The Monster is further proof that filmmaker Bryan Bertino, perhaps best recognized as the man who introduced us to The Strangers and left us waiting over a decade for a sequel, knows all the tricks to horror storytelling, but has little understanding of how to make a film entirely his own. His latest exercise in genre modernization is a creature feature with no underlying message or metaphor that manages to wastes a pair of strong performances and gorgeous cinematography from legend Julie Kirkwood on a story we’ve seen many times before. That said, it’s still worth watching.
When Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter Lizzie (Ella Ballentine) find themselves on an empty stretch of wooded roads in the dead of night, something terrible happens: A just-above-B-movie-grade McGuffin appears in the middle of the road, and in her attempt to avoid the creature Kathy inadvertently crashes her car. The mother and daughter are fine, but their vehicle will need to be towed, and according to dispatch it’ll be a little while before any help will arrive.
If you think you know where this setup is going you are absolutely right. The creature, which is never given much light, or definition, or explanation, eventually makes itself known and sets to picking apart anything it can get its claws on. Only the performances from Kazan and Ballentine rise above the genre norm. All supporting characters exist solely to die or provide support through phone lines. They have no arcs. They are meaningless.
To Bertino’s credit, he does know how to develop characters. Even if Kathy and Lizzie are built from familiar frames, their existence is given significance through visceral flashbacks that left their already broken home feeling even more empty. Bertino’s at his best when his creativity is at its most bleak, and The Monster begins just as his characters have surpassed their individual breaking points.
For a certain circle of horror fans, The Monster is going to scratch that itch that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream cinema. For everyone else it will play as it did for me, and that is best described as consuming the best looking slice of mediocre pizza sitting lukewarm on the display counter of a late night spot just after the bars have all closed. You know it’s not going to be something you remember the next day, and there is a good chance halfway through you decide it’s not worth finishing, but for a little while it’s pretty alright. Not great, maybe good.