A mother and daughter must confront a terrifying monster when they break down on a deserted road.
Bryan Bertino helmed the deeply creepy home invasion piece The Strangers in 2008 – which ended up on my list of the best horror films of the century so far (here’s a link to that article). That film’s basically a one-location story, and with his new film – simply titled The Monster – he returns to another one-location thriller, but this film isn’t dealing with a slew of weirdos in kewpie-doll masks; waiting around outside your cabin door.
It’s a deeply emotional and heart-wrenching examination of a broken mother-daughter relationship, as they must overcome their acrimonious and failing bond – and which happens to involve an unnamed and inhuman creature seeking victims in a heavily-wooded forest.
White-trash alcoholic Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her pre-teen daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) are driving during a treacherous rainstorm in the middle of the night – through some dark woods on a very rural road. Lizzy is going back to her father (Kathy and Lizzy’s dad are divorced), and this parting of ways might be for good. Kathy and Lizzy have never seen eye to eye, and their arguments always become heated. Were it not for a run-in (literally) with a massive wolf and the subsequent flat tire, they might never have had the opportunity to finally bond and understand how deeply they love one another. Thing is, they’re so far out in the country, and the storm is so strong, it’s going to take some time for an ambulance and a tow truck to arrive. But upon further examination, the wolf didn’t die from the car’s impact – it appears to have been attacked by a larger creature. But what?
Performances are key and easily the highlight in this contained bit of horror. Kazan is perfectly cast – making it clear that Kathy was far too young when she had Lizzy. And so her partying ways are reasonable, since she’s still basically a child herself. Kazan delivers so much frustration and eventually so much of that powerful maternal instinct – the character journey in the film really is Kathy’s. Kazan amazes every time she opens her mouth, or lets the very real tears flow down her cheeks. I never doubted a choice she made to bring Kathy to life and even though I hated the character initially – by the film’s end you’ll be rooting for her. That’s a true sign of some good writing and some great acting.
As for Lizzy, Ballentine is simply remarkable. If you’ve seen enough poor child performances, you’ll start to believe that it’s a lost cause. Not after seeing this performance. Ballentine continually produces real tears and her wide-eyed expressions of anger and fear – are a perfect match (both in story and in acting ability) when opposite Kazan as her mother. I believed everything they brought to the roles and to this strange situation. True chemistry between actors is never guaranteed and never easy. But Bertino brought these two together, offered them a heartfelt script and this fictional relationship and they lifted it up to brilliance. The performances simply soar in The Monster.
This mother-daughter relationship is obviously the central drama of the film. The monster can be viewed as almost incidental, if it weren’t for the fact that this broken duo must work together and put aside their differences, their perceived hatred and their deep-seated anger in order to survive.
I’m not always a keen fan of flashbacks. They’re a tough nut to crack – as far as getting them right. But Bertino makes the frequent glimpses into the mother and daughter’s past – not only palatable, but immensely important. It’s nice to see how this crumbling relationship came to pass. And none of it is pleasant, but it serves the story well. We’re very clear why Kathy says to Lizzy early on – before things get truly tough – “You’re not coming back, are you?” That’s not the exact line of dialogue, but it makes my point. All of this nastiness and hatred has to be difficult – in order for us to truly feel the sympathy for the characters and to invest ourselves in their trying situation. All that is done to build this relationship (conversations/flashbacks) succeeds. The film is a very emotional experience (I cried numerous times) – not because of the monster, but because these are real characters with real problems and they’re at a frightening and seemingly impossible crossroads. This carefully-constructed conflict and the actors giving their all to make it come to life – that’s the big draw for The Monster.
As for the monster itself; it’s barely seen early on – and only in out-of-focus flashes. So Bertino amps up the suspense and dread as the monster itself becomes more daring (and more visible) in its attacks. Eventually we do see the creature – center-screen and completely in focus. The special effects team (including Alec Gillis – the Oscar-nominated wizard who worked on Aliens and Alien 3 among so many others) does a spectacular job – with a creature sort of resembling HR Giger’s design – certainly not completely – only in feel and in some of the details. It’s not a letdown when the monster finally gets some screen-time.
The film has several effective “boo” moments, so there’s no disappointment there. And there’s suspense, a few gory moments and some tremendously well done action sequences (particularly when that ambulance finally shows up).
Aaron Douglas (“Chief” of the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot) appears as Jesse – the tow-truck driver. He doesn’t get much to do, but Douglas brings some extra appeal to a potentially throwaway role – mainly that this stranger coming to “help” is hopefully not some pervert with alternate intentions. With some recognition and that boyish face – you’ll feel something akin to safety when Jesse arrives on the scene. Does that help out in the end? I’ll say no more…
In addition, Scott Speedman (one of the stars of The Strangers) has a brief cameo in one of the flashbacks.
With a perfectly drawn and executed mother/daughter relationship, believable reactions and two actresses willing to go the distance to pull (perhaps yank?) on the audience’s heartstrings to make a truly powerful piece of drama – The Monster is a compact, often-times frightening, always emotionally draining and painfully heartbreaking horror film.
To confirm my complete enjoyment of the film, you can call upon my recent “Best of Horror” list for 2016 – where the film garnered a spot in my Top 15, at a very respectable #11. Not too shabby! Check out the link to that article here.
The Monster is now available on VOD.