A somewhat frazzled turn by Christina Ricci and the ambition to try a big third act plot twist are the chief recommendations of “Monstrous,” a 1950s horror tale about a mother trying to save her son from something not wholly unlike the Babadook.
That’s where this Chris Siverston (“I Know Who Killed Me”) thriller seems to be taking us — a child sure there’s a “monster” outside his window, the supernatural allure of this “beautiful lady” he saw in the spooky pond out back, his mother trying to start a new life in a new town with a new job when this “Monstrous” Swamp Thing happens to her kid.
When Laura stops telling Cody (Santino Barnard) it was “just a nightmare,” she finds herself yanked underwater while sitting on the sofa, diving into the pond to pull her kid out, or facing down the monster with a knife.
The creepy bits — water flowing into the house, under doors, menacing mother and child — and the jolts don’t muster up the terror of “The Babadook,” sort of a genre-defining take on this mother-child set-up. But shortly after we give up on that direction ever bearing fruit, that “twist” appears and changes the reality of what’s going on and the meaning of the picture, even as it leaves things less tidy and even less satisfying than the opening acts.
Ricci’s Laura, dolled up in the dirndl dresses of the day — prim and proper and permed — is on the lam with seven year-old-boy Cody. They’ve fled Mesa, Arizona and Laura’s soon-to-be-ex, moving into a remote rented farmhouse in the brownscape that is drought-stricken Southern California.
The ex calls their new number, rattling Laura. Her mother, like other ’50s mothers, doesn’t see the harm. Laura’s moved on and fearful. Still, she’s got a job as a typist for an insurance firm. Cody’s started at a new school.
Then the weirdness begins. The kid is transfixed by the lake, and prone to night terrors. There are water issues in the house that play into the nightmares. The landlord’s assurance that it’s “probably a raccoon” comforts no one.
Quick! Call a Catholic church! But mention “I think we have a demon” and they hang up on you.
Screenwriter Carol Chrest’s (“The Prophet’s Game”) story dithers between the horrific and the unpleasant but mundane. Is Cody being bullied? Will anybody come to his birthday party?
And who is this “beautiful lady” he keeps talking about down at the pond?
Ricci gives us a little paranoia and barely enough panic to engage us in her plight. She’s good, but the performance has an element of “hold something back for the third act” about it.
The film has clues here and there, which don’t really add up to the big upend-the-story turn it takes.
The jeopardy is built-into the situation, but the frights feel low-stakes and simply don’t get the scary job done. And then the movie becomes something else, something not wholly unexpected and something not necessarily more interesting than the stumbling supernatural kid-in-peril tale that “Monstrous” makes us think it is going to be.
Rating: PG-13 for terror, thematic elements and brief violence
Cast: Christina Ricci, Santino Barnard, Don Durrell and Colleen Camp
Credits: Directed by Chris Siverston, scripted by Carol Chrest. A Screen Media release.
Running time: 1:28