Terror in the woods type horror films are hard to pull off these days. Horror fans demand more showy, gruesome spectacles these days and lack the patience for suspenseful horror. The Monster represents a nerve-rattling comeback for the genre that should make long drives in the woods a lot more stressful for viewers.
Zoe Kazan plays Kathy, a divorced mother struggling to overcome her alcoholism. That’s put a tremendous strain on her relationship with her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Their relationship is often backwards with Lizzy playing the mother and Kathy acting like a child.
On a visit to Lizzy’s father on a dark, winding rainy road, Kathy hits a wolf. Or at least that’s what it seems initially. They soon realize the wolf didn’t stumble onto their path by coincidence. It was actually pushed by a something far deadlier and eager for more prey.
Director/writer Bryan Bertino knows how to pluck away at viewers’ nerves. With a film titled The Monster, you go in with a certain advantage the characters lack. Even with that advanced warning, Bertino still manages to quickly put viewers on edge.
Bertino directed The Strangers, the last horror/thriller film that left me completely rattled and uneasy. He’s lost none of his abilities to shock and surprise. There’s some standard rules in the horror genre and Bertino isn’t afraid of deviating from the expected.
Throughout the film, there’s flashbacks detailing the breakdown of Kathy and Lizzy’s bond. Ballentine is a minor revelation. She’s terrific as the child forced to grow up much faster than she’d like due to her negligent mother. Looking at the film on a deeper level, Lizzy has become used to battling monsters. Both in the literal sense with the creature in the woods and the one that inhabits her mother whenever she has too much to drink.
Kazan also provides a strong performance. Whatever flaws she might have as a mother on a regular day, when Lizzy is threatened, Kathy is able to woman up and rise to the challenge. Kazan gives Kathy a real world glimpse of a broken woman unable to battle her demons not even for the sake of her daughter finding the inner strength to make the right choice with their lives on the line.
That dynamic allows Bertino the flexibility not to cram The Monster with tons of superfluous characters just to have them get killed off. Granted, there’s enough scenes to discourage Good Samaritans, but Bertino keeps the bulk of the focus on his two leads.
The lighting, rain and music are smartly used making the reportedly $2.7 million budget a non-factor. Bertino uses his financial resources wisely allowing for more than obscured scenes of the monster.
The Monster delivers quality dark and stormy night scares combined with two strong performances making for an easy recommendation for horror fans.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Albert Camicioli/A24