Reviewing horror films, “emotional” isn’t a word I get to throw around very often — at least not in the sense of the elicitation of real human response to other humans. I mean, really good horror films evoke dread, disgust, at times even sympathy (Frankenstein, I’m looking at you ), but even amongst the more thoughtful and character-driven of the genre, it’s very seldom that I see one that gives me a real gut-punch in terms of genuine feeling rather than simply reacting to horrific torture or pain.
The Monster, the aptly yet somewhat disarmingly named latest film from Bryan Bertino, snuck a few of those punches in on me — and like any good punch, I never saw them coming.
Young Lizzy is the daughter of Kathy, a barely-present, substance-abusing, man-bouncing contender for unfit mother of the year. As we open, we see the young girl preparing her belongings, washing the dishes — and finally having to wake up her boozy mom, so that they can depart for her father’s house, some distance away. From the outset, it’s clear that their relationship has been pushed to the breaking point, as Lizzy barely even acknowledges her mother, speaking to her only in an irritated tone. For her part, Kathy seems anxious to get this bit over with, but with that slight flame of regret that threatens to blaze up a time or two on the trip — evidenced greatly by her strained yet somehow pitiable attempts at conversation with her daughter as both rain and night begins to fall.
Along a deserted, wooded road, a wolf suddenly appears in front of them, and Kathy swerves to avoid hitting the animal, but her tired old vehicle (as abused as everything else in her life, it would seem) gives in, the front wheel shattering, causing her to lose control. Although the accident isn’t serious, Kathy suffers a mild injury to her wrist, and the car is disabled. Lizzy is able to get a call through for help, though it will be a while in coming…but there is something much closer than the requested assistance…something just out of sight in the woods, with sharp teeth and a ravenous appetite. The estranged mother and daughter will face something unyielding and horrible this night — can they survive?
Yes, it sounds exactly like a half-dozen or so other horror movie plots — someone breaks down in the woods, far from help, and someone or something in the woods menaces them — and that’s precisely what I thought when this first came across my desk. However, I’m a sucker for a good monster movie, so I took the bait — and I’m glad I did. What you get with this one is anything but your typical horror film. Sure, the elements are there (with one of the most original monsters I’ve seen in quite a while, hats off toe Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff for their wondrous practical FX creation), but these serve to accentuate the story within the story — the relationship of this women who’s made a lot of questionable choices and her young, had to grow up way too fast daughter. This is handled in a painfully realistic manner, accentuating not only the unspoken resentment, but also the remaining depth of feeling these two have for each other beneath the surface — some moments of the realization of the love each of these characters has for the other are absolutely heart-wrenching.
This is made evident with the use of flashback sequences interspersed with the reality of the night trapped in the car, but Bertino writes and films it so skillfully, with spot-on pacing throughout, that it never feels intrusive — at times, I was almost frustrated when these tidbits of the family history gave way to the horrors of the present — almost.
Just as these sequences are well-done, the claustrophobic horror of being trapped in the foggy-windowed car as the rain comes down while something huge, powerful, and hungry prowls just out of sight is masterfully done, as well as action sequences that transpire when circumstances force the pair out of the car. Add to this the dynamic of the absolutely brilliant performances of Zoe Kazan as Kathy and Ella Ballentine as Lizzy (I swear, these two deserve Oscars — and I don’t mean that facetiously — I can count the number of times I’ve actually teared up during a horror flick on the fingers of one hand, and I can thank the talents of these two actresses for one of them), and you have a powerhouse on your hands. It’s not just a good horror film, it’s just a damn good film…period.
All that said, however, don’t let me lead you into thinking that this flick falls short of it’s title — as I said, the titular monster looks and moves great, a fearsome beast that’s always terrifying, never silly — indeed, this monster lives up to it’s name, it’s brutality and lack of compassion (highlighted with some deliciously gruesome bloody bits) making it viscerally clear that it’s come to do some damage — and does it well.
Best of all, you won’t find any bad tropes or stupidity such as mom “Rambo-ing” out and going mano y mano with the thing — the narrative moves in a very realistic manner, the story unfolding in ways atypical to any of the formulaic nonsense that we’re used to.
I can say without reservation that The Monster is the best film I’ve seen so far this year…horror or otherwise. It’s ability to evoke such powerful emotion and still be scary is a refreshing mix for me — I highly recommend checking it out.
This one rates a lot more than my usual two cents.
A24 will release THE MONSTER In Theaters and On Demand on November 11. The film is now available exclusively on DirecTV.
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