Back in 2008, Bryan Bertino made one of the great modern horror films in The Strangers. It’s one of the only scary movies that I watched by myself the first viewing, and found myself yelling at the screen in fear and anticipation. It’s a riot. Why he didn’t get carte blanche and a blank check for his next project after how that film lit up the box office is beyond me. Mockingbird wasn’t the follow-up we all hoped for, it’s final moments undermining some superb pushing of the found footage boundaries beforehand. But still, it showed promise. Bertino knew how to scare and shock you, the opening scene of that film is soul-shaking. The Monstermaybe isn’t the follow-up we’re all hoping for either, but even at its worst it’s decent, and at its best is one of the more unique and terrifying horror films of the year.
Kathy is a young mother living with her daughter Lizzy. Each of them despises the other. They are heading on a small road trip so Kathy can drop Lizzy off with her father, her new home. Suddenly, on a near-abandoned forest road, they get in a car accident when something lunges out of the woods. They must now try to survive the night against a malevolent creature hunting them. Once again Bertino builds his tension slowly, and sets a broken relationship between two people against unknowable horrors. Flashbacks deepen the cracks in their relationship, with Kathy struggling with alcoholism and Lizzy picking up the pieces when she relapses. Kathy becomes worse than her worst when alcohol is involved, resorting to physical abuse, leaving a scarred Lizzy in her wake. At a certain point you start to wonder what the real monster here is, that creature or Kathy’s alcoholism?
Bertino doesn’t ever really go down that metaphorical road, but the film doesn’t suffer much for it. It’s still a well executed frightener, Bertino wrings as much tension out of this single location for the taut 90 minutes. He can even make the outdoors seem claustrophobic. His shots and frames are tight, focused on his leads and keeping the monster out of view just long enough before the creature’s grand reveal. Bertino’s wise to use practical effects in creating his monster. It makes the whole thing more raw. When it lunges out or bares its teeth, it’s more threatening seeing this physical being rather than a CGI composite dumped out of a computer. Sure, the monster can sometimes look pretty cheesy, but at least it’s exciting in its cheese. The jump scares aren’t anything new in their construction, but their content is often intriguing, like a severed arm being lobbed at a windshield. It’s also, for what it’s worth, one of the only modern horror films I can think of that doesn’t immediately find some bullshit excuse to get rid of the cell phone. When it finally does, it’s actually plausible and doesn’t go out of its way to happen.
One of the marks of a great horror performance, at least in the horror films with a physical threat, is the actor’s ability to be in the moment. Kazan does just that so well. I recall that when Bertino was making The Strangers, he would tell Liv Tyler that the bump she would react to would be coming from one spot, then he would have it come from a completely different spot to try to keep her reactions authentic. I’m curious if he employed the same method here, because Kazan really sells you on her fear. Kazan balances urgency and fragility, keeping her character human. It’s difficult not to portray alcoholism in the loudest, most pronounced fashion, but Kazan still manages to sell you on Kathy’s exclamation points. She makes what could have easily been middling, totally captivating.
Newcomer Ella Ballentine is just as terrific as Lizzy. Child actors aren’t always the best with subtlety, but Ballentine is capable. She authenticates Lizzy’s fear and anger towards her mother. Together, Kazan and Ballentine are winning. Their frayed chemistry feels authentic, their damaged past evident and felt in their interactions. At one point Lizzy says, fearfully, that she wants her dad. Kathy says she’s right there in an effort to console her. Lizzy’s only reply is “I don’t care.”
Once The Monster reaches its second half, Bertino does achieve that pulse-pounding intensity you’ve been craving. That’s in large part because he put in the work with his characters, and has the performers capable of elevating the material. The third act veers surprisingly emotional, but earns it. Again, this is because Kazan and Ballentine have sold us enough on their characters for us to get attached. It’s not quite top tier horror like The Strangers, but The Monster is further evidence of Bertino’s talent in marrying scares and characters.