Reviews Short Narrative

Monster In Your Head (2020) – 1 star

Director: Kurt Mason

Writer: Kurt Mason & Alberto Rodriquez

Cast: Travis Albano, Emily Killian, Debbie Manders, Evan Brown, Cali Bisson

Running time: 27mins

The outright most terrifying thing about Monster In Your Head is the disconnected 50s commercial that proceeds the action. The infamous Let’s All Go to the Lobby snipe features assorted anthropomorphic snacks, begging a disgusting race of square-jawed American bipeds to guzzle their innards, as a disjointed piano-jingle encourages us to consume (apparently sentient) snacks from the cinema foyer.

Beyond that unwelcome cameo – which is not at all connected to anything else – the most disturbing moment comes at the end of Kurt Mason’s purported horror film, when he alludes to plans for a second chapter. Never has a shimmering question-mark next to the word END felt so utterly chilling.

Scripted by director Mason and co-writer Alberto Rodriquez, the story follows Aaron and Tiana Claire on a seemingly aimless road trip through the California desert. Aaron (Travis Albano) is struggling to put the demons of a traumatic childhood behind him, before being triggered by a didactic radio-broadcast Tiana (Emily Killian) stumbles on as she looks for entertainment on the long ride.

To their credit, Albano and Killian both do some excellent work in convincing us they are real people. The bickering of the couple – banter laced with sarcasm, and in places a genuine edge of irritation – during their strenuous travels comes across as organic, and believable. Perhaps they are a little too good though – because against the utterly woeful technical work on display, their performance seems to cue up a cinematic experience that is never delivered upon.

Aaron and Tiana’s credible squabbling takes place in front of a bizarre backdrop; a green screen less convincing than the one deployed to make it look like the car was flying at the end of Grease. On that occasion, Sandy and Danny gliding off into the sunset accompanies a moment where their narrative seems to divorce itself from the rest of the universe – the harsh realities of life depicted among their peers (including dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, and date-rape) cannot be reconciled with the impossible bliss of their story’s happy ending.

In this instance, as the Claires’ car sails through the apparently crumbling roads of the California wasteland without so much as a bump, passing points of interest merge unwittingly with parts of Tiana’s hair and outfit. Meanwhile, having sat through a road-trip through that same desert myself, it quickly becomes obvious that Aaron is not driving for the apparently straight road we are seeing in his rear-view – his arms constantly twisting and turning as though he were battling his way through the Nürburgring.

Having turned to a talk radio station, a long and winding lecture from a guest seems to be flagging up some kind of psychotic break endured by our characters. While her name is not in the credits, a psychiatrist the host seems to call Doctor Labia (I wonder what she majored in) explains multiple times that nobody has anything to fear, aside from the monster in our head.

At this point, the split between reality and fiction seems to reach its most overt. On a toilet break, our protagonists step out of the car – still green screened – into a desert they clearly do not connect to, and begin to sunbathe next to a theme park. We seem to have been told that we cannot trust our own eyes – nothing is real, and in this nightmare world anything could be possible.

But in this environment, nothing bizarre happens. Aaron instead has a flashback to a cartoonishly mean chapter of his childhood, where his older brothers torture him in a funhouse, until he urinates in his pants. The sequence seems at complete loggerheads with the rest of the film’s premise – it does not take place in front of a green screen, while Aaron’s fears are derived from the horrible things his brothers subject him to. Sometimes, all you are afraid of might be a monster in your head, but other times it might be the physical abuse other people can inflict upon you… Meanwhile, the sterile world of fabrication which felt like it was perfect for impossible fears to manifest themselves seems tame by comparison; safe even!

Returning to ‘reality,’ Aaron decides they need to get away from the theme park as it is triggering bad memories of garish clown masks and soiled pants. A dummy dressed as a clown even appears and disappears in the window, in a failed bid to spook us. It is at this point that the green screen suddenly exits – after blinking to make sure I wasn’t suffering a migraine, I realised I was seeing the Claires in natural light for the first time – and we are clearly driving with them in the real world.

Again, far from being safer now that they have exited their own headspace, and grounded themselves within the physical realm, the pair seem more at risk than before. As Doctor Labia continues to pontificate on how perceived threats are largely imagined, Tiana begins to doze. As she does, she begins dreaming of her childhood bedroom – again, naturally lit and more grounded that the green screen world she was in moments ago, but again, much more disturbing for it. There is someone lurking in her closet, and opening the door just as she wakes up.

As the Claires arrive at their final destination, it emerges that Aaron’s family have been the victims of some terrible event. He may be the last surviving member of the household. Someone presumably murdered them all – and it is unlikely to be the ludicrous clown which tormented him at the roadside. You know, lack of corporeal body and all that. The monster actually to blame is not one which resides in Aaron’s head at all.

All this leaves us more questions than answers in the conclusion. And not ones which necessitate a sequel to answer.

Why on Earth bother with a green screen if you are not going to use it to construct a horrific world around our characters, and imaginatively illustrate why they might be more afraid of the monsters in their head than the real-world threats they face? Were the actors unwilling to drive beyond the outskirts of LA, meaning the rest would have to be done in a studio? Why would two capable actors sign up for such a risible project anyway? And why is the scariest thing anyone can think of still a clown costume, when infinitely more people are murdered by police officers in uniform? These questions threaten to haunt me long beyond any of the actual scares Monster In Your Head offers up.

For all its new age bluster, Monster In Your Head manages to undermine its own platitudes. There are many things scarier than the spooky clown lurking in your subconscious – the prospect of sitting through a further half-hour of this being the most fearful of all.

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