30th Aug2018

Frightfest 2018: ‘Book of Monsters’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Lyndsey Craine, Michaela Longden, Lizzie Stanton, Rose Muirhead, Nicholas Vince, Daniel Thrace, Anna Dawson, Julia Munder | Written by Paul Butler | Directed by Stewart Sparke

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Director Stewart Sparke and writer Paul Butler follow up their low-budget debut The Creature Below with the Kickstarter-funded monster movie Book of Monsters. Combining a witty script and practical special effects, it works as an affectionate homage to ’80s creature features while retaining a refreshingly modern-day approach to its gender politics.

Northern teenager Sophie (Lyndsey Craine) is about to turn eighteen, so her best friends Mona (Michaela Longden) and Beth (Lizzie Stanton) persuade her to have a wild and crazy house party while her widowed, well-meaning dad (Nicholas Vince) is out of town. However, things quickly spiral out of control when a suspiciously slinky gate-crasher (Steph Mossman) sneaks upstairs with an unsuspecting virgin (Arron Dennis) and performs a blood ritual that releases a host of monsters, conjured from an ancient book given to Sophie by her mother. With the various creatures eating Sophie’s party guests, it’s up to the birthday girl and her BFFs to save the day with a crash course in beastie bashing.

Sparke gets terrific performances from his appealing cast. Craine is likeable and unassuming in the lead role (she’s no wise-cracking, Buffy-style ass-kicker, just a normal, relatable teenager) and there’s strong comic support from Longden as party-crazy Mona, while Anna Dawson and Julian Alexander nab most of the best lines as Sophie’s catty frenemies, Arya and Brice.

On top of that, Butler’s script pulls off some pleasingly modern updates, without feeling the need to get all self-congratulatory about it. Chief amongst these is the fact that Sophie’s love interest is fellow classmate Jess (Rose Muirhead), though this isn’t given a coming-out story focus, it’s just calmly presented as matter-of-fact. (She’s given stick for it from Arya, but her comments are basically ignored). On a similar note, the traditional heroic male role is comically underplayed by Daniel Thrace, a classmate of Sophie’s who’s perfectly good at killing monsters, it’s just no-one notices and nobody can remember his name (it’s Gary).

Sparke achieves a nice sense of momentum throughout, escalating the chaos at the party and gradually whittling down the supporting characters (in largely predictable order), while regularly punctuating the action with witty lines and great visual gags. To that end, there are a number of excellent jokes, most notably a very funny running gag involving a subtitled German exchange student (Julia Munder).

A film called Book of Monsters is obviously going to stand or fall on the quality of its malevolent menagerie and in that respect, Sparke scores very highly, with a number of original, creepy-looking creatures specially created for the film, using practical special effects. He also throws in some old favourites for good measure, with some sharp-teethed garden gnomes that come to life, allowing for a few knowing Gremlins references (gnome in a microwave and so on).

It’s fair to say that Book of Monsters isn’t entirely without flaws. For one thing, the actual plot (complete with backstory), involving Sophie’s possible destiny gets a little lost in all the chaos and the related emotional elements don’t land as well as they could have. Similarly, the editing and pacing are a little off in places, partly as a result of having multiple characters fighting multiple monsters simultaneously. There’s also the occasional script slip-up – it seems a little odd, for example, that not even the goth girl seems to know what a pentagram is.

That said, those are minor niggles that don’t detract from the overall sense of fun, and it’s hard not to be charmed by the filmmakers’ obvious affection for the creature feature genre. The film closes with a set-up for a sequel, or possibly a TV series, and it’s a testament to the overall enjoyment delivered by Book of Monsters that either of those options would be most welcome.

**** 4/5

Book of Monsters screened at Frightfest on Saturday August 26th.

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