Eight years after The Strangers, writer/director Bryan Bertino returns with his take on a creature feature. Albeit one that follows a very similar blueprint despite trading creepy masked killers invading a home for a practical effect driven monster lurking on a deserted road. Bertino once again explores a broken relationship between his two leads while using horror as a means of catharsis.
Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine star as Kathy and Lizzy, respectively. The film begins with the mother and daughter duo at odds with each other. To say things are tense between them is an understatement; Kathy has an addiction problem and a short fuse. Lizzy’s frustration with her deadbeat mother has escalated to seething rage. It’s this emotional impasse that sends them off on a road trip to drop Lizzy off at her father’s. Of course, their road trip takes an unplanned detour when an accident leaves them stranded on a deserted road, which happens to be the feeding ground of a very nasty monster.
This isn’t the throwback creature feature many will be hoping for; the focal point of the film remains with the mother/daughter relationship. In fact, it takes a long while into the film before we even get a glimpse of the titular monster. As Kathy and Lizzy’s situation becomes more perilous, many flashback sequences are thrown in to help flesh out how their relationship got to this point. It’s an unflinching, honest depiction, but it also doesn’t endear either character to the viewer. They spend most of the film screaming at each other and telling each other how much they hate one another. Bertino continues his trend of refusing to tip toe around hard truths; Kathy is a rotten parent and most of the time a rotten human being. It’s genuine, but it’s also miserable.
When the monster does grace the screen, it’s fantastic. The practical effect driven creature is just what we want in our creature features; terrifyingly inhuman, massive, bloodthirsty, and menacing. Bertino masterfully handles shooting the creature at angles to keep any mistakes or overexposure at a minimum. His monster is a ruthless predator, and the carnage it causes during its kills are the highlights of the film. Though, this monster is really more of a plot device; a means for Kathy and Lizzy to work through their hostility toward each other. As a result, the pacing falls more into the slow burn category.
From a technical standpoint, Bertino is a skillful director. He knows how to maximize a low budget to achieve a higher visual aesthetic. He effectively frames shots to elicit the most suspense in a scene. This is a film shot mostly on a stretch of wooded road, complete with car crashes and heavy rain, and it looks beautifully polished. Narratively, though, Bertino is writer that prefers to keep his horror grounded in the most depressing of realities, which seems wholly at odds with the creature feature. While the very idea that a horrific situation can put what really matters into perspective, Kathy and Lizzy are too far broken to really complete the emotional journey Bertino was aiming toward. Not for those looking for a fun monster movie throwback, but those who don’t mind a bleak, slower paced character study that uses horror as a means of expression, this might be for you.
The Monster is available on DirecTV as of October 6, and will be released in theaters and VOD on November 11, 2016.
The Monster [Review]