★★★ out of ★★★★★
Efficiency in Horror Craft, The Monster is a compact story that packs a punch.
Writer/Director Brian Bertino’s (The Strangers, Mockingbird) spins a tidy little monster tale that went almost entirely overlooked in 2016, despite some pretty glowing reviews (80% Rotten Tomatoes) and the prestige that comes with being an A24 production. I don’t think A24 marketed this film very aggressively, and I don’t think it showed up in many theaters, and that’s a shame. As much praise as I’ve recently heaped upon BlumHouse and all of their recent success, the same can be said of A24, as they are as comfortable with indie horror as they are with their prestige indie dramas (Moonlight, Lady Bird, etc…) So, they should have known they had a quality property on their hands with The Monster. Maybe they should have given the movie a better title!
Par for the course, in a micro-budget horror movie, the cast is small, with only six speaking roles. Zoe Kazan plays Kathy, a dumpster fire of a young mother, and Ella Ballentine is her emotionally fragile daughter Lizzie. They are the central figures of this story, and with the exception of Battlestar Galactica veteran actor Aaron Douglas, who plays the tow-truck driver to-the-rescue in the second act (good luck, Jesse!) the focus is squarely on the sometimes combative, always complicated mother-daughter relationship.
Kathy has resigned herself to take Ella to live with her Dad. Kathy is an alcoholic and a chain smoker, who clearly does not have her shit together. Tween Ella has to shoulder the adult burdens for her often hung-over or listless mom. In a series of flashbacks, you see the pendulum swings of their bonds between tenderness to fight club. This may be the last time Kathy sees her daughter as their relationship has completely bottomed out. During the middle of a stormy night, on the road to Ella’s father’s house, Kathy wrecks the car in a collision with a wolf, strangely standing in the middle of the road.
The pair finds themselves wrecked and stranded on a remote, unused backwoods road, and they call for help. Hooray! Help is on the way! Soon, however, they realize that an unnatural monster is stalking them from the woods, and was likely the reason for the wolf being in the road. Bertino takes his cues from Ridley Scott, and the titular monster is revealed slowly. First in a blurry field of view shots, then through a windshield that’s sheeting rain, and often shoots from the monster’s perspective. It’s a powerful beast… but like many carnivorous monster movies, why the monster doesn’t just settle down with a kill, seems to make it behave less like an animal, and more like a demon. (Perhaps it is a demon, they never bother to explain why the monster is in the woods.)
The movie unfolds rather quickly, and the action is well set up. Constant pervading pressure from the beast as the rain obscures it from easy view, and there are constant issues with communication with closed windows and stormy white noise. The Monster is a 90-minute film, and that feels just right for the story it is trying to tell. I enjoyed that the film anchored on how much mother and daughter trust each other (or don’t). There is some difficulty with the movie, in that neither lead character is particularly likable. Kathy is a terrible mom, trying to make up for it at the last minute. Lizzie is a hypersensitive kid who you want to shake into sensibility until you realize that she’s probably saddled with PTSD. Both Kazan and Ballentine overplay their acting at times, but that said, by the time the third act rolls around, you realize that you are invested in their plight, despite their flaws. And being faced with impending mauling from the monster that’s chasing them, they realize how much they really do love and need each other. (Awwww)
This is not a particularly original movie. Two people trapped in a car with a bloodthirsty monster prowling just out of view… a strong comp movie would be Cujo. And due to the simplicity of the story, trying to add in more plot threads would be an unnecessary burden to unpack. What it lacks for in plot innovation is made up for in execution. The monster is effectively interesting looking, it reminds me of the devil dogs from Ghostbusters. I think horror aficionados will enjoy this for what it is, and I think for gateway newbies, it will be a good scary next-level film. (Ready to step up, newbies?)
The Monster is rated R, and is available on iTunes, Vudu, GooglePlay, and is free with prime membership on Amazon. This might be a movie that turns into a cult favorite, in time.