Sometimes it is easier to confront the monsters that pop up on our screens rather than dealing with the ones in real life. 2022 was certainly a year of real life terrors and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was also one of the most successful years for Netflix in terms of fantasy horror shows. The highly-anticipated fourth season of Stranger Things was released in May, and in early June it set the record for the most hours watched in a single week on the platform (over 335 million, to be precise). This feat has now been surpassed by a newcomer to the streaming service, Tim Burton’s Wednesday, which offers viewers the latest reimagining of the Addams family franchise, and has now been renewed for a second season.
In Wednesday’s first season, we follow the titular character on her hunt to get to the bottom of a mysterious murder spree in the area; the monster responsible for these killings is first shown towards the end of episode one. According to Alfred Gough, the co-director of the show, the team working on the monster sketched out fifty to sixty different possible versions of its physical form, at which point Burton himself created a watercolour painting of a big-eyed, grey hued creature: this is what we ultimately see in the series. Despite its originality and Burton’s eminence, the monster falls flat. It is sadly let down by a reliance on shoddy CGI which makes its appearance almost comic.
In episode seven, Wednesday, with the help of Uncle Fester, discovers that the monster is known as a ‘Hyde’ – a not-so-subtle reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Gothic novella, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. However, the series’ creators seem to have missed a key aspect from their source material: the potency of Stevenson’s idea derives from Mr Hyde never being fully described. As such, the monster doesn’t survive the shift in medium from text to screen: the mysterious alter ego that should have remained in the shadows becomes a garish nine-foot-tall CGI creation.
It is tempting to argue that had the creators of Wednesday opted for practical effects – prosthetics, makeup, stilts – to create the Hyde, they would have succeeded in constructing a monster that was truly terrifying, or perhaps more importantly, disturbing. After all, this is the secret to the genius of the monsters in Guillermo del Toro’s films. Just think of the ‘Pale Man’ from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), or the unsettling amphibious creature from the more recent The Shape of Water (2017), both of whom were played by Doug Jones, a contortionist-turned-actor known specifically for his portrayal of Hollywood’s most famous practical effect monsters.
As the latest season of Stranger Things demonstrates, however, not all practical effects are made equal. The series has had an impressive run of monsters in its four seasons, scaring viewers with ‘demogorgons’, ‘demodogs’ (which, despite what their ridiculous name may suggest, are just as scary), and the ‘Mindflayer’, but it has faltered somewhat in the visual design of Vecna, introduced in the fourth season as the villain behind the ‘Upside Down.’ The practical effects used to transform the actor Jamie Campbell Bower into Vecna took eight hours to apply, and another two to remove. Vecna’s origin story requires the monster to have a humanoid shape, presenting an issue which the season’s creators seem to have ignored: as opposed to the demogorgons’ classic long predator legs, enabled with stilts and CGI, he has human legs which end in stocky ankles. There are several sequences in the season which show Vecna hunting down his victims, but what could be unbearably tense (and indeed is, but only once the camera pans in) becomes slightly too comic when we see him stomping around. In comparison to the other creatures in the Stranger Things universe, Vecna is too human to pose a constant threat. He must be shoved in our faces or banished off-screen to truly scare us.
Both Vecna and the Hyde are illustrative of the same problem: there is a very fine line that television and filmmakers must tread to ensure that their monsters are neither too human nor too inhuman. Monsters of all shapes and sizes have now graced our screens for over a hundred years. The earliest examples were in silent films, The Golem (1915) and Nosferatu (1922), both products of a Germany embroiled in war and its aftermath. This long tradition has trained audiences and, as such, the expectations of Netflix’s viewers are finely tuned. While visual design is not the only aspect of on-screen monsters that contributes to their ‘scare factor’, ignoring this balance – unique in each instance – results in disappointing monsters who fail to fully terrify. In the midst of inevitably ongoing global turmoil, let’s hope Netflix will provide viewers with monsters scarier than headlines.