A young boy called Conor who is struggling to cope as his mother battles cancer is visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who tells him 3 stories, before demanding Conor tells him one in return.
Prepare your hearts horror fans, because the scariest thing about A Monster Calls is how emotional it is. I am not afraid to admit that I cried buckets. Coming from director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) it should not be surprising to learn that A Monster Calls is relentlessly heart-breaking and never entirely abandons its sombre tone, even during its more uplifting moments. It will swing you from sadness to sadness, gripping you like a vice until you dare not breathe in fear of more tears rolling down your cheek. Its grasp on your heart is earned and never will you feel manipulated, because the humane story at its monstrous centre is unbearably real. I am sure that many will find its story hard to sit through as they realise much of the story feels frightening close to home, because let’s face it, many of us have will have stared it in the face. Whether it be a friend, a colleague, a family member or yourself, that bastard cancer has touched many lives and A Monster Calls is a touching, realistic exploration of one family’s struggle. For all its moments of fantastical beauty, this story is grounded in a scary reality.
I’ll put the sadness to one side now, because I think you get it. What about the “horror” side? Let’s face it, this isn’t really a horror film. It has horror elements, but it’s not something you’re going to watch to give yourself nightmares. With Bayona at the helm, however, it’s impossible (get it?) for the film to fully avoid being a teeny bit scary, and I mean a teeny bit. As the film caters to a more family-friendly audience, Bayona teases horror and plays with the tropes we’d come to expect from a film that is traditionally, straight down the line scary. When the monster first awakens and strides to Conor’s home in the dead of night, trashing everything in its path and booms, “I’ve come for you!” it’s a bit unnerving, I must say. Aside from being mind-blowingly gorgeous, the visuals and the CGI used during this scene embrace a horror visual palette. Conor looks out the window and it looks as if hell is about the break loose; the house is shaking, objects move start to move around, ominous clouds are forming in the distance, shadows approach and the pitch-black sky suggests blood may just about pour from it. It’s a much-welcomed jolt of gothic intensity that injects A Monster Calls with slight, noticeable terror.
The visuals are impeccable. The dream-like scenes and moments of pure fantasy are a joy to watch. The use of water-colour effects bring to life the Monster’s story in a perfect way to separate them from the rest of the film, but also mirroring Conor and his mother’s interest in art and adding another layer of beauty to the film’s already overflowing allure. It’s a gorgeous and assured vision that blends fantasy and reality as perfectly as the novel by Patrick Ness. Readers of Ness’ book should find lots to love in the cinematography and effects that bring this difficult story to life, but also in the script that has so clearly had the author’s touch. It’s rare for a film to be completely faithful to the novel that it is based on, but A Monster Calls appears to manage this difficult task effortlessly.
The story rings well-known bells that chime the tones we’ve heard in The BFG; especially the first time we meet the Monster and The Neverending Story; bullies will be bullied, but for all its familiarity, A Monster Calls still bursts with overwhelming imagination and creativity. There is plenty of sadness to seep through, but when you get to the real beating heart of A Monster Calls, you will see that there is a tale that simply wants to stress the importance of storytelling and the complexities that reside within simple rights and wrongs. It’s a celebration of humanity that wants to remind us we’re not perfect and that’s perfectly fine. It’s a lesson in bravery, togetherness, hope and love, but also an ode to horror and the necessity of fright.
The only slight negative about A Monster Calls is the cast. Aside from Liam Neeson who sounds like he was born for this role and Felicity Jones who is appropriately tear-jerking, the rest of the cast are a little bit lousy. Even Sigourney Weaver is below par with her British accent; couldn’t we have just had a genuine British person in the role? There’s plenty of us, I swear. As Conor, Lewis MacDougall falters early on, but grows in the role and gets stronger as the narrative progresses. Perhaps it was too much for him to take on such a tragic, important role, but there is definitely a spark missing in his performance. As Conor’s father, Toby Kebbel is useless, so in a way, he’s perfect for the character. However, it feels as though not an ounce of truth is spoken from him, which makes him an implausible father figure. His lines are flatly delivered and there is no emotion in his voice at all, which is obviously, an important part of this highly stirring piece of cinema. It’s a tragedy that the cast should let down what would otherwise be a wholly stunning effort, but they still don’t manage to stop A Monster Calls from being one of the most affecting films to ever grace the screen.
If you’re after a good old cry with a sprinkling of horror and a generous helping of visual delights, then this is for you. It will take your breath away, but I warn you; pack those tissues.
Words: Jessy Williams (@JessyCritical)