Writer/director Bryan Bertino has had some mixed acclaim with his works. His first feature film, The Strangers, left most people frightened of spending a night home alone, with characters who simply wanted to torture their victims for the fun of it. 2014’s Mockingbird wasn’t as well-received, a found footage film that generated little to no buzz. The Monster, then, is Bertino’s chance to get back into the horror genre with a practical effects creature feature that pares down the plot to just two characters as they fight against a monster on a country road. The simplicity of the film lends itself to the plot’s character-centric drama, but ultimately The Monster becomes too plodding for its own good, crossing the line from suspenseful to just plain boring.
Bertino follows two characters throughout the film – Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a struggling alcoholic mother caring for her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and eventually messing up enough to the point where Lizzy wants to live with her father instead of her mother. The main event happens as Kathy drives Lizzy to her father’s house on a back road, rain making the visibility non-existent in the dark night; a monster, living at the edges of the forest, attacks them and forces them to come up with tactics to get out alive.
Along with this fairly straightforward plotline are flashback sequences depicting the chaotic relationship between Kathy and Lizzy. Kathy’s alcoholism has made her a poor mother, and Lizzy has come to resent Kathy because their roles have too often flip-flopped, with Lizzy taking care of Kathy as she vomits on the bathroom floor. Bertino explores the flawed relationship between them, the alcoholism and self-destruction, and attempts to craft a story about Lizzy conquering her fears.
The Monster is, on the surface, an extremely uncomplicated premise; numerous films have attempted the stand-alone monster attack before, and Bertino has only two characters to work with besides the quick appearance and death of an unsuspecting tow truck guy. But there’s more depth to the story as Bertino works in those flashbacks, exploring the complexity of addiction and the consequences it has on family. Both Kazan and Ballentine are especially good in their roles, and they have to be in order for The Monster to work at all.
But their acting skills simply can’t save Bertino’s half-baked script, which is not just slow but unnecessarily plodding. He likes to draw scenes out to extraordinary lengths, focusing on mundane activities or the walk between Point A and Point B; whereas some horror films benefit from the tension long shots create, The Monster doesn’t generate any suspense – it just feels bloated. Scenes where the monster stalks Kathy and Lizzy in the darkness are potentially interesting the first couple of times, until the audience figures out that Bertino has no intention of actually doing anything in these moments.
Even more confusing is Bertino’s decision to cut away from the action for the flashbacks. The backstory with Kathy and Lizzy is emotionally compelling, but The Monster never does anything with that baggage besides setting up the obligatory metaphor that monsters may not just be creatures of the night. It’s far too obvious for this kind of film, something that has been done dozens of times in psychological horror movies; Bertino spends far too long setting this up for no payoff besides a clumsy conclusion about conquering fears and facing monsters head-on.
The practical effects are probably the only reason to recommend The Monster, although many will probably not have the patience to even see the monster in its full form (its appearance is limited in the middle of the film, and the attacks don’t happen until there’s about 20 minutes left). It’s good to see Bertino opting for a realistic monster instead of CGI, because the realism is kind of the point in this film. Still, monster effects do no good if the film surrounding it is as stale and well-trodden as The Monster.
Bertino’s writing suffers from a misunderstanding about pace, and The Monster is far too slow and generic to recommend. Even fans of The Strangers, which also featured plotting that was borderline glacial, will have a difficult time finding much to like about this movie. It’s too bad that The Monster wastes a potentially strong character-driven plot on a whole lot of scenes of two people sitting in a car in the woods.