Dir. Bryan Bertino; Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine
[3 out of 4 stars]
It is hard to find a movie genre that has not undergone some major shift in norms over the past century, but I believe there is a case to be made that none has sustained more of a shift than horror. The genre came to the United States from Germany during the 1920s and found major success in the 1930s with Universal’s run of hits like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Invisible Man (1933). This first iteration was horror as the spooky but generally safe monster movie. Over the decades since, the genre has morphed and been reinvented. The 1950s saw the dominance of campier horror like the Hammer Films Dracula cycle. Then, Night of the Living Dead (1968) redefined the scope of the genre, which echoed on and turned into the social commentary horror movies of the 1970s until it was done in by the slasher film in the 1980s, which was itself replaced by the meta-fiction craze of the 1990s.
Since then, the 21st century has ushered in an odd time for the genre. Away from American filmmaking, Japanese and Korean directors were churning out great works, such as Ju-On: The Curse (2000) and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (2006). Yet, stateside, there was a dominant turn towards rebooting franchises and remaking classics as well as dumbing down the international horror movies into tepid excuses for uninspired gore and nudity. There were bright spots, especially American Psycho (2000) and Drag Me to Hell (2009), but there was a dearth of reliable horror in American theaters, that is until the second decade of the new century hit and horror got a proper shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. Horror has always been a place for new filmmakers to make an impact with a low-budget, high concept movie, and the 2010s proved this once again. The Babadaook (2014) and It Follows (2014), released hardly a month apart, both revel in atmospheric chills on a budget, and pushed forward the most lasting marker of new norms in the genre: allegorical horror stories. If you doubt that, just look at the slew of Get Out (2017) wannabees that have cropped up in the aftermath of that film’s success.
All this is to say that horror as a genre exists in a fascinating spectrum of honoring its history while always surging ahead into new avenues to thrill and terrify. I love the genre, and so I couldn’t help but reflect on all the critical conversation that happens within it while watching Bryan Bertino’s hidden gem The Monster (2016). It was a small A24 release from 2016 made on a $3 million budget, and given only a minor theatrical release while also going straight to video-on-demand. Over the years I’ve often seen it pop up on various ‘best horror movies streaming right now’ lists, and so it’s been a constant presence in my Netflix queue without ever making it to the top in time to be watched. That changed the other night when I finally sat down to give it a go and was rewarded for doing so. It’s a tight two-hander that makes the most of its limited resources by leaning into the tried-and-true devices of DIY horror while also working itself straight into the matrix between old and new horror. In that way, The Monster is emblematic of what skilled horror storytellers can do when they seek to reinvent a genre while still nodding to what has come before, using lessons from older movies to make its alterations more satisfying.
The set-up for the movie is decidedly simple. Young mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) must drive her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to live with her father. The change in home is the result of Kathