Bryan Bertino’s The Monster (2016) is an unusual creature feature in that it is not a fun creature feature.
This time around, the eponymous beast is not some ferocious Godzilla-like being we hunger to see search and destroy. It is, rather, a symbolic representation of one woman’s addictions and shortcomings, and how she has to defeat her various character flaws to protect the people she loves the most. Of course, Bertino, who writes and directs the movie (it’s his first major feature since his 2008 hit The Strangers) doesn’t make this obvious. He plays it straight and presents The Monster as a darkened, overwhelmingly ominous survival thriller.
It stars Zoe Kazan — playing against type — as Kathy, a young woman who lives as an alcoholic first and a mother second. Irresponsible, childish, and sometimes abusive, she lives in a meager lower-middle-class home with her 10-year-old daughter Lizzy (an excellent Ella Ballentine), who often finds herself caring for the woman supposed to be raising her and who finds herself wishing she lived a different life.
As The Monster opens, however, Lizzy is about to get that chance. It’s the weekend, and, per usual, she’s poised to head to her father’s house for a few days. But this time, it’s different: Kathy has finally come to terms with the fact that she’s an unfit mother and has decided that this trip will be the last. Lizzy will be better living with her father full time.
But en route to his home, a wolf runs in front of Kathy’s car and does enough damage to ensure that the women can’t drive another inch. Such happens in the wrong place at the wrong time: the night is black, the rain is unrelenting, and the car is parked smack dab in the middle of a thick of woods which makes J.K. Rowling’s Forbidden Forest seem safe by comparison. Kathy calls a tow truck and an ambulance. But upon the tower’s arrival is it clear that something about the situation is amiss. The wolf’s carcass looks as if it were attacked by a creature, not hit by a vehicle. And, moments later, the towing company’s employee disappears.
From there does the film become all about Kathy and Lizzy’s fight against the title foe, whose appearance is something akin to the beasts found in Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise and thus warrants full-on viewing rather than a covering of secrecy. In these moments, the movie is a story of survival. But it is also one of redemption.
Flashbacks reveal that Kathy has been an awful mother, more attentive to her alcohol, her drugs, her coarse language, and her hard hits thrust upon her daughter. The monster’s unwelcome entrance, though, forces her to be the maternal figure she always should have been. Kazan, so emotionally generous and so physical in the part, is fearless, breathtaking — this is certainly the best performance she’s ever given in a career full of many.
But The Monster resonates so deeply because, in comparison to other smart horror films like David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) or David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015), its storyline extends far beyond its base-level ideas. The Brood is an allegory for the anxieties which come with a messy divorce and the organization of child custody; It Follows is a representation of the teenaged unease regarding losing one’s virginity. The actual monster in The Monster seems to be a beast created by Kathy’s alcoholism and abuse. If she can defeat it, then she’ll be able to heal the tormented relationship between her and her daughter. That symbolic reality makes the feature hit harder.
It makes for yet another high point in independent horror – the 2010s, after all, have provided us with such gems as The Babadook (2014), the aforementioned It Follows (2015), and last year’s incredible The Witch. The Monster both continues the trend of minor genre masterpieces and proves that the long wait for Bertino’s next terror train was worth it all along.