There are few elements more instrumental to horror than music. The proper score can turn a B-rated suspense flick into a saga that will stick in your nightmares. It’s on that essential front that Mary Laws’ excellent anthology series Monsterland shines. Gustavo Santaolalla’s masterful score expertly elevates the show from just another Halloween-themed binge into something far more soulful, haunting, and impossible to ignore.
Based on by Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collection North American Lake Monsters: Stories, each episode of Monsterland focuses on a different story about an unexpected monster. The eight-episode series covers everything from mermaids to face-stealing humanoids. A show about monsters in October seems like a no-brainer, but there’s more lurking under the surface of Monsterland. Paired with great performances and directing, each episode takes the concept of the monster and questions what it actually means. Are these creatures truly the terrors we know from spooky childhood stories? Or does their reign of horror actually deserve sympathy? And what does our fear of these creatures say about us?
Each time Monsterland dives into these deeper moral questions Santaolalla’s music is there, highlighting how people truly are. Composed of his signature combination of acoustic guitar rifts and string instruments, Santaolalla leaves space between each note. It’s a style that works especially well for horror and Monsterland‘s existential questioning in particular. Between every intentional, soulful note there’s room, room that encourages the series’ most poignant reflection.
These quiet moments lend even the series’ most routine moments an air of quiet introspection. A working mom watching a rat drown is no longer an employee zoning out. She’s a young woman contemplating her own future, slowly dying. A man imagining his life with the woman of his dreams isn’t someone to be idolized. He becomes something sad, sick, and selfish.
It’s not surprising that Santaolalla would be the one to add such depths using music alone. The composer is known for creating both Brokeback Mountain and Making a Murderer’s powerful scores. But his best known and most haunting project doesn’t exist in the world of television or film. Santaolalla is responsible for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II’s music, a quiet and deliberate soundtrack that effortlessly reminds players of the demise of humanity during the game’s most heartless scenes.
The best of horror can do both things. It can frighten you while also forcing you to ask difficult questions about humanity. That’s what Monsterland does episode after episode. And thanks to Santaolalla’s subtle yet emotionally powerful score, it accomplishes that goal better than most other shows in the genre.
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