What makes a monster a monster? Is it sharp teeth? Long claws? Sometimes a monster is made up of the scary things we don’t always see. Skilled in creating horror-drama hybrids, writer and director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) expertly baits viewers with his 2016 film, The Monster. Combining terror and trauma, Bertino pits human weakness and bravery against the horrors of an unknown beast.
Executed with a small, but effective cast of Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Ella Balentine (Anne Of Green Gables 2016), Aaron Douglas (Battlestar Galactica), and Scott Speedman (The Strangers), The Monster sinks its teeth into familial complexities when “A divorced mother and her headstrong daughter must make an emergency late-night road trip to see the girl’s father. As they drive through deserted country roads on a stormy night, they suddenly have a startling collision that leaves them shaken but not seriously hurt. Their car, however, is dead, and as they try in vain to get help, they come to realize they are not alone — a terrifying evil is lurking in the woods, intent on never letting them leave.” If The Monster sounds like a straightforward creature feature, that’s because it is. However, like all the mysterious things that go bump in the night, it hides a dark agenda behind its pointed fangs.
The Monster sticks to a simple story with minimal content, but maximum substance. Aside from its establishing open sequence, the entirety of the narrative takes place in one setting: a lone road in the middle of nowhere with only Kathy and Lizzy to keep each other company and keep each other alive. From the beginning and through continuous bits of past exposition, it’s obvious that Lizzy has raised herself while Kathy struggled with alcoholism. Viewers can see the emptiness of their home and feel a sense of sadness in the way their lifestyle is maintained.
The narrative is initiated with Kathy and Lizzy taking a long drive to meet Lizzy’s dad. From there, the flashbacks to arguments, drunk episodes, moments of sobriety, relapses, and abuse bring out the two characters, their weaknesses, and even their potential for survival against the tour of the unforeseen monster. It’s a rainy night, where Bertino smartly distorts Kathy’s vision as the complete darkness creates an uncomfortable atmosphere. They accidentally hit something they think to be an animal, causing their car to break down and leaving the two stranded at the mercy of the elements and impending danger.
“The Monster sticks to a simple story with minimal content, but maximum substance.“
Lizzy’s fear is palpable and contagious as the ominous tone sets in deep and the monster hones in on them. Their situation drags out in an eerily semi-slow burn that slowly gains action traction as the events progress. The plot along with its core is basic, but very lean. Help is available to Kathy and Lizzy, but the monster proves to be too much of a threat, preventing a smooth escape. Since viewers are already subjected to Kathy and Lizzy’s dreary, tumultuous existence, dread seeps in from the first act and only increases from there. Bertino writes an engaging narrative that runs fluidly alongside Kathy’s struggle with alcohol with the promise of danger pulsing toward the brink of disaster at every turn.
The storyline even works in some of the same situations that those who battle addiction face to the circumstances that Kathy and Lizzy experience at the expense of the monster’s vicious attacks. The drama and emotions run high, flip-flopping confidence and hope with uncertainty and doom in treacherous, heart-wrenching sequences. The Monster’s third act ultimately reaches a cathartic understanding between Kathy and her young daughter, wrapping up the film’s central problem with neat resolve. However, The Monster dares to end on a sad, but promising note. Sometimes in order for the monster to lose, it has to win.
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The subject of horror in Bertino’s small but strong film is a monster of unknown origin, species (real and fictitious), and identity. Oftentimes filmmakers choose a familiar entity, like a goblin, a werewolf, or a demon among so many others, when depicting the source of fear. Through stripping his narrative down to basic circumstances, his monster is also laid bare to viewers. There is no rhyme or reason to its motives or even its being. While it does take on the slight physicality of a dog or a bear visually, viewers never really know what it is and are only made aware of its deadly intentions. It’s an admirable move on Bertino’s part, as viewers usually look for an explanation behind the devices worked into a film, but this works without any sort of history behind the monster itself.
Amazingly, The Monster makes incredible use of its practical effects with the assistance of little to no CGI. The absence of digital work keeps the appearance of the monster to a minimum, but Bertino is not afraid to draw it out into sight. Through brilliant silhouette imagery, the creature’s sharp teeth, claws, and hunched body are shown, but hidden enough to still work the imagination. Between subtle growls and screeching to the mystery and darkness of the woods’ repetitive backdrop, the build up to an appropriately gory finale is steady and chilling. Bertino has mastered the purposeful way of presenting horror, and a true monster at that, in why the audience sees and what the audience does see.
