For genre geeks, when you see a horror title like The Monster in 2016, it’s hard to know what exactly to make of it. Is this an earnestly titled monster movie that just so happens to generically sound like something from Universal in the ’40s? Or is it some kind of heavy-handed metaphor begging its audience to consider who the “real monster” is in this story? Or both? Regardless of which: Does The Monster really seem like a title you would stop to examine in more depth while browsing a VOD service on your couch—or is it just going to make your eyes glaze over? I know what the answer would be for me.
Bryan Bertino’s The Monster takes place at the crossroads between a serviceable drama and a middling horror film. Each exists in its own parallel dimension, and despite the director’s clear intentions to bring those dimensions together, each is a detriment to the other.
On one hand, we have a family drama revolving around an addict single mother and her nebulously aged daughter, who I believe the film would like me to describe as “precocious” for reasons that are in no way earned. Mom hits the bottle hard, and perhaps dabbles in some other substances as well, while fighting anyone who gets close enough for her to yell at. Some of these sequences are effective enough, such as the flashback to a screaming match the mother and daughter have in the garage as their relationship fractures further. Others are genuinely irritating, especially any instance where the daughter, clearly too old for stuffed animals, escapes into fantasy with a stuffed dog that plays a maddening version of “Pop Goes the Weasel” whenever it’s squeezed. That’s your film for the first 45 minutes: a series of flashbacks and limited exposition illustrating how a resilient daughter has coped with her mother’s bullshit for the last few years before finally requesting to live with her father.
You take the good with the bad in exploring this relationship, which is central to the film. The naturalistic dialogue is “realistic” but simultaneously off-putting. After all, film characters speak differently than real people speak because the banality of real-life conversations typically doesn’t make for entertaining cinema—it’s a matter of the characters available to us, and the interactions they’re capable of having with the tools they’re given. Zoe Kazan effectively evokes the selfishness of a young mother who resents her own child and actively seems to be fighting any sense of responsibility. As the child, meanwhile, Ella Ballentine is clearly damaged, regressive and withdrawn into her own mind. Their sparring is occasionally powerful, but the subservience to “realism” dooms their on-screen relationship to abject squabbling rather than any deeper revelations. Whether or not it’s actually likely to occur in a survival situation, one wishes that the pair might have had a more substantive conversation written for them.
But wait, wasn’t there a horror movie here as well? As it turns out: Yes, although one that feels more or less perfunctory to the other story Bertino was trying to tell. When mother and daughter strike an animal on a forested backroad in the middle of the night, their car is disabled and they’re left stranded, slowly realizing there’s something menacing out in yonder woods. It’s presumably meant to play like a twist on Cujo, with mother and child trapped in the car as a ticking clock counts down, but the pacing of The Monster is much more schizophrenic—trundling, then racing, then stopping entirely, then concluding abruptly. You feel like it’s going to pull a cinematic hamstring.
Case in point: We’re a full 55 minutes into the runtime before the creature in question makes its first full-on appearance in an attack on mother and child. And less than 10 minutes later, we’re headed into the big conclusion. The stage is patiently set for a confrontation that rushes by so quickly once it gets going that the characters barely have time to react, let alone display some kind of growth in their relationship. Potential setpieces, such as the mother and daughter in a car with a prowling monster outside, are built up and then immediately discarded, making the audience question why so much time was spent there at all.
As for the creature itself, I can at least concede that the practical effects look excellent—something like a cross between the needle-fanged monsters of Feast and the goofy looking alien of Don Dohler’s atrocious Nightbeast, except more massive. What the beast is lacking is any sense of vitality. Unlike the inscrutable, masked human psychos of Bertino’s 2008 breakout first film The Strangers, the anonymity of this creature suggests no hidden agenda of guile. The home invaders of that earlier film were frightening in their randomness because they were ultimately still choosing to pick apart a young woman with predatory cunning and deliberate, purposeful action. They followed some sort of twisted philosophy, seemingly random though it may be. Here, we’re instead given a beast without any spark of intelligence or consistency: One bold enough to attack cars on the road, but one that can also apparently be driven away by shining a weak, handheld flashlight at its face. It has no character, other than being a forced visual metaphor for Mom’s addiction.
Ultimately, I’m at a loss as to how The Monster has reviewed as well as it has to date. It may be that the rapidly swelling fandom for A24, the production/distribution company behind The Witch, Room and Ex Machina, is capable of bringing a certain sense of prestige and goodwill to projects that otherwise would be evaluated more objectively—or in this case, lumped in with other straight-to-VOD horror titles. It may be the merits of performances by Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine as a fragile mother-daughter unit taken over how effectively the film’s last third ultimately stands as a “horror movie.” But regardless, The Monster feels like a film reaching desperately for profundity and missing by a country mile. The Witch this is not. It’s just another arthouse horror film broken down on the side of the road.
Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman
Release Date: November 11, 2016 (limited)
Jim Vorel is a staff writer/Paste’s resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film reviews.