Ed. note- David Schmoeller’s new film takes me out of the world of killer puppets and wax masks, beyond the type of fright that’s the usual stomping grounds for Death Ensemble. But it takes me right into the real fright of what happens when two young boys kill a third. It’s a thought-provoking film, worth seeing.- P.F.
When I got the screener copy of LITTLE MONSTERS in the mail, I was surprised by a few things. First off, director David Schmoeller had written me a personal letter which accompanied the disc. This was a nicety I didn’t expect, and I thank him for taking the time to do so. Then came the bigger surprise. Schmoeller, the man behind TOURIST TRAP and PUPPETMASTER, explained in the note that despite its title, LITTLE MONSTERS was not the straight horror flick I had anticipated. Instead it deals with the real horrors of a senseless child killing, and the repercussions on the two murderers, children themselves. It’s a compelling concept, well-written by Schmoeller, but ultimately suffers from a number of one-note performances. And it’s well worth seeing.
It starts off with the compelling image of a little boy bleeding out on the concrete. 10-year-olds Carl Withers and James Landers have kidnapped Little Davey McClendon from the local mall, put him in a dress, and murdered him without any motive. They serve eight years as juveniles, and upon their 18th birthdays, they’re released into a world all too ready to condemn them. But having served their time, do they deserve condemnation?
That question provides the crux of the story, and Schmoeller seems to suggest that the answer lies in how they handle their new found freedom. James is a classic case of arrested development, lacking any emotion, numb to the world he’s re-entered. In an early scene, he tells his psychiatrist he fears he could kill again, merely because life is unpredictable. This is a key case of foreshadowing that will rear its ugly head later in the film. Carl, on the other hand, is clearly still unhinged after eight years. Obsessed with seeing James again, he sets himself on a violent path, cutting a swath to James’ new home town of Las Vegas. The film examines the two boys’ different coping strategies, while leading them toward their inevitable reunion.
Schmoeller’s script asks plenty of questions, leaving the viewer to decide for himself what are the right answers. For instance, why would James’ new neighbor want to continue to date him after she discovers his true identity? Is flawed nurturing justification for a senseless killing? Is killing someone for the right reason the right thing to do, or is just as condemnation-worthy as killing for no reason at all? When Little Davey’s mother tells a tabloid reporter she prays for James and Carl to die, is that okay, even given the circumstances? It’s clear that Schmoeller was out to provoke these questions, and I applaud him for not just providing easy answers. He wants you to deliberate these questions carefully before you jump to stock conclusions. And you should.
If only the acting and some of the subplots provided a better frame for these questions. Ryan LeBoeuf is adequate as James, who’s clearly built a wall between himself, his fatal actions and those around him. He plays it a little edgy and awkwardly, which suits the character well. As Carl, Charles Cantrell avoids playing the stock Hollywood psycho and sinking into its clichés, instead providing a little depth and conflicted explosiveness. The rest of the cast, though, provide a competence that lies somewhere between community theatre and a Lifetime movie. I would have liked to see a little fire out of James’ new girlfriend Allyson, and either some conflicted emotion once she discovers his secret, or some rationale as to why she’s so willing to accept him. But Darion Ramos is flat in the role, where a more nuanced performance would have added life to the film. She’s not alone, though. With a better cast, LITTLE MONSTERS would have been the much better film it deserves to be.
There are also a few underdeveloped subplots which could’ve used some fleshing out. A tabloid reporter’s hunt for the boys under their new identities plays prominently in the film’s climax; but it feels grafted on, as if Schmoeller felt it necessary to comment on the flawed press. He echoes this theme with a Jerry Springer style show host who makes a circus out of the boys. There are also a handful of ominous scenes with a vigilante driving around with a high powered rifle on his passenger seat, prowling the streets for James and Carl. This one I’m more willing to accept, though Schmoeller should have spent some time developing the character (we know nothing about him). Worst, there’s no payoff for the vigilante.
The acting and subplots weaken LITTLE MONSTERS, but it’s certainly worth seeing. Schmoeller tackles real life horrors, challenging himself as a director to face provocative subject matter, and his audience not to swallow such easily digested answers. It had me thinking long after the film ended, and therein lies its power. What conclusions I’ve drawn I can’t say, as I’m still processing it. And that’s a good thing, when any entertainment makes me think.
Given the title and his body of work, you may walk into David Schmoeller’s LITTLE MONSTERS expecting a horror flicks with wax masks, killer puppets or demented Germans and crawlspaces. What you’ll get instead is the real world horrors that you can read about in the paper or see on the news. That’s not a bad thing at all. Just don’t leave this film without contemplating the judgments you’ve made, and why you’ve made them.