Filmmaker Bryan Bertino had a lot of explaining to do after 2014’s Mockingbird, but The Monster more than makes up for his paltry sophomore effort. Drama overshadows horror as a mother protects her vulnerable cub from unspeakable tragedy, one that never evolves past a car accident and a feral creature.
Bertino’s story is simple, relying on a parental bond that’s both tragic and uplifting. His mother/daughter tandem sets course on shaky ground (even that’s being optimistic), until something snarly this way comes and surfaces honest, dire reactions. Mama, her kin and a slimy backwoods demon – it’s minimal in conception, and wholly bound to evocative execution.
Zoe Kazan stars as Kathy, a substance-abusing single mom who will never be in the running for Mother Of The Year. Daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) usually spends her mornings making her own toast, dressing herself and waking her hungover mother from a hazy sleep. On this particular day, they’re to travel towards her father, but are held up after Kathy turns a wolf into roadkill. With their car busted, a tow truck is called and a mechanic appears – but where is the thought-to-be-dead wolf? It’s not long before the roadside mechanic is attacked by something meaner, leaving Kathy and her daughter trapped inside a broken car with no escape. Can Kathy save her daughter and seek redemption?
Bertino cues up a parallel tale of sorrow from the minute Kathy’s car spins out of control, slinging rainy mists as Lizzy screams in distress. It’s not the small wolf-like creature that poses a threat – that stays dead – but the assumed mother of whatever little beastie now lies motionless. Endanger or take away a mother’s child, and claws start swiping – an equal turn that grants Kathy redemption for her junkie tenancies. Loss is tied to both arcs – an enraged monster’s revenge and Kathy’s protective instincts – building a raw collage of flashbacks and sacrificial gestures that prove Kathy’s love burns furiously for her daughter. It’s not exactly a reinvented story, but that doesn’t matter given the film’s strongest components.
The Monster comes to life based on two fantastic leading performances, from both Kazan and her pint-sized co-star, Ella Ballentine. Tormented by addiction, Kazan’s character gets into screaming matches that result in less maturity being displayed by Kathy than her teary-eyed daughter. Abuse comes both in physical and verbal forms, as Kathy acts like an irresponsible, angst teenager.
Ballentine rolls with the punches well for an actress her age, and this shouldn’t be understated – but Kazan embodies the emotional growth Bertino depended on. Kathy is battered, beaten and bloodied all in the name of Lizzy, a child who began to wonder if her mother even cared she existed. Parenting is hard, and fighting personal demons is even harder – but the love that prevails offers hope against the gruesome heartbreak Kathy first wrestles.
Then again, is The Monster even horror? Yes it is, you f@*king silly jabroni who probably said The Witch isn’t horror. The Monster is about the horrors of loss, the horrors of neglect and the horrors of our own toxic decisions. We even get a hunched-over fanged gorilla from hell lookin’ baddie, completely constructed with practical appeal. How many movies these days shove a man inside some furry monster costume and pull it off?
Bearing some resemblance to the creatures from Feast or Animal, plenty of scenes involve Bertino’s swift-moving mongrel with a clear hatred of windshields (specifically when throwing corpses into them). Midnight darkness hides more fiendish details on the costume, which works to prevent any cheapness from weakening each attack against Kathy or Lizzy. Is it a brand of natural, paralyzing fear? Not completely. Only when tied to Kathy’s gushing emotional wounds is true terror felt, marrying two subsets of fear with ceremonious punishment.
In the end, The Monster does more by way of thrilling tension and heartfelt admissions than it does through any scares, but that doesn’t make it a bad horror film. Bryan Bertino reveals a gushy soft side, only to tear out his heart and hoist it for all to see. He warns that monsters are real, and while they might consume all in their path, they can be defeated. Through Kathy and Lizzy, he shows how both arcs have the capability to end – finding hope and sorrow in a broken home. Prime performances and isolated nastiness make for a brilliant rebound for Mr. Bertino, in one of the year’s more affecting horror movies. Expect more tears than screams, and embrace the sobering reality put before you. I promise it’s worth the “alternative horror” vibe.
The Monster reveals a soft, squishy core that's torn out by Bertino's mongrel villain, exposing a beating heart and plenty of feeling.