The Monster (written and directed by Bryan Bertino) is the story of a divorced mother and her daughter, both of whom hate one another, at least in the ways they express their feelings outwardly. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a woman who is mostly a piece-of-crap drug addict, alcoholic, and child abuser who sleeps late, and tells her child she hates her more often than she cares for her in any way. Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is a child who, because of abuse and neglect, is hardened and hopeless, years before she should know such feelings. With her behavior, Lizzy is, in many ways, as unlikable as her mother, excused only because she is a child. As a culminating act of neglect, Kathy has plans to take Lizzy to live with her grandmother, on the day the movie begins, leading to the literal monster of the movie. With this prelude (and a journey to grandmas house) develops one of the most intense horror films I’ve seen, with a monster to satisfy even the most jaded fans. In the dead of night, on a back road through the woods, in the rain, a real monster emerges from what is otherwise a drama of abuse and hatred. With this and all that follows, a generic title–The Monster–gives us one of the most original, metaphorical horror films I’ve seen, with a monster that claws its way to a new pedestal in horror.
The relationship between Kathy and Lizzy, which is central to the movie, is complex and simple–a simple desire for love, beneath a complexity of dysfunction. Below a crust of hate, love is buried, emerging in eruptions, more impulsive than intentional. This happens throughout the movie, as a lifeline, signaling vestiges of love, when all else is lost. During scenes where Lizzy is scared with her life is in danger, Kathy springs alive as the mother she never was, trying to make up for a lifetime of neglect, in moments of bravery and selflessness. Otherwise, scenes where Kathy and Lizzy scream “I hate you” and “Fuck you” back and forth are uncomfortable to watch; but, such is the life that defines the characters. As viewers, we are privy to their reality–a horror of hatred, with mother/daughter bonds reborn only from fear. With fear in full-tilt mode here, likewise are those bonds reborn.
The real monster—the one with teeth and claws that eats us alive–is one whose origin and identity are unknown. Whether it is an alien, a genetic mutation, something from legends, a creature yet undiscovered or otherwise, we never know. All we know is that it appears, terrorizes, and kills the people it happens upon, in the slice of life movie we see. In many ways, The Monster is a drama that just happens to have, by coincidence, a monster–one powerful enough to transform its genre, one unknown enough to make it captivating and compelling. This mystery is part of what makes the movie stand out. I call it “The Space Jockey Effect”–the lingering questions about something (as the Space Jockey in ALIEN), making us forever wonder and remember. What’s better is that we never see the monster too much, making it too familiar, and less frightening. Our visual experiences with the creature are measured and effective, making us think rather than know. It is for this reason that I have chosen not to post pictures of “the monster” in this review. It’s better off seen, for the first time, in the movie.
With the great things we have already, there’s more. Horror fans who love a good practical effects monster (one that it is really there) will love this monster. This creature is, indeed, physically there, reminding us more than ever how much CGI still lacks. If you have the DVD or Blu-ray, be sure to watch the included featurette called “Eyes in the Darkness.” You will see the man in the rubber-suit, and exactly how the old-but-superior school effects really work. As a throwback to better times in horror-movie monsters, this is it!
“Lizzy! Where are you, you little shit?” ~ Kathy’s boyfriend, Jesse
Some have speculated that the creature is the physical manifestation of the toxic, hateful relationship between the mother and daughter main characters. Some argue that it is somehow born into reality, almost magically, emotionally charged from the abuse and neglect of the daughter. While the monster is a great metaphor for hatred (and it is certainly in the movie for that reason), it seems nothing more than a metaphor of coincidence, as it is presented in the movie. There is little proof that the creature does more than appear, by chance, during the relationship drama of a choice mother and daughter. However, there is no mistaking the fact that the mother/daughter relationship is, indeed, a monster, by its own definition.
When I say there is a little proof, I must refer to a couple of times when the monster does not attack the girl, although nothing prevents it from doing so. Once, the monster only watches her from behind, when Lizzy is clearly most vulnerable. In another scene, the monster seems too easily fought off by Lizzy, even in a moment where her emotions, fear, and adrenaline are clearly in overdrive. Even the best Lizzy has for defense should likely be no match for such a powerful monster. Is the monster’s apparent vulnerability and reluctance only coincidence? Or is there at least a possible connection, even if it is not enough to save her life? As for solid proof, again, it isn’t there.
“There are lots of things that hide in the woods.” ~ Kathy
Going a step further, in the other direction, is “the monster,” perhaps, an ironic angel/demon combo, freeing Lizzy from her hell on Earth, punishing the mother with a life in hell? The metaphors are many, but ultimately, as with the monster’s origins, the proof is missing. As another analogy, The Monster is, perhaps, is a modern horror version of Little Red Riding Hood, if not a subtle reference to it. Red Riding Hood (Lizzy) is on her way through the woods to grandma’s house, with the would-be villain/wolf killed by a much larger, much more dangerous monster. Yes! As I watched The Monster, I could not help but see the connections. In the end, again, the result is all the more intriguing, and all the more engaging with the possibilities.
Adding to engagement, The Monster effectively uses flashbacks, with perfect timing, to accentuate past emotional experiences, comparing them them with the horror of the moment. Rather than interrupting the flow, they add background story, while also building greater suspense…as we wait. Since many of the flashbacks are as horrific as the horror of the moment, they do have the slowing effect plaguing movies otherwise.
“Mama…where did the wolf go?” ~ Lizzy
Overall, The Monster is tightly-wound tension, slow burning, exploding suddenly, with horror that bites hard. In the end, it does something that all good movies do finally, distinguishing them from all the others we forget. The Monster makes us think about it, after the credits roll, the next day and beyond. It makes us wonder about mysteries that remain, about metaphors transcending horror, becoming reality more frightening. Most movies end like all the others, wrapping everything neatly into resolved, easily understood stories. At first, they seem gratifying; but, just as quickly, they are forgotten, as mundane cliches of their kind.
With the mysteries that remain, and the liberation of body and mind that result, The Monster stands out as a movie to remember. While not for every horror hounds palate, it is a feast for fans of the more metaphorical meanings of monsters–those as mental as they are physical, all the stronger together. While being simple, The Monster is also (just as the relationship between Kathy and Lizzy) complex with thoughts and questions we have. What will Lizzy do now? What will happen to her, now that she has found her way out of the woods and into the sunshine of a new day? Is this another movie metaphor, this time signifying hope and liberation from addiction, fear, and dysfunction? Has Lizzy truly fought off her demons (literally and figuratively). Has Kathy finally redeemed herself, being a mother exponentially in the end? Are there more monsters in the mind of Lizzy and all of us, in our forests of fear, somewhere, ready to attack when we least expect them, when we are most vulnerable? Yes! As Lizzy says, monsters really do exist, “they are out there, waiting for you…watching.” Not being afraid is the best we can do. Fear makes them stronger! But, with courage, we are stronger!
“My mom tells me there is no such thing as monsters. But, she is wrong. They are out there, waiting for you…watching. They are in the dark. Sometimes where you see them…sometimes where you don’t.” ~ Lizzy
The Monster also stars Aaron Douglas, Christine Ebadi, Mark Hickox, Scott Speedman, Chris Webb (as The Monster) and Meeko (as the wolf), with cinematography by Julie Kirkwood, editing by Maria Gonzales, and art direction by Garren Dunbar.