Stewart Sparke is no newbie when it comes to giant rubber monsters and bucketfuls of goo. With two big silly indie creature features already under his belt in past FrightFest favourites The Creature Below and Book of Monsters, you’d think he’d be tiring of this sort of thing by now. Ready to shift gears into a much cleaner romantic comedy, or something that doesn’t involve having to scoop coagulated brain juice out of your work shoes every evening. But with this third effort, he confirms what we probably already knew; not only is Sparke the king of this very specific brand of lovingly batshit micro budget crowd-pleasers, neither he nor his team are going anywhere either. They’re simply having too much fun.
A sort of spiritual sequel to 2018’s Book of Monsters (but plot wise, completely separate), How To Kill Monsters is another naturally funny, adoringly made stab at the old-school genre nuts-and-bolts. Unsuspecting innocents forced to do battle with practically-puppeted beasties from another dimension. Yes, there are chainsaws. Yes, there is some sort of weird ancient pagan magic. And yes, the most annoying character does get her face ripped off by what can only be described as a cross between Basil Brush, and a feral gremlin.
After all, despite the occasional cross-Atlantic reference, this is a very British affair too; packed with classic sitcom-style wit, a setting reminiscent of beloved soap The Bill (with a Lovecraftian twist!), and a who’s-who cast of local genre talent.
Returning final girl Lyndsey Craine is Jamie, the only survivor of a demonic ritual gone wrong, naturally blamed for the cabin-in-the-woods massacre and forced to spend the night in the holding cell of a rural police station. It’s there she meets a lip-smackingly camp criminal (Nicholas Vince), a bitchy hen party (including fellow Sparke alumni Michaela Longden), and an overzealous drunk who insists on being called ‘Big Jenny’ (Rebecca-Clare Evans); all of whom, soon find themselves fighting for their lives when a ceremonial dagger does something it shouldn’t, and all hell breaks loose. Their only saviours from the rampaging station full of giant whale monsters and man-eating cakes? Dimwitted police duo Melvin and Dennis (Daniel Thrace and Arron Dennis) – their names say it all.
There are certainly a lot of characters, which aside from creating a healthy amount of back-and-forth, also means a chunky body count, and Sparke is as creative as ever dispatching them. There’s no doubting the practical builds on these creatures either; rubber-suited monstrosities with a gorgeously kitsch, cartoony vibe, echoing the likes of Power Rangers and early Troma. As such, they won’t be for everyone, particularly when they’re in battle for probably longer than they need to be. But for those who gel with such low-rent, tin-foil and rubber tentacle vibes, you won’t find a more bananas set of monsters than here.
Building on past successes, Sparke and co-writer Paul Butler mix things up a little narratively too, leaping straight into a hyper-gory prologue that repeats back on itself several times, like its Brian Yuzna’s Memento, before launching into a main adventure that tries something similar to a lesser effect. In fact, the film’s entire third act feels like a stretched out final five minutes, bulked up with repeated beats and returning characters that aren’t particularly needed.
It’s an action-packed 95 minutes, but Sparke and Butler structure it in such a way – with one too many false finales, and fake-out plot twists – that it feels much, much longer. So much so that by the eventual showdown (which plays as more pantomime than payoff), we’re getting tired of the third-rate insults and ropey dialogue, and so used to heads exploding and limbs being lopped off that a lot of the warmth and humour and good will built up in the dynamite first half, is starting to finally run dry.
A few more character beats in the middle might’ve helped, particularly for one-note hen party headache Longden and bride-to-be Fenfen Huang, and a much more explosive climax with a meatier part to play for MVP Craine could have rescued the otherwise runaway third act. As is, it’s a frequently exciting but messy monster mash, paced in such a way that it’s huge fun, until it just as suddenly isn’t, overstaying its welcome and struggling over the finish line.
When it does get there though, there is an even more howlingly ridiculous coda waiting before the credits to drum up some final big laughs, and make us almost forget about its missteps. Reminding us too, just how in love with this niche brand of stupendously silly popcorn entertainment Sparke and his team are. And is there anything purer than that?
How To Kill Monsters was screened as part of FrightFest 2023.