Meaningful interaction between human characters isn’t often the main focus of creature features, but it can be the difference between a remarkable monster movie (the 1954 Godzilla or 2005’s The Descent, for example) or a mediocre one. On the other hand, many creature fans feel cheated when there is decent or better human drama but not enough monster action. With his new offering The Monster, writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers ) finds an ideal balance between those two elements and delivers one of the best films of the year, regardless of genre.
What raises The Monster to the next level is how the fractured relationship between a mother and a young daughter is scripted and acted. As viewers watch the bond — and the lack thereof — between alcoholic, sometimes mother-in-name only Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her elementary-school-age daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballantine) play out through present action and flashbacks, we become deeply invested in these two characters, which makes the monster that pursues them more of a clear-cut threat than a cool-looking beast of which we can’t wait to see more. To be sure, the creature is well designed and we do get plenty of attack scenes, along with some gruesome special effects.
Viewers are introduced to single mother Kathy and Lizzy as the frustrated daughter tries to rouse her mom out of bed in the morning so that they can begin their long drive to Lizzy’s father’s house. Though Kathy insists that she is getting out of bed immediately, she winds up sleeping the day away and the pair start their journey in the early evening. After darkness falls, the two decide to drive during the night rather than staying at a motel. They have chosen a lonely highway and when they are involved in an accident, they slowly learn that an injured wolf is not the only witness to their mishap. Refreshingly for a modern horror film, the pair’s cell phone works and they call for assistance. When tow truck driver Jesse (Aaron Douglas) arrives, things get more complicated, to put it mildly.
Two confined spaces dominate this film: the car in which Lizzy and an injured Kathy take shelter from the creature outside, and the home they share, in which Kathy is trapped by her addictions and Lizzy is trapped by her mother’s destructive behaviour. In both of these claustrophobic spaces, the often hateful feelings between the two explode or seethe silently, making brief moments of love all the more heartbreaking. In one flashback, we see a calendar that Lizzy made that says, “You can do it, mom!” with two days marked off. We then watch as Kathy digs in the outside trash can for the bottle that she probably put there three days earlier. As Kathy wrestles with her decision as to whether to complete a third day on the wagon, this simple scene hammers home a ton of weight in The Monster.
Though the supporting cast members all give wonderful turns, it is Kazan’s and Ballantine’s film to carry, and they do an amazing job. Both actresses are so good that it would be a shame not to see them recognised during award season. Honestly, their performances are that marvellous.
Bertino has experience with making harrowing films, as anyone who saw The Strangers already knows. That he captures the torment and distress between a mother and her daughter as well as he does between that pair and a malevolent beast is a remarkable achievement.
With the title of The Monster and a poster that features the titular creature, it’s not delving into spoiler territory to say that the film delivers on what the title promises. With a vicious and menacing-looking creature designed by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, the movie comes through with multiple attacks and casualties, and plenty of the red stuff is on display.
In The Monster, Bertino delivers a well-written, finely acted, and sublimely realised effort that horror fans would be wise to seek out. Because of the top-notch performances by Kazan and Ballantine, and the beautifully crafted drama that involves their characters, this film could find an audience with those who don’t usually watch fright fare, as well. Make sure to check out The Monster in time to consider it for your own top 10 list of 2016. The Monster received a limited release and video on demand debut on November 11, and is also available on DirectTV Cinema.
By Joseph Perry (@JosephWPerryJWP)