Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Little Monsters

Literally just minutes after I finished Hulu’s new zombie comedy Little Monsters, my sister-in-law stopped by to ask a favor. My niece – the adorable little scatter-brained 7-year-old that she is – somehow got on the bus without her backpack. Could I shoot on over to the school and drop it off in the front office for her? Now, I’m not one who normally buys into the whole “the universe is trying to tell me something” view of things. It was pure coincidence that as soon as I finished a cute little movie all about an uncle doing everything he can to protect his nephew during a zombie outbreak I was then called on to be a good uncle for my niece. Nothing more, nothing less.

Here’s the thing, though: starting the moment you have kids in your life, those kinds of things happen more and more. One day it’s as small as driving a backpack to a school, another day it’s as big as chaperoning a field trip or staying home all day with a sick kid and watching The Descendents 3 with them. Even if you’re not actually the parent and just the cool uncle or aunt, a new level of responsibility has been introduced into your life and the way you view certain things changes. If you’re a horror movie fan watching Poltergeist, for example, you grow up identifying with Carol Anne and look back as an adult and identify with her parents.

Abe Forsythe – the 38-year-old writer/director of Little Monsters who is more commonly known in his native Australian for his decades in front of the camera – knows all too well what being a parent does to your view of pop culture. As he told DailyDead, he came up with the idea for this movie while on a school trip with his son:

There was one particular thing that happened. We were on a train which had some stops. The woman driving the train got up to check on something up ahead, which obviously is what happens in the movie, but it made me go, “What if that was a zombie? What would we do in this sort of situation?” That just snowballed into this idea where, what if I have to stop these kids from being eaten, but you have to stop them from being upset by what they’re seeing, too, because you don’t want them to be scarred for the rest of their lives?

Thus, we have a zom-com where one of the potential victims is a little kid who just really, really wants to play putt-putt golf and there’s a thrilling action sequence where the biggest threat isn’t the hoard of zombies but instead the possibility that the zombies might prevent a schoolteacher from getting an Epipen back to a young student suffering anaphylactic shock. Those with a low tolerance for cute kids saying funny things and zombies being treated as punchlines rather than vessels of horror, well, this one isn’t for you. Maybe it’s the uncle in me saying this, however, but I fell for just about every adorable second of Little Monsters.

What’s It About?

In Australia, newly single fuck-up (Alexander England) volunteers to chaperone a class field trip to impress his nephew’s effervescent kindergarten teacher (Lupita Nyong’o). But – wouldn’t you know it – there’s a nearby American army base up to no-good, Return of the Living Dead shenanigans, and the field trip to the petting zoo turns into a fight for survival, with Josh Gad eventually joining the group as a children’s TV show presenter who is actually a bit of a fraud.

Why I Watched It

It’s been high on my watchlist ever since I read Screen Zealots’ rave review out of Sundance earlier this year, and it seemed like it would pair well with Anna and the Apocalypse.

Did I Like It?

If you know the basic premise and cast list of Little Monsters before hitting play, you’ll be surprised to see it actually opens with a montage of two lesser-known Australian actors shouting at each other through one domestic situation after another – shopping together, out for dinner with friends. This is a couple – Dave (England) and Sara (Nadia Townsend) – so clearly headed for a break-up that they almost feel like a supercharged shadow of Midsommar’s Dani and Christian. Thankfully, no Swedish rural cult is necessary to push them over the edge. They end things of their own accord – she wants kids, he doesn’t, so he leaves – by the close of the opening credits.

Where’s Lupita? Where’s Josh Gad? Where oh where are the zombies?

The undead don’t show up until the end of the first act, which means you have to sit through an awful lot of Dave being an especially awful and pathetic version of the sadly too-familiar cinematic trope of “guy who needs to get his shit together.” There’s also a bit of About a Boy to his attempts at being a guardian to his adorable, plain-spoken nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) while sleeping on his sister’s couch.

Dave, for example, not only freely curses around the kid but when asked he doesn’t hesitate to offer honest translations for any expletive. This means that later on in the story when the script needs a good surprise laugh you’re damn right Felix will randomly tell someone the true definition of “douchebag.”

This lends Little Monsters a slight Judd Apatow feel. Even after Lupita enters the story as the scene-stealing Miss Caroline, the movie is ultimately about Dave’s journey from manchild to adult, but what better reason to grow up than being charged with protecting innocent little kids when the world seems to be ending around you? As these kinds of Apatowian stories go, Little Monsters’ take on it is fairly well-done, if overly familiar, and Dave’s obnoxiousness does eventually give way to relatable vulnerability.

The obvious true star of the show, however, is Miss Caroline. Abe Forsythe’s initial story inspiration – how to not only protect kids during a zombie outbreak but keep them from getting scared – is most directly realized through her. The moment they encounter their first zombie she hilariously turns it into a lesson, adopting her best Sesame Street voice as she asks, “Who knows what unpredictable means?”

She quickly convinces the kids it’s all just a game being put on by the petting zoo. Once they make their way safely into a secure gift shop, she uses her lovely singing voice to keep them entertained/in line with ukelele sing-alongs. (Get ready for Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to get stuck on repeat in your head again, that is if it ever stopped in the first place.)

This might be the biggest sticking point for the film’s detractors: do you buy that a group of (I wanna say) 6-year-olds could be convinced that flesh-eating, blood-covered zombies right outside the window are just people in make-up playing a game? Based on my experience with kids that age, it’s not that far-fetched, especially since the film makes sure that the kids never actually see any of the killing.

Beyond that, Lupita makes Miss Caroline’s positive spin on everything so convincing. Her command of the class is so absolute that all she has to say is “3,2,1, eyes on me” to get them to refocus on her and not on the violence. Plus, it’s a ruse she only has to keep up for so long since the zombie portion of the film takes place over just one afternoon into the following morning.

This is still a zombie movie, though. Blood, guts, and gore abound in those scenes where Miss Caroline, Dave or even Josh Gad’s far more incidental character are out in the open fighting off zombies. Miss Caroline, in particular, has an epic, bloody brawl with an entire field full of zombies standing in between her and her student who needs his Epipen. If you don’t laugh when Caroline returns triumphantly and then convinces her students the blood on her dress is just strawberry jam but the type of strawberry jam they shouldn’t eat – “What jam?” the one naysaying voice in the group quietly asks – then Little Monsters might not be your thing. However, I had a blast with it.

How Did They Get Lupita to Be in This?

It’s natural to wonder if there’s some grand story behind how a little-budget movie like this landed Lupita Nyong’o – Oscar-winning, Black Panther co-starring, Maz Kanata-voicing, Us-headlining Lupita Nyong’o. According to Forsythe, there really isn’t a big story to it. He viewed Miss Caroline as a Ripley/Sarah Conner figure who is both badass and deeply human, and he thought Lupita was perfect for the part. As a Hail Mary, she’ll-never-say-yes-but-you-miss-every-shot-you-don’t-take attempt, they sent the script to her agent, and within two days they got a call to set up a meeting.

Not To Be Confused With This

Where to Stream

Hulu

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Christmas horror beckons. Again.

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