Hulu’s ‘Monsterland’ Slow Burns Into Scares Both Human and Otherworldly

Monsters abound in Hulu’s “Monsterland.” But they are not always full of dripping fangs and big eyeballs. This is the latest in the trending genre of anthology series, where it almost doesn’t matter what order you watch the series in, since every episode is its own, self-contained story. Loosely based on Nathan Ballingrud’s novel “North American Lake Monsters: Stories,” the concept combines supernatural flourishes with tales about how dark and dreary life can get. Each chapter is set in a specific city and state, hinting that no corner of the U.S. is free of despair.

With a rather unbalanced slow burner pace, “Monsterland” conjures characters and scenarios that are more disturbing than actually scary. Most feature brutal visions of downtrodden lives. A perfect example of this is the inaugural episode, “Port Fourchon, Louisiana,” where Kaitlyn Dever plays Toni, a single mother working as a waitress, trapped with a young daughter, Jack (Charlotte and Vivian Cabell) who is prone to nasty fits. When she meets a stranger, Alex (Jonathan Tucker), Toni confronts hard decisions in her past before discovering a horrifying angle to Alex’s identity. This episode is also important to mention because it is the one that provides a slim, connecting thread to the season as Toni has a curious way of popping up briefly in other stories. 

The pilot sets the tone for the rest of the season, where stories begin with a central idea but seem to end half-way through with some kind of otherworldly revelation thrown in. It’s as if the show doesn’t know if it wants to be an unnerving collection about who we are, or if it wants to just unnerve us and leave it up to the audience to ponder what each episode is actually about. It lacks the slick precision of “Black Mirror” or surrealist edge of “Room 104.” The third episode of the season, “New Orleans, Louisiana,” features Nicole Beharie as Annie, the wife of a respected teacher. Their young son begins to claim he sees the vision of a man with black eyes following him around. But the real monster turns out to be Annie’s husband, who is soon accused of sexually assaulting young students. There’s a recurring image of a trumpeter playing his instrument outside of the family house, is he here to pass judgement? Is he connected to the ensuing scandal? The ending has a rather ambiguous tone.

Two of the better episodes are “Iron River, Michigan” and “Palacios, Texas.” The former is about Lauren (Kelly Marie Tran), a woman who has felt ignored and belittled her entire life and is now suspected of having something to do with a friend’s disappearance. It’s a great, eerie hour of scary TV, with spooky references to Japanese “death forests.” Lauren’s wedding day transitions into a gothic fairy tale sequence that looks taken straight out of contemporary Asian horror cinema. The latter title finds a disgruntled fisherman (Trieu Tran), who captures a mermaid with sharp teeth who dines on raw meat, and has a siren call out of “The Lighthouse.” But it ends in a dreamy, rather haunted tone with the warning to never fall in love with a mermaid, or try to go for a final kiss.

All the episodes feature strong performances and intriguing concepts. “Plainfield, IL” uses the zombie genre to address mental illness, with fantastic work from Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez of “Vida.” The episode “Eugene, OR” is the required chapter to deal with the dangers of living online all the time, while “New York, NY” takes aim at our corporate overlords. In this episode, a wealthy CEO must face the consequences of actions by suffering through some kind of demonic (or godly) possession.

“Monsterland” is not completely successful, but what it never lacks are strong ideas. It could be the starting point for a much stronger series if Hulu decides to keep it going. Every episode has rich visuals and atmosphere, even when the stories tend to run out of steam (do they really need to all run at nearly an hour?). At its heart is the most disturbing premise of all: We don’t need to look too far to find the monsters in our midst, or in the mirror.

Monsterland” season one begins streaming Oct. 2 on Hulu.