That Little Monster [DVD]
Screenplay : Paul Bunnell
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1994
Stars : Melissa Baum (Jaime), Reggie Bannister (Twelvetrees), Andi Wenning (Mrs. Willock), William Mills (Mr. Willock), Forrest J Ackerman (Edward Van Groan)
Clocking in at just under an hour in length, Paul Bunnell's That Little Monster is a quirky little sci-fi/horror comedy about the perils of babysitting mutant babies.
Jamie (Melissa Baum), a foreign exchange student in need of work, takes on a nanny position for an eccentric family, the Willocks (William Mills and Andi Wenning), who describe their infant as, well, "difficult." Most of the movie takes place in the Willock house--an odd amalgamation of retro '50s kitsch (the TV looks like it came right out of the Cleaver household), bizarre art (a collection of monstrous sculptures fills one room), and the futuristic (the microwave talks)--as Jamie struggles with little Wolpert, the mutant infant who may be as dangerous as he is difficult to feed.
Of course, such a glib overview of the movie's bare plot doesn't even begin to convey the cinematic energy that writer/director Bunnell infuses into every frame. Shot in black and white on 16mm over a period of more than three years with a cost of $30,000 (mostly out of Bunnell's own pocket), That Little Monster is as scattershot as it is intriguing. Immediate comparisons will be made to David Lynch's Eraserhead (1978), another self-financed, low-budget, black-and-white movie about a mutant baby shot over a period of several years. However, Bunnell is after something completely different than Lynch, although they both share a sense of the visionary and the surreal, not to mention the darkly comic.
Bunnell's vision is much goofier than Lynch's, and he freely borrows from a wide assortment of filmmakers--a tracking shot taken from Alfred Hitchcock, the famous zoom-in-dolly-out effect used so often by Steven Spielberg, a slow zoom from Stanley Kubrick--but somehow stitches it all together into a cohesive style that feels fresh and invigorating. There is an amusingly self-conscious pretension to the whole project, opening as it does with a road-show-style overture (for a movie that's only 56 minutes long!), which is followed by an exacting replication of the on-camera warning that preceded James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, except this one is delivered by the infamous sci-fi-memorabilia collector and publisher of Famous Monsters magazine Forrest J Ackerman, who ensures us that, in fact, no babies were harmed during the production of this film.
That Little Monster was clearly a labor of love, and it shows in the way Bunnell squeezes every last bit out of his budget, making great use of a homemade Steadicam to give the movie a constant sense of fluid motion. Bunnell has a sense of sublime artistry, and he doesn't try to get cheap thrills through rapid editing. Rather, he relies on carefully set-up lighting (which owes a great debt to both the Universal horror movies of the '30s and much of film noir) along with slow tracking shots and circular movements, at one point giving us a vertiginous crane shot that twists up the side of a door, through the ceiling, and then back down the other side.
Narratively, That Little Monster is silly and derivative, using a plot twist at the end to tie together an assortment of odd details throughout the movie. It's an effective twist in and of itself, recalling the sudden revelations at the end of old Twilight Zone episodes (in fact, the movie was originally written to be an episode in the short-lived anthology TV series Monsters, which ran from 1988 to 1990). But, in the end, it is Bunnell's attention to visual style that makes the movie worth watching. The story is just an excuse for the imagery.
|That Little Monster DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby 2.0 Stereo|
|Release Date||July 30, 2002|
| 1.33:1 (Full Frame) |
It is a shame that low-budget independent movies all too often look shoddy on film and even worse when transferred to video. Luckily, That Little Monster is not one of those movies, as the digital transfer on this DVD looks very good. Originally shot on 16mm, the black-and-white image (in its original full-frame aspect ratio) has a good range of grays that allow for a healthy level of detail, even though the overall look of the film is somewhat soft. Blacks tend to be a little grayed out and there is a bit of speckling here and there (particularly when the screen goes completely white), but overall this is a fine presentation.
|English Dolby 2.0 Stereo|
The two-channel stereo soundtrack is clean and clear. One of That Little Monster's strongest attributes is its soundtrack, which is very clever and effective in its use of both music and sound effects. There is nothing particularly showy here, but there are some moderate surround effects that add to the moody feeling.
| Audio commentary by writer/director Paul Bunnell and producer/editor Carl Mastromarino|
This is a fun screen-specific audio commentary that really enhances one's enjoyment of the movie. Bunnell and Mastromarino have an easy-going discussion about making the movie, its origins, various in-jokes, and the general difficulties involved in maintaining continuity over a three-year period (in one scene, Melissa Baum is five months pregnant).
The Visitant, a short film by Paul Bunnell
Video interview with Paul Bunnell
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick