The Monster’s monster is real. Let’s start there. That’s a good thing. The problem with too much modern horror is an over-reliance on metaphor. Metaphor is also good, and something genre is uniquely designed to enhance, but there’s a problem when the central horror exists solely to put forth an idea. There needs to be a tangible threat. The Monster has one. The problem is just that it’s not very scary.
What’s scarier is the relationship between Kathy and Lizzy. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a young mother, an alcoholic who perpetually undercuts all of her best intentions. Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is her daughter, as smart as she is emotionally stunted. Theirs is an abusive verbal relationship. They curse at each other, they threaten each other, and resent each other with a vicious fervor. It’s a unique setup for a classic story: on a road trip, Kathy’s car breaks down in the middle of the woods. There’s a monster in the woods.
It’s rare to see a horror hero as flawed as this one, and the fractured dynamic between Kathy and Lizzy gives the film an added texture. This isn’t the well-worn story of a reluctant parent finally stepping into their role as protector. No, it’s the story of a doomed relationship crawling towards one final bit of common ground in a hopeless situation. Credit the success of that narrative with Kazan and Ballentine, who are both so invested in the relationship’s toxicity that it’s often painful to watch.
Granted, most of this movie is painful to watch. That’s not a particularly new thing for Bryan Bertino, the writer/director behind 2008’s punishing The Strangers and 2014’s sickeningly abysmal Mockingbird. His movies are dank and murky, seemingly designed to send you running to the shower afterwards. The Monster is leaps and bounds his most hopeful and humane film, which is saying something for a movie as sickly as this one. Bertino’s approach certainly suits the material, but it fails to produce catharsis. Rather, The Monster, like his other films, leaves nothing behind but a pit in your stomach.
And that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The film’s queasiness owes much to the successful depiction of its complicated central relationship, which, thankfully, only hits a few of the beats you’d expect it to. The horror fares worse. The monster itself looks cool, and never bears the alienating markings of CGI. It maintains an uncanny figure in its few closeups, and the mystery behind its existence is also compelling. But its approach is familiar, as is its mode of attack. Once characters start getting picked off, they perish in ways that lack excitement or ingenuity. And the final confrontation is especially disappointing, as unimaginative as it is lacking in suspense.
Still, The Monster is worth watching for Kazan and Ballentine. The performances Bertino gets from them are stunning in their detail and complexity. Kazan, especially, embodies the quirks and fragility of Kathy in ways that are, at times, genuinely frightening. It might be the actress’ best performance in her still-young career. And the power of her performance signals a good thing for modern horror: character matters. For a long time, horror fans were content with stereotypes and blank-faced heroes; we were only there to see them die anyways. But compelling characters are what’s always resulted in resonant horror, and it’s becoming more and more clear that independent horror has an awareness of that. Bertino certainly does. Now it’s time to focus on the horror.