The chief ingredient of a horror movie, we all obviously know, is fear. Since fear is a primal emotion that can be felt through different life scenarios, contemporary film-makers are smartly amalgamating palpable anxieties with supernatural or external threats. The natural anxieties of motherhood were personified into a horror element in the recent acclaimed films “The Babadook” and “Under the Shadow”. While the menace in “Babadook’s” surged more from the inner self, in “Under the Shadow” – set in post-revolutionary Iran of the 1980s – the terror was political and cultural. Both the films had good scares for a horror-seekers and layers of profundity for those who hate most of the horror flicks. Korean film-maker Na Hong-jin’s spine-chilling “The Wailing” was once again about a parent (a father) going through hell to protect his child. Bryan Bertino’s “The Monster” (2016) doesn’t belong to this league of good horror movies. It is about a mother and daughter getting over their fractured relationship dynamics to face a monster. Unlike the aforementioned movies, the monster in this one is very real. Unfortunately, the proceedings fail to be a good hybrid of mother-daughter drama and creature-feature. More than that, the biggest problem of “The Monster” is that it is not at scary.
Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), a pre-teen girl lives with her alcoholic, abusive single mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan). The good intentions Kathy has for her daughter is often cut with past episodes where she endlessly abused Lizzy (psychologically) with lot of expletives (she repeatedly hollers ‘fuck you!’ to the daughter) . Lizzy shows little signs of being emotionally stunted as she is still hugging her nursery-rhymes-singing teddy bear doll. When the movie starts Lizzy packs all her things in a suitcase and waits the whole day for her mom to wake up. Kathy has to drive Lizzy to her father’s place. It’s close to midnight when she hits the road. On this very dark, stormy night hits at some animal standing in the middle of the ground and her cars swerves off the road and breaks down. They call 911. A tow truck and ambulance is one the way. Kathy is forced to shed off her inner demons and save the virtuous kid, as ‘something’ lurking in the woods comes out of the shadows. Kathy who had made her daughter’s life hell gets a shot at redemption. And, Lizzy must shed some of those naivety and fear to face the monster (which looks like hybrid of ‘Cujo’ and ‘Alien’ and kind of looks like a shortened version of Godzilla).
Director Bertino previously made a home-invasion horror thriller “The Strangers” (based on terrifying French horror “Ils”). Some of the well-staged moments with the masked intruder gave tangible scares. “The Monster” was also set in a single atmosphere (a stretch of remote, country road) and tries to play the similar cat-and-mouse using the cover of darkness. Nevertheless, the film fails to deliver the tension (except for one moment). Considering its budget, the monster doesn’t look bad. It is as frightening and uncanny a creature could be designed. Alas, the horror elements are worse and predictable. We just wait for the characters to be picked off from the top. All the sudden confrontations lack ingenuity. If your expectations for a horror feature only involve some bloody mauling, then this may satisfy you. But, when it tries to be weave metaphors and psychological troubles, the narrative falls totally flat. Bertino only scratches the surface. He shows family dysfunction and the nightmare brings, although he never delves deeply into this situation. What we get are off-keyed sequences where the daughter is repeatedly ill-treated. We know where it is headed when Kathy finds out the creature’s weakness and prepare to acquire tools (to kill). But, again Kathy getting her act together for the final time doesn’t bring any emotional resonance.
It is understandable why Bertino chose a literal monster to bring the familial bond between mother and daughter. The process of purging this internal monster was never expressed clearly on-screen. The only watchable factor of this underwhelming horror is Zoe Kazan. As the beaten-down mother with flaring temper, she has gone beyond the usual manic pixie dream girl role she is often given to play. She remains genuinely frightened in scenes when the atmosphere doesn’t escalate the tension. In fact, the performances deliver the bite that’s nonexistent in director Bertino’s dull narrative.