Bryan Bertino broke onto the film scene with 2008's The Strangers, for my money one of the most terrifyingly cold home invasion thrillers in recent years. What made it so good, and so chilling, was that it wasn't so much about the stalkers, but watching this broken couple try to work through their problems and save their own lives. The "strangers" in question were the troubled lovers themselves. Bertino treads on similar ground successfully with the simply and appropriately-titled horror, The Monster, taking personal conflict and expanding outward to encompass a mother and daughter's relationship that has grown only slightly less monstrous than the creature that threatens to devour them.
Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a complete mess, and her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) knows it all too well. The young girl has grown used to taking care of herself rather than relying on mom, and the morning they are to leave to drop her off at Dad's house is no different. Kathy oversleeps, waking up only long enough to inquire about her shady boyfriend who is nowhere to be found...
"He's an ass", Lizzy tells her before demanding she get up. Even then, Kathy, a radical mass of tattoos and pink-striped hair, doesn't do what's expected of her. It should be an easy road trip, but there's tension and resentment. The late start has them driving in the black of night through a windy, wooded old road in a thunderstorm. Lizzy's scared of thunder. More reason to be angry. It almost wouldn't be so bad but the anger is so thick it can be cut with a knife. Even when their car collides with a badly injured wolf, leaving them stranded by the road where a voracious monster is on the prowl, the bitterness remains resolute.
Flashbacks take us through Kathy's bitter divorce, which led to the personal demons that she continues to struggle with. Meanwhile Lizzy learns to become self-reliant through the pain of listening to her parents fight. We get the sense that Kathy wasn't always a total screwup. The broken marriage screwed her up bad, and some of the choices she made to try and protect Lizzy weren't so hot. Things spiral rapidly. One night Lizzy comforts her blacked-out mother after an alcohol relapse, the next she's holding a knife to her mother's neck out of frustration. A violent shouting match goes to show just how immature both can be, aided by two very different kinds of nuanced performances. Kazan's is a little more visceral as she's the driver of most of the action, while Ballentine's approach is more calculated, which makes sense. There's an interesting push and pull dynamic that emerges between them. A couple of other characters emerge (Scott Speedman of The Strangers makes a small but meaningful cameo) but this is essentially a two-hander, and both actresses carry it with ease.
The monster, a hideous concoction of teeth and claws, is Bertino's way of twisting the knife between Kathy and Lizzy, as if they don't have enough problems. There's already enough tension to spare but Bertino uses the cramped single-location setting to ramp up the dread further. While we don't see the monster that often, it's actually to the film's benefit as it keeps the characters, and us, edgy over its whereabouts. And when it strikes we feel the terror within both women, although the lack of trust between them never quite subsides. That mistrust, it turns out, is the greatest danger they face, and there comes a point when Kathy is forced to make some tough decisions. We imagine she's made quite a few of them for Lizzy's sake, but like most children she doesn't recognize it until too late. Bertino doesn't hit us over the head with this revelation, or any of them thankfully, sticking to a fine, tight script that amounts to only 90-minutes of runtime. While the flashbacks are beneficial to fleshing out the core relationship, Bertino also uses them to break-up the ratcheting unease. You don't realize how badly you need those momentary breathers until they arrive. The Monster really is a well-calibrated, nicely-balanced film that juggles scares and drama in equal measure. Nobody does this kind of movie better than Bertino right now, and like The Strangers I expect it will be a favorite for fans of the genre for a long time.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5