A film that I hoped would be horror-ier (which I know isn’t a word but ‘have more horror in it’ isn’t right here either…).
CLOSET MONSTER is a coming of age tale about young Oscar (Jack Fulton then Connor Jessup) as he variously endures witnessing a life-changing homophobic assault, his parents’ messy divorce, his dad’s even messier homophobia (Aaron Abrams), and his Mum’s ‘it was either my life or yours’ attitude to leaving (Joanne Kelly). Plunged into this chaos is the drama of his sexuality as he gets the feelings for other boys — or rather, one boy, Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) with whom he shares shirts and shifts at a DIY warehouse — falls out with his BFF (Sofia Banzhaf), attends a chaotic dance party, spins out on drugs, strives for a college place to kickstart a career as a film SFX makeup artist, and chats (occasionally) with his pet hamster, Buffy (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).
For all that CLOSET MONSTER is an admirably measured story (studiously avoiding melodrama and puncturing cliché with lightning bolts of magic-realism), it feels overwhelmed by, well, ‘stuff’. I just wish Don McKellar (credited as story editor) had sat writer/director Stephen Dunn down one more time to refine the pitch. Too many rich character points lead down cul-de-sacs rather than avenues. This leaves the talking hamster feeling like an (incredibly well-cast!) gimmick and the potential for emphasis on Oscar’s physical as well as emotional transformation suggested by his love of SFX almost entirely unrealised. Yes, it crops up occasionally and there is a visually arresting final moment of body horror when he literally hauls the collected hatred of parental conflict and societal homophobia out of his body, but it never fully coheres.
Where the film is much stronger is in its performances — all of which are good, Oscar and Wilder (get it?) particularly well cast for their chemistry, and Abrams does a great job of making the father conflicted rather than just a bully: Peter is a man totally out of his depth and, as a consequence, acting more of a child than anyone else on screen. The film also benefits from some incredible visuals, one standout sequence being the fairytale slash nightmare of a fancy dress party that sees Oscar and Wilder fantastically costumed as feral lost boys amidst the stark reality of drug-fuelled excess (a sequence which gives rise to the gorgeous image in the equally swoonsome poster design — below) .
Despite his own creativity, Oscar’s party transformation is by someone else’s hand, his costume and makeup improvised by a room full of drug-dealing young women. This is explained away in Dunn’s script as if to intentionally sabotage audience expectation of him going the full Vampire Slayer and coming out demon-style… And whilst I get the movie doesn’t want to go the ‘RuPaul with horns’ route to self-realisation, this is where it unravels. Having set up the potential for exploiting an horrific subtext – raising the visceral spectre of the hidden horror and threat that’s driving Oscar on (and out!) – Dunn tries too hard to justify Oscar’s journey to independence in the real world. This results in a frustratingly overwritten bathroom scene that adds one-too-many traumas to the punch bowl (given the rich potential of everything else that’s already happening…). Similarly, the liberating ending, however lyrically shot, smacks of a location the director felt he must use rather than anything that has grown organically from/with Oscar: his final destination revealed by his Mom in one of those, ‘wait, what?’ moments where you can literally hear an unresolved story suddenly make a hand-break turn for the freeway.
CLOSET MONSTER is a strong film, one borne aloft on some compelling performances, ambitious intent and a distinctive use of sound and light. I just wish the through-line potential of its genre promise had been more fully realised, exposing a more coherent manifestation of the internalised hate that we all inherit (and must escape).
In brief: A film that I hoped would be horror-ier (which I know isn’t a word but ‘have more horror in it’ isn’t right here either…).
Seen on: Prime Video UK, 14 NOV 2021.