“[…] viewers usually look for an explanation behind the devices worked into a film, but this [movie] works without any sort of history behind the monster itself.“
One of the more interesting components of The Monster, that many viewers might not observe initially, is Kathy’s agency as a monster herself. The menacing presence of the actual monster is there, lurking in the woods that surround them in the background, but the lingering presence between Kathy and her daughter is that of her own monstrous behavior brought out by alcohol addiction. Zoe Kazan gives a tremendous performance, exposed and raw, as the weak and confused Kathy. Complemented by Ella Balentine’s equally authentic performance as the headstrong and vulnerable Lizzy, the two bring a beautifully heightened level of emotion to this monster movie.
Kazan presents Kathy like a child herself. She carries herself poorly, sleeps in late, drinks, smokes, and even has colored hair and tattoos showing her different than what society perceives a mother to look like. She subjects her daughter to an abusive boyfriend, neglects her, and fights with her like a child. Their antagonizing back and forth dialogue is strained and tense with Kathy’s inability to control herself being one of the deeply scariest dents in their relationship. If the monster is a manifestation of Kathy’s addiction just as she is a monster of bad parenting. When Lizzy reflects on the monsters that hide and can’t be seen, she is not just talking about the obvious villain of The Monster, she is sadly also referring to her mother.
Monster figures in more metaphorical films serve two purposes: to illustrate the outer, physical threat and to demonstrate a character or characters’ integral problem. While it is left for viewers to interpret and it is never spoken or insinuated in The Monster, Bertino uses the beast in the woods as an overall metaphor for Kathy’s alcohol addiction. The monster causes the car accident that strands Lizzy and her mother on the road with the state of Kathy’s sobriety instantly coming into question. From there, the two are linked in a parallel, nuanced series of events.
Like the horrible disease, the monster preys upon weakness, sneaks in unexpectedly, isolates its abusers, destructs all sources that try to help, and destroys its users in the end. The way Kathy and Lizzy are trapped in the car with the monster waiting to strike is similar to the way they are alone in Kathy’s drinking problem. The melancholy angle pairs well with the menacing atmosphere, creating the perfect storm that is alcoholism under the guise of an unforeseen attack by a wild entity. Though it is more evident that the monster is truly representing Kathy’s addiction in physical form, it is also simultaneously the materialization of what Lizzy fears about her mother’s ongoing problem.
The relationship between an ill-fit mother and her self-sufficient daughter draws in another interesting theme of dependency that rears its ugly head. Kathy is dependent on alcohol and the stability that Lizzy keeps intact just as Lizzy is dependent on Kathy as a parent and subsequently dependent on the instability brought out by her monster. As the issue they find themselves in becomes more tense, Lizzy is aware that something is wrong yet Kathy keeps denying it the way addicts deny having a problem. Even when the conditions around them begin to seem more suspect, Kathy tries to act like nothing bad is happening. It is only when she is able to admit that she has no idea what to do, confronting the monster’s existence, that she and Lizzy are able to fight back.
“[…] Bertino uses the beast in the woods as an overall metaphor for Kathy’s alcohol addiction.“
When they think it’s over and they’re safe, the wrath of the monster hits once more just like a relapse. Bertino uses his third act to pack a punch, action and emotion-wise, as both Kathy and Lizzy come to terms with their designated levels of maturity. Mother and daughter fight through their weaknesses in a gritty showdown with the metaphorical creature that keeps them afraid, angry, and controlled. The Monster is a creature feature on the outside, but a meaningful, poignant commentary on the inside.
Capturing admirable performances, a weary setting, a troubled relationship, a realistic, grisly predator, and so well in one film make The Monster a worthy addition to the masses of symbolic horrors. Whether viewers are looking for a monster flick with chops or an emotional foray into more psychological comparisons, Bryan Bertino uses his film to easily navigate both roads. It is a resourceful, entertaining story that aims to appeal to and educate its audience. Bertino knows that the real monsters are inside us. The other ones hide out in the woods.
The Monster is currently streaming on Netflix.
Have you seen Bryan Bertino’s The Monster? What do you think about its monster metaphor? Did you enjoy this creature feature drama? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!