The horror film has long been an ideal vehicle for ambitious filmmakers to smuggle social metaphors into the brains of viewers, with even the most tired concepts becoming palatable when delivered by something with multiple eyes and claws. Monsters, the writing/directing debut from special-effects vet Gareth Edwards, feels like an upper-tier Roger Corman production from the '70s: made for pocket change (here, a hard-to-credit $15,000), relying heavily on found locations, and chock-full of philosophizing between the money shots of briefly glimpsed beasties. Viewers in the mood for a thrill-a-minute goopfest may want to look elsewhere, but those in a more Zen state of mind will find much to chew on.
Set six years after an alien invasion, Monsters takes place in a Mexican forbidden zone populated with Giant Lovecraftian Critters, temporarily halted in their northward migration by an immense fence on the U.S. border. As the military prepares to permanently contain the outbreak, a cynical photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) attempts to deliver the beautiful daughter (Whitney Able) of his boss back to the States.
As a writer, Edwards hits some unfortunate characterization speed bumps (particularly when dealing with McNairy's character, who's significantly more assholish than he needs to be) but proves ingenious in other areas, utilizing his desolate village and remote jungle locations to create a real feeling of lonely paranoia. (An early scene featuring... something lurking below a slow-moving riverboat achieves an almost Spielbergian level of anticipation.) Though perhaps missing that final spark of inspiration that makes a low-budget genre classic, Edwards's film is a sincere, eerily lovely, and ultimately rather poetic horror-travelogue that transcends its considerable limitations. If the deliberately amorphous ending means what I think it does, bump it up another 10 points.
This article has been updated since its original publication.