Directed by Bryan Bertino
The Revenant is one of the most intense, laser-focused, white-knuckle, balls-to-the-wall, relentless revenge thrillers of recent years. Well, guess what? Bryan Bertino’s The Monster makes The Revenant look like an episode of “Sesame Street.”
The story follows Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a young alcoholic mother struggling to raise her bright and headstrong child, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). But they’ve had it with each other. Breaking point reached, it’s time for Lizzy to go to her estranged dad, Roy (Scott Speedman). As mom and daughter drive through deserted country roads on a stormy night, they suddenly see a wolf dash out in front of them. As Kathy swerves, the tires lose traction and there’s a crash that leaves them shaken but not badly hurt. Their car, however, doesn’t fare as well. Luckily they have a cell phone, and, miracle of miracles, a signal. They call 9-1-1 and help is on the way. But so is… The Monster.
Director Bryan Bertino made a splash eight years ago with his first feature, The Strangers. I thought it was overrated, but I could see a stylish filmmaker emerging. Then in 2014, he made a feature called Mockingbird. That one flew in under the radar (I didn’t even know about it until now). Third time’s a charm with The Monster, which is an homage to serious sci-fi horror films like Alien and man-vs-evil-creature flicks like Cujo – but it’s also a gripping drama as the relationship between Kathy and Lizzie is revealed through a series of flashbacks. In spite of their tumultuous life together, we learn how much they reply on one another and how deep their bond goes. The movie is called The Monster, but we never do get its backstory – which is fine with me, as it makes the creature that much more terrifying. And I’m relieved to report that there’s no comic relief. It’s a dark, solemn, unflinching tale of horror from beginning to end.
I’ve watched a couple of movies Kazan was in, but this is first time seeing her in a leading role. She’s flat-out incredible. If horror movie performances were given Oscars, she would be a shoo-in. Same with Ballentine. These two are so believable, it’s easy to get lost in their harrowing story and forget you’re watching a movie as you yearn for them to escape the teeth and claws of the ruthless Monster. I was brought up by a single, alcoholic parent and so I have to give extra kudos to Bertino as the screenwriter for not sugarcoating or justifying the behavior of the mom or the daughter – and for not denying that such adversity makes for the strongest familial ties and alliances. Sometimes roses do spring from gardens of gravel – Lizzy proves this as she’s forced to go head-to-head with The Monster.
Gothic cinematography by Julie Kirkwood is underscored nicely by tomandandy, the duo who’ve made countless horror films that much scarier. It’s impossible to tell from the credits who’s responsible for the title character – surely it’s a team effort of many talented folks – but it really is an admirable throwback to the creatures of yore. I love the fact that not one element of its past or reason for existence is revealed: it simply is.
While it may not be my favorite film of 2016, I can’t find fault with The Monster at all. It’s as flawless a horror film – and specifically a monster movie – you’re likely to find in this or any other year. An instant classic.