All hail Lupita Nyong’o, the Scream Queen of SXSW! On Opening Night, the Academy-Award winning actress shocked and awed the packed house at the Paramount Theater with Us. In dueling roles, she gracefully and ruthlessly filled the audience with tension and terror. The following day, she returned to the Paramount for a victory lap, fronting the outrageous zombie-comedy Little Monsters. It was a one-two punch that deftly establishes Nyong’o’s range as well as her status as modern-horror royalty.
Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Abe Forsythe, Little Monsters follows in the footsteps of Shaun of the Dead, in that it centers its zombie disaster story on an emotionally stunted man-child. Recently dumped by his fed-up girlfriend, Dave (Alexander England) is a homeless, jobless, and reckless when he and his and festering dreams of rock stardom crash on his sister’s couch. He’s a wretched influence on his young nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca), introducing the boy to violent video games, curse words, and adult situations. But when a zombie outbreak turns Felix’s kindergarten field trip into a fight for survival, Dave will have to grow up fast.
So how does Nyong’o fit into all this? She plays Miss Caroline, the bubbly and beautiful kindergarten teacher who keeps calm and sings Taylor Swift songs. She’s not the lead of Little Monsters; she is its shining star. As soon as Dave sets eyes on Miss Caroline, he’ll do whatever he can to get close to her, even chaperone a visit to a far-flung petting zoo. And when the nearby military base has an undead breach, he’ll try to be the hero she needs. But one thing: no one is more badass than Miss Caroline. Forsythe’s script refuses to waste the talents and charisma of Nyong’o by reducing her character to a trophy or a damsel-in-distress. So, when it comes to kicking zombie-ass and scoring laughs, this dazzling lady takes the lead. One moment, Miss Caroline is sprinting across corpse-strewn fields, beating back the ravenous ghouls with a handy shovel. The next she’s gleefully singing to keep up the spirits of her concerned kiddos. Then, she is smiling brightly while hissing threats to the selfish oaf who’s threatening her class’s safety.
That oaf is Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a kids show host with a bright green suit, a frog-puppet sidekick, and a penchant for binge-drinking and cuss-filled outbursts. Having become world-famous from voicing the warm-hearted snowman in Frozen, the Book of Mormon star seems downright giddy to return to his irreverent roots. He makes a meal of grousing at cute kids, dropping f-bombs, and guzzling rubbing alcohol. When he and Nyong’o collide, it’s unexpected, strange, and exhilarating. Sadly, England can’t quite match their energy or charisma, which means Dave often feels pushed the sidelines in his own story.
In act one, Little Monsters is a satisfyingly wild comedy full of raunchy jokes and cheeky gags. But the introductions of Nyong’o and Gad raise the bar, and England can’t quite match them. Still, despite the tired rom-com trope of a loser snagging the eye of a gorgeous and wonderful dream girl, the romance here works, in part because of a scene where Miss Caroline’s picture-perfect image gets comically complicated with a bit of bonkers backstory. And in part, it works because Nyong’o and England share a pleasant chemistry. You can’t help but grin along with them whether they’re flirting or bellowing out kid-friendly songs as if their lives depend on it.
Hearing the premise of a motley crew defending a kindergarten class from zombies, I expected Little Monsters to be a bit darker than it is. But I’m far from disappointed. While there are buckets of guts and boatloads of blood splashed about, this is a devotedly silly movie. There’ll be some moments of suspense, a couple of jump scares, but mostly just fucked-up fun. Forsythe took the fear of being a parent and channeled it into a hilarious horror-comedy that’s bursting with sex jokes, gross-out gags, and insane bits not suitable for children. Then, at its core beats a big, hopeful heart. In short, Little Monsters is a wild ride, a twisted crowd-pleaser, and a total blast.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com