Starring: Zoe Kazan, Elle Ballantine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas and Chris Webb
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Written by: Bryan Bertino
Running Time: 91 Minutes
It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a good horror movie: a little atmosphere, some characters to provide a rooting interest, and a nifty monster. But “simple” isn’t the same as “easy,” and while a good script and quality director aren’t expensive, they can be damn hard to find if you don’t put in the legwork. And because you don’t need to spend a lot of money to succeed financially at a horror movie, the urge to phone it in can be overwhelming.
The Monster is a testament to what happens when you do the job right. It cost nothing to make, but with a talented director, great cast, cool effects and a little atmosphere, it achieves everything you could possibly hope for in the genre. It actually takes its biggest cues from The Babadook, with the horrors serving as an easy metaphor for family dysfunction and emotional trauma. But it never pushes the subtext too hard and remains content to make its point amid a lot of good old-fashioned scares.
And like a lot of terrific horror movies, it knows not to smother us with a lot of exposition. The monster of the title is unknown and unknowable, coming out of the dark woods just when our protagonists are at their weakest and exhibiting nothing beyond a desire to noisily devour them. There’s a few hints at where it might come from, but nothing concrete. The Monster understands that the less we know, the scarier it becomes, and with some terrific prosthetic effects to bring the beast to life, it handles the boo-gotcha shocks as well as any horror film you’ll see.
Of course, that means nothing unless we have some heroes to root for. In this case, it’s a mother (Zoe Kazan) and child (Ella Ballantine), deep in the throes of neglect and abuse, and too wrapped up on their own pain to look for the threat that jumps them out of nowhere. Mom drinks and screams at her kid. The girl is growing up cold and wounded, and the gulf between them looms wider than ever as they set off on a road trip to see the otherwise absent father. The car breaks down on a lonely woodland road and… go.
Director Bryan Bertino showed a flair for staging and atmosphere before in his earlier film The Strangers. I loathed the nihilism of that movie – released amid the merciful decline of torture porn – but his technical instincts were spot-on despite the distasteful content. With a better script and more compassion for his characters, this effort takes advantage of his best qualities while setting his worst ones aside.
The formula works quite well, not only as a scare generator but as a way of highlighting the emotional damage its two heroines are grappling with. The basic scenario actually delivers a steady supply of victims for the monster to eat, with the two women acting as a sort of honey pot. The tow truck arrives… chomp. The ambulance shows up… chomp-chomp. And so on. Bertino develops each new permutation exquisitely, playing on our knowledge and the understandable cluelessness of the next hors d’oeuvre to vary the “monster pounces on hapless victim” routine extremely well.
But the film’s real juice lies in the two central figures, their injuries, and how a mother and a daughter who effectively loathe each other can find some way to let go of the pain in their past. The Babadook played the same game better, but The Monster deserves full marks for finding a new wrinkle to that equation and making the subtext feel natural and relatable instead of just a rip-off.
In so doing, it demonstrates how the horror genre is supposed to work: a great thrill ride with a little depth and nuance thrown in to elevate the characters beyond stimulus response. It’s why a lot of us love it all so much, and why movies like this will never go out of style, no matter what the year. It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a great horror movie. All it takes is the kind of understanding that The Monster possesses in spades.