Director Chris Sivertson’s MONSTROUS, a mix of supernatural horror and family drama, follows Laura (Christina Ricci), a mother in 1950s rural America, who flees her abusive ex-husband with her seven-year-old son Cody (Santini Barnard). The remote lakeside house she rents offers them sanctuary for a new beginning, but a monstrous presence emerges from the lake that disturbs Laura’s hopes.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Sivertson discusses the troubling idea of perfection in 50s America and why storytelling will continue to endure.
FF: Behind the onscreen story, there’s the story of the making of the film. Are there any tales or moments you recall that might surprise the audience to know?
Chris Sivertson: We made the movie during the height of the pandemic, and so there were all kinds of restrictions and setbacks, in addition to the normal low budget obstacles. Because of this, there are scenes in which the coverage of different characters in the same scene were shot months apart from each other - sometimes even in different locations. It’s a testament to my creative team that I don’t think you can tell which scenes those are. Also, the house we used has a history of being haunted. I didn’t experience any ghostly activity, but the place did indeed have a very special feeling to it, where it seemed like anything could happen.
FF: When you're choosing to direct a film that you've not written, are you using it an opportunity to explore your creativity in different ways?
CS: It’s definitely a way to explore my creativity and interests in a new light. When I read other people’s scripts, there’s not necessarily any specific thing I’m looking for other than an emotional connection to the material. The parent/child relationship in MONSTROUS was an immediate draw. Right from the beginning, the story has a lot of heart to it. I got more excited as I kept reading, and I realised that we were dealing with a somewhat unreliable main character. Finding ways to visualise a character’s subjective experience - as opposed to hard cold reality - is something that I’m always looking to explore.
FF: It's said that film doesn't exist in a vacuum. Set in 1950s America, Laura's place as a woman is a difficult one - social etiquette and gender expectations an oppressive force. Released in the shadow of tumultuous events in the U.S, how do you think these events may influence and shape the audience's response?
CS: The 50s are still such a foundational decade for the U.S. The country was very confidant in itself as the leader of the world after WW2, and was keen to present an image of perfection. Obviously life for plenty of people was far from perfect, and yes, I think the frustration Laura feels when her voice is marginalised is something that is very relatable to current audiences.
FF: The Hotpoint advert is frequently seen, and heard on the television. MONSTROUS subtly critiques the way society is structured to offer commercial therapy, emphasising the materialistic over spiritual and personal self-reflection.
CS: Someone is always trying to sell us something. It’s a fact of life, and the 50s were the dawn of modern American advertising. They weren’t just selling products anymore, they were selling a whole vision of a perfect life. It’s what we see Don Draper doing so well in MAD MEN.
The Hotpoint commercial in our movie becomes like a mantra for Laura. She repeats the commercial’s slogans in times of stress in an attempt to assert some control over her life. She’s desperately striving for that perfect life that’s constantly being sold to her. But, as you point out, that will never fill the spiritual void she is suffering from.
FF: Mixing the supernatural and fantastical with a family drama, in what ways do these two extremes complement one another? When you think back to THE EXORCIST, it's the mother-daughter relationship, and the troubled character of the priest that sees the two extremes elevate one another, and the film itself.
CS: It’s getting back to the idea that supernatural events in a story can highlight whatever personal/family dynamic the characters are going through. Stephen King is a master of this. TWILIGHT ZONE also comes to mind as a series where the fantastical was used to illuminate reality. If audiences relate to the characters in some way, they will be willing to take a leap of faith as the story turns toward the bizarre and uncanny.
FF: One thought that interests me is the concept of originality. The first part of my question I'd like to delve into with you is contemporary storytelling as a repackaging, or extension of fairy tales and biblical parables. How has cinema evolved these core influences, retaining yet evolving their original identity?
CS: It can go two different ways. “Repackaging” to me implies a kind of a crass way of looking at classic stories - the idea that this story worked before so let’s dust it off and do it again. Whereas the concept of new movies being an “extension” of foundational material is much more interesting.
New stories can be in a sort of dialogue with the stories that preceded them. When the Brothers Grimm first travelled around and listened to regional folk tales as told by locals, they would then take those tales and put their own spin on them. So their initial work was already sort of a back-and-forth - a dialogue between the present and the past. That dialogue continues to this day in movies and all the other storytelling mediums.
FF: If there are a limited number of stories, and these have all been exhaustively told, why does storytelling endure? Why do storytellers continue to tell stories, and why do audiences continue to consume them?
CS: Storytelling will always endure because it’s the way people try to make sense of life. Everyone’s a storyteller. Friends tell each other stories all the time. Religions are built around stories. True stories become embellished almost instantly. Media pundits tell us what’s going on in the world in a way that reinforces whatever story they have committed themselves to. Every person has a story they are telling themselves about who they are and where they fit into the world. MONSTROUS is about the story Laura is desperately telling herself, until it becomes impossible to maintain.
FF: As the film is being released and shared with audiences, are you the type of filmmaker that finds it easy to move on, or do you struggle to let go, thinking over the choices you've made?
CS: I feel some of both of those things. Most of the struggle over choices happens while making the movie and peaks in post-production when all the final decisions must be made. Once it’s finished, I usually have pretty clear opinions on what works in a given project and what is lacking.
One helpful thing for me is that there’s always a decent lag between finishing a project and it actually being released. So I naturally have to move on to other things in that time. By the time it’s released, I’m usually at some sort of peace with the project - for better or worse!
MONSTROUS was released on July 11 by Koch Films, and is available to download via Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Apple TV / iTunes and Amazon, as well Google Play, Rakuten TV and Xbox.