Continuing my recent trend of screening forgotten films from two or three years ago, I recently stumbled upon the 2016 film The Monster. The film was written and directed by Bryan Bertino—whom horror fans may remember from his 2008 exploitation/home invasion film The Strangers. The Monster was a limited release by A24 and DirectTV Cinema.
Overall, the film is somewhat diametrically paced and baffling; on one hand there are pure moments of brilliance such as how particular character arcs and plot points are revealed, mainly, through flashbacks organized in nonlinear fashion. On the opposite side the pacing can be excruciatingly slow and dull, particularly once the monster begins its terrorizing of the two protagonists. In terms of mainstream horror, it works well within the “monster” and elemental horror genre while appropriately the pairing of foreign threat (the monster) with that of the fraying mother/daughter relationship.
The film’s overarching plot is simple: Alcoholic and codependent single mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), is tasked with delivering her preteen daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), to her absent father’s home for an indeterminate amount of time. Along the trip the two take an isolated road through the wilderness (due to interstate construction) and total their car after hitting an unknown animal in the road. Stranded on the road the two come into contact with an unseen creature hiding in the forest that preys on the tow truck driver and paramedic squad sent to help them.
What is really at stake throughout the film is Kathy and Lizzy’s deteriorated relationship. Through a series of flashbacks and subtle hints woven into the film’s structure, the audience witnesses Kathy’s slow disintegration from alcoholism, abuse—mostly psychological—from her boyfriend, Jesse (Aaron Douglas), and the impact it has on her daughter. In a way, the film’s most brilliant and heartfelt moments center around the flashbacks that help construct a depiction of what Lizzy has endured at such an early age.
As with all great horror, the monster (in this case, metaphorical and literal) is tied to the psychological struggle between and/or within the protagonists. In The Monster, Kathy’s self-destruction is positioned to build audience identification with Lizzy, which is the film’s greatest strength. Instead of staying within the tired genre convention of “adult female is terrorized by existential threat” Bertino crafts the story around a child protagonist and her struggle against both a real monster within the woods and her monstrous mother’s self-destructive tendencies that placed her in a traumatic and dire situation. Moments between Lizzy and Kathy in the car struggling to survive strikes deep emotional nerves that jettison the film beyond a simple “monster” horror film. Without the flashbacks and constant reference to their deteriorated relationship the film would fall flat.
Unfortunately, The Monster is unnecessarily slowly paced, particularly, after the monster begins preying on the two. Scenes depicting Kathy’s alcoholism and failed parental authority are done marvelously. Yes, they are slow, but they establish and build the heartbreaking—and realistic—domestic situation Lizzy finds herself in. The pacing transfers to the sequences within the car as the monster tirelessly stalks them and their failed saviors (tow truck driver, paramedic squad). Where the film succeeds to transcend the genre it also relies too heavily on tired camera work and tension building while waiting for the unseen monster to strike. For me, the second act felt somewhat cliché and boring. I knew the tow truck driver was going to be killed; the amount of time it took for him to be pulled into the forest and slaughtered was mind-numbingly slow. At this stage in film history we’ve seen enough horror films with these types of flat, secondary and expendable characters being slaughtered thousands of times in similar situations (Alien, The Thing, every slasher film ever, etc.). If a character is to die in this slow, manipulatively tense manner, please do it quick. As the audience, you know the monster exists, it is threatening, and the bumbling tow truck driver un-heading of the females’ warnings is bound to be slaughtered. These were the moments that took away from the film, unfortunately.
The climax—once the stock horror victims are out of the way—is great. As the two struggle to combat the monster in the forest the audience gets to see the caring nature that existed between Kathy and her daughter, largely dispensed with by her own inner-monsters. If only the pacing would have brought the film to the point sooner, rather than attempting to construct and maintain worn out tension it would have ended much stronger. The two actresses’ performances are great, but the young Ella Ballentine’s acting steals any attention from that of Zoe Kazan. Their relationship is heartfelt and there are truly touching moments between the daughter and mother, particularly, in the film’s climax and denouement. Also, I am glad the film chose practical monster effects over CGI, which aids the realism and grizzly violence enacted throughout. Too many “mainstream” horror films have fallen back on computer technology that largely takes away from the true terror exhibited in realistic monster effects (It, I Am Legend, The Thing reboot). To his credit, Bertino utilizes tightly staged close-ups of characters in order to feel the presence of the monster just off screen as well as telephoto lenses in order to create slightly out-of-focus background images of the creature as not to detract from its realistic movements and mask any special effect artificiality.
Overall, I enjoyed The Monster and think that its tender and emotionally rendered drama between a mother and her daughter is well intended and performed. Utilizing the monster subgenre of horror in order to tell a more important narrative of the collapse of classical familial structures, struggles of single-parenthood, and the effects of self-destructive behavior on childhood is admirable. Unfortunately, the dull pacing within the film’s second act takes away from the “monster” threat in the forest, as the genre has been worn out at this point.
Final Grade: B-
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