Directed by: Bryan Bertino.
Written by: Bryan Bertino.
Starring: Zoe Kazan (Kathy), Ella Ballentine (Lizzy), Scott Speedman (Roy), Aaron Douglas (Jesse), Chris Webb (Monster), Christine Ebadi (Leslie Williams), Marc Hickox (John).
Bryan Bertino made one of the best, scariest mainstream horror films of the 21st Century so far with 2008’s The Strangers – a film that I am heartened to see has slowly gained more respect than it got back then (I admit that I am biased in favor of films like The Strangers – home invasion horror scares me far more than ghosts, etc.). Between The Strangers and The Monster, Bertino has only directed one other film – 2014’s Mockingbird, a horror movie I have never even heard of – but I was still curious to see his latest – not only because of Bertino, but because of the presence of Zoe Kazan – one of the most interesting actresses working right now. If there is a reason to see The Monster it is Kazan – who gives an excellent, uncompromising, unflinching performance. Yet, for the most part I found The Monster to be rather obvious – both in its horror movie aspects, and in its more metaphorical ones as well. The monster of the title looks awful too – the movie is clearly done on a budget, which is fine, but when the thing that is supposed to be scaring you all movie is a bust, it’s hard to be truly scared.
The movie stars Kazan as Kathy – a horrible mother because she is a drug addict, who is taking her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to stay with her dad – perhaps permanently. They are driving along a dark, desolate stretch of road, when they hit some sort of animal. When they get out to investigate it turns out that not only did they not kill the animal, it’s now pissed. The movie flashes back and forth in time – to the troubled relationship between Kathy and Lizzy – caused by the drugs that are more important to Kathy than her daughter at the time, and the present, where they fight to save each other from the monster who threatens to destroy them both.
The Monster is a rather obvious metaphor for Kathy’s drug problem – and how it threatens to kill her, of course, but also her daughter – and how it’s such a huge, insurmountable obstacle, that they cannot deal with anything else. I’ve seen the movie compared to Jennifer Kent’s brilliant The Babadook – which used the title monster for a metaphor about parental anxiety – and while it’s true, both films have a similar central metaphor, The Babadook is better because it works on a surface level a lot better than The Monster does. The scenes on the dark, deserted highway are okay as far as horror movie terror goes – Bertino isn’t reinventing the wheel here in terms of execution, buts its done well. Accept for the monster itself – which I supposed is supposed to be some sort of werewolf, but truly looks sillier than anything else. The moments without the beast as far scarier than those with him. The flashback sequences are better to be sure – but they are also rather standard issue druggie parent stuff. What makes a film like say, Moonlight, work even if it goes over well-trodden grounded like the junkie parent, is how specific the film feels. By comparison, the scenes of Kathy being neglectful and high and sometimes downright cruel to her daughter in pursuit of her addiction feel generic.
I will say this for the film though – Zoe Kazan is committed. This isn’t the type of role I envision her in – she’s been so witty, charming, smart and funny in films like Ruby Sparks (which she also wrote) and The F Word, that that is how I picture her. But here, she is committed to playing Kathy and all of her sides – the way her addiction has overwhelmed everything in her life – how she may well like to be closer with Lizzy, but cannot figured out how to do that. It’s an excellent performance in search of a movie to match it.
The Monster doesn’t quite work because it all feels a little pat and predictable – and worse, generic. Horror is specific – which is why sometimes the scariest films to one person, do nothing to someone else. Generic is the enemy of horror – and unfortunately, that is what The Monster is.