Bryan Bertino’s third directorial outing finds the director in the familiar territory of the horror genre, following his previous two projects – The Strangers and Mockingbird – to bring us The Monster; an endearing, albeit flawed, family drama set within the framework of a claustrophobic creature-feature.
Bertino’s debut feature The Strangers was everything I wanted in a home-invasion horror flick; an unsettling, atmospheric thriller that expertly tapped into fears of claustrophobic vulnerability in a completely unique and spine-chilling way. The initial promise of the up-and-coming horror director slowly diminished with his second project, Mockingbird, an underwhelming take on the found-footage genre that was left largely unseen by general audiences.
The Monster, which is finally reaching UK audiences with its release on DVD and digital this month after premiering in the U.S. back in 2016 (talk about delayed overseas distribution, jeez), is a step in the right direction for Bertino; a project that is anchored by the provocative duality between its two stars.
Bertino’s latest piece tells the unsettling story of a single mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan; The Big Sick), and her adolescent daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), whose road trip turns into a living nightmare when their car breaks down on a deserted road. Unbeknownst to them, a terrifying force lurks within the forest that consumes them.
The palpable tension that binds the mother and daughter relationship together is epitomised by the film’s opening scene – Lizzy clearing liquor bottles and ashtrays from the dimly lit living room, her mother lying motionless in bed, awoken from her slumber with a hint of irritation in her tone. Zoe Kazan, known mostly for her comedic roles in Ruby Sparks and last year’s The Big Sick, provides a more dramatic performance as Kathy; a struggling alcoholic and persistent smoker whose role as a mother is, shall we say, questionable. Whilst Kazan is impressive in the leading role, it’s young Ella Ballentine who steals the show by bringing to the fore a terrific, matured performance of an innocent adolescent struggling to live an ordinary childhood at the benefit of her mother’s chaotic lifestyle. The origins of the fractious relationship they share is gradually fed to us through a collection of seamless flashbacks that refer back to catastrophic, and often violent, outbursts between the pair. These flashbacks are packed with explosive emotion that only strengthen our distaste towards Kazan’s character, a sense of provocation that metaphorically alludes to Kathy as the titular monster. As the stakes get higher, their relationship gradually strengthens; a fight for survival disguised as a bonding session that is as endearing as it is expected.
As much as Kathy is a monster in a metaphorical sense, the literal presence of the hulking, demonic creature is just as engaging. Bertino takes half of the runtime to eventually unleash the monster, and when it arrives, the film finally mutates into a horror – albeit not a very convincing one. The bloodshed caused by the creature is entertaining to endure as it tears apart side characters who are only present to be chomped at; but it’s not at all scary. It’s surprising to see Bertino’s film, when considering how frightfully fantastic The Strangers was, lack any sense of atmosphere or dread, epitomised by its melodramatic denouement that fails to land the emotionally-packed punches it aims to throw.
The Monster works best as a compelling insight into the dysfunctional relationship shared between a struggling mother and her neglected daughter, but falls short as a convincing creature-feature. This is undeniably a step in the right direction for Bertino on the back of his previous outing, but there’s still a lot more to come from the up-and-coming horror director.
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine