Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas, Christine Ebadi, Marc Hickox, Scott Speedman, Chris Webb
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The third feature from writer-director Bryan Bertino (following sleeper hit The Strangers and the lesser-seen Mockingbird), The Monster stars Zoe Kazan as divorced, alcoholic mother Kathy, who has an antagonistic relationship with her pre-teen daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). As the film begins, Kathy is driving Lizzy to see her father, perhaps for the last time, as Lizzy has clearly had enough of her mother’s endless disappointments.
With driving rain making conditions difficult, the pair run into trouble on a deserted rural road when the car hits a wolf and crashes. After calling a repair truck (this is the rare horror film where mobile phones actually work on deserted roads), mother and daughter check on the wolf and discover that it had apparently been viciously attacked before the crash. Then, as the repair man (Aaron Douglas) arrives to fix their car, Lizzy suddenly notices the wolf’s body has disappeared. Is something lurking in the woods?
Well, yes, something is lurking in the woods, because you can’t call a film The Monster and not have a monster in it. Bertino does an excellent job of building and sustaining tension throughout, creating an unsettling atmosphere even before the car crashes. The film also deserves credit for actively resisting the usual sentimentality in the mother-daughter relationship – sure, their antagonism mostly exists to give extra emotional weight to the scenes where they’re in danger, but it’s an edge that works surprisingly well.
The film is smartly edited, with frequent flashbacks filling in the background of Lizzy and Kathy’s life together. Snapshots include an encounter with Kathy’s aggressive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend Roy (a cameo for Scott Speedman, who starred in The Strangers) and a heart-breaking sequence featuring Kathy struggling with her addiction.
Kazan is terrific as Kathy, unafraid to portray her as relatively unsympathetic – an early flashback has her screaming “F**k you!” at her daughter over and over again – and belatedly discovering her maternal instinct. Ballentine is equally good as Lizzy, generating intriguingly prickly chemistry with Kazan and proving surprisingly resourceful in a crisis.
On top of that, the film makes a virtue of its single location, aided by Julie Kirkwood’s prowling cinematography and some world-class rain machine work. Similarly, the sound design is extremely effective, from the pounding rain on the car roof to the guttural growls of the lurking creature (an impressively nasty-looking man-in-a-suit creation, played by stuntman Chris Webb), while Bentino repeatedly gets great mileage out of a soft toy that plays nursery rhymes at inopportune moments.
Admirably economic in its story-telling, this is a chilling and suspenseful creature feature enlivened by impressive effects work and a pair of superb performances from Kazan and Ballentine.