — is even more alarming, ditching the pink sweater and dulcet demeanor she wears for DJ’s parents for all-black goth attitude the moment they’re gone. Then there’s her slacker boyfriend, bullying DJ one minute, getting fresh with Z on the couch the next. Even Z protests that he has “no respect for women.”
Alas, the film hasn’t got much more respect for parents or authority figures in general. DJ’s father (Fred Willard) can’t bring himself to say “I love you” to his son, while his mother (Catherine O’Hara) leaves with the helpful advice, “If anything happens, call the police and hide in the closet.” (Great line, lousy mother figure.) Meanwhile, Chowder announces that his mother is “at the movies with her personal trainer” while his father works at the pharmacy. A couple of cops, one a blasé donut-chomping yahoo and the other a jittery, bug-eyed black rookie, add to the general aura of adult incompetence.
Even so, compared to, say, Zathura — a similarly imaginative family thriller about a house full of uncanny goings-on — Monster House at least has a sense of wicked humor and perspective amid its cynicism. At least we’re meant to wince at the glimpse into Chowder’s parents’ relationship, in contrast to Zathura’s normalization of divorce. Similarly, Z is meant to be the babysitter from hell, whereas Zathura’s older sister Lisa, no role model herself, is basically an archetypal teenaged girl.
Sharp, clever dialogue, convincing characterizations, and effectively eerie twists suck the viewer in as insidiously as Nebbercracker’s… but that would be telling. Inevitably, as the story progresses, spookiness gradually gives way to thrills and finally slam-bang action, culminating in a somewhat overextended climactic set piece. Even so, the filmmakers have a couple of tricks up their sleeve, including climactic revelations both horrifying and poignant, that prevent Monster House from degenerating into no more than Action House.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.