Monsters was a half-hour syndicated anthology TV series that ran from 1988 to 1991, and featured an array of storylines and approaches that focused around, unsurprisingly, monsters of various sorts. These ran the gamut from vampires and space aliens to demons and an array of original creations like spider-women and pig people. Produced by Richard P. Rubenstein, the man responsible for its sister series Tales From the Darkside, Monsters never took itself too seriously, which was both a weakness and a strength. It developed a sizeable audience of faithful fans who have been waiting for years for an official DVD release. Well, here it is.
In retrospect, the most interesting thing about the show was the range of guest actors and actresses who paraded across its dinky little sets every week. As an anthology series, each 21-minute episode is self-contained, so there are no ongoing characters. Future stars like Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Matt LeBlanc (Friends) and Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure) rubbed elbows with established actors such as Linda Blair (The Exorcist), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) and Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation). It’s always fun to spot a familiar actor out of context, and watching Joey Tribbiani arguing with Wesley Crusher about the spooky old barbershop is really a haven for vampires is good for a chuckle or two. Other notable guest stars include Frank Gorshin, Darren McFadden, David Spade and Jerry Stiller.
Unfortunately, the best acting in the world couldn’t overcome the biggest shortcoming of Monsters: it looks cheap. The series was shot on video, as were many shows at the time, and the flat colors and lack of contrast, combined with the flimsy sets and plastic-looking props only undermine the stories the show wants to tell. Worst of all, the monsters themselves are almost universally laughable. Whether it’s the bee woman from “New York Honey” or the pig-faced monster who faces off against Steve Buscemi in “Bed and Boar”, the intelligent stop-motion rats from “Stressed Environment” or the Devil himself in “Hostile Takeover”, the monsters are almost always a letdown. For a show like this, that’s unforgivable.
There are exceptions. In “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites”, two young men discover a horrible secret in an isolated basement – and what they find is actually pretty gross. There are moments of unease elsewhere too, as in “The Cocoon”, a show that relies more on psychological creepiness than outright horror. Ditto with “La Strega”, the episode starring Blair and Morrow, and one which keeps the viewer guessing about which one is the evil one right up to the end (and beyond, actually, as the resolution isn’t entirely clear). But these moments are few and far between, with many more episodes falling flat than succeeding.
The tone doesn’t always help, either. Different screenwriters and directors aimed for different effects from one episode to the next, so the slapstick silliness of “New York Honey” bumps up against the claustrophobic anxiety of series opener “The Feverman”. Mixing comedy and horror is always a tricky thing, and this show was not particularly successful at it; throw in the low production values and cheesy farfisa organ music, and you have a result that is, at best, low-budget, and at worst, amateurish.
Maybe it’s just a question of perspective. For me, movies from the ‘50s were the mother lode of kitschy laughs; by the ‘60s and ’70s, sci-fi and monster movies were actually getting pretty good (2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes), and the ‘50s seemed as remote as ancient Rome. This series engenders the same sort of kitsch-loving mirth as ‘50s films like The Astounding She-Monster, but it was made 40 years later, and feels like a lost opportunity to make something that was actually good.
E One’s presentation of the Monsters is a bare-bones affair. Each season is presented on three DVDs, so nine in total, with eight episodes on each disc. There are no extras.
It seems unlikely that this set will appeal to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the show. TV has come a long way in the past 25 years, and these episodes are badly dated by contemporary standards. The writing is often weak and the acting often stilted; the monsters are unconvincing. This set holds nostalgia value for viewers who are already fans, but anyone who isn’t driven by nostalgia is unlikely to get much out of this other than novelty value of seeing Adrienne Barbeau or Debbie Harry or Meat Loaf collecting a paycheck.