In Bryan Bertino’s new film, a monster movie monikered simply as “The Monster,” the real monster is childhood in neglect. No, wait: It’s single motherhood. No, wait! It’s alcoholism! All three of these things are true for a short while until Bertino introduces the monster of the title, which happens to be an actual monster with teeth, claws, and a pretty gnarly appetite for things of a fleshy persuasion. The film pivots on the first hints of the monster’s presence; unlike many modern horror films, made using top-down design where theme, metaphor, and meaning come before plot and story, “The Monster” is built from the ground up, starting with the foundation of a woman’s fractured relationship with her daughter.
This is, of course, part of what put Bertino on the horror radar in 2008 with his debut, “The Strangers,” a movie about a couple dealing with personal friction prior to enduring the ordeal of a home invasion; the film is more the latter than the former, a story of masked killers stalking two people trying to patch the cracks in their romance. So too is the “The Monster” a monster movie that happens to be about a girl and her mother and the chasm of bad feelings keeping the pair at distance from each other. Bertino leaves the picture’s sentiments mostly unspoken in its present tense, instead establishing how prickly Kathy’s (Zoe Kazan) bond is with young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) through layered, economic dialogue. In its past tense, we see their animosity articulated in more explicit terms.
The film’s flashback sequences make the subtext into text: When your mom is a near-hopeless boozehound with semi-violent tendencies and awful taste in men, facing down an unidentified beast on a rain-drenched stretch of uninhabited American backroads doesn’t seem so scary. But it is scary, and it would be scary sans the element of parent/child discord. The narrative begins innocuously enough, with Kathy packing up Lizzy to drop her off at her father’s place; Kathy, to the surprise of no one, has as rocky a relationship with Lizzy’s dad as with Lizzy herself. What should be a simple road trip goes spectacularly awry when a wolf hurls itself in front of Kathy’s car and leaves her and Lizzy stuck somewhere to the left of nowhere, which happens to be the hunting ground of a voracious and savage aberration of unknown classification. Pants-soiling dread ensues.
“The Monster” probably could have done with one less moment of retrospection just to keep its message from smacking the audience square on the nose, but it’s never over-obvious; rather, it’s just obvious enough without being condescending. The domestic horrors of Lizzy’s upbringing are emphasized in reasonable boundaries, a blessing in light of the film’s short duration (ninety minutes, sans credits.) Bertino gives us as much backstory as we need to care and the rest is pure survivalist terror. Like “The Strangers,” the action in “The Monster” is mostly restricted to a single location. Like “The Strangers,” the confined cinematic space of “The Monster” contributes to its sustained tension. As new characters enter said space, said tension ratchets, though any veteran horror fan knows kill fodder when they see it.
It’s what we don’t see, at least not in full, that makes the film scare so effectively. Bertino holds his monster in reserve, conceding its presence through brief and mostly obscured glimpses of its shape. We don’t know what it is, just that it’s hungry, vicious, and really goddamn territorial, an apex predator of unexplained origins, and really, that’s all anyone needs to know about anything that goes “bump” in the night. (For genre aficionados, it’s worth mentioning that the monster is brought to life through practical effects work, and that the fruits of the effects team’s labors are satisfyingly tactile. At times you feel like you could just reach out and stroke the creature’s slick, sinewy skin, which sounds like a fast way to lose a hand.)
Eventually, Bertino puts all of his cards on the table, for both the monster itself and the broken bond between Kathy and Lizzy. “The Monster” is primarily a visceral experience, compact, tight, trimmed of fat, and focused toward its ultimate goal of keeping us in a constant state of dread, wondering where the monster might come from and when. If that’s the only metric you choose to measure the film by, then “The Monster” is a resounding success. But there’s more to it than its horror component, much more, housed in the dual performances of Kazan and Ballentine, who more than convincingly convey the heartbreaking and occasionally shocking particulars of their characters’ truths. Whether you are more impressed by one or the other probably depends on how you weigh child actors against adults; it’s also irrelevant, as both actresses are tremendous and choosing a favorite is a pedant’s game.
Together, they give “The Monster” its stakes, and they give the viewer a reason to be invested. For his part, Bertino orchestrates their traumas with cerebral precision, complimenting his two leads’ efforts at courting our empathy through lovely cinematography; in one flashback, we see Lizzy curling up against Kathy as she lies prone on the bathroom floor, a rare breath of calm in a film that’s otherwise fraught with panic. These are the quiet beats that elevate the impact of Bertino’s monster attacks, the evidence that there’s more to “The Monster” than strong FX and an escalating level of fright. The film isn’t structured as a high concept analogy for the struggles of coming of age or raising a kid, but it doesn’t have to be. It makes the point without having to bend over backwards, keeping us rapt in anxious fear all the while. [B+]
A24 will release “The Monster” in theaters and On Demand on November 11th. The film is available now exclusively on DirecTV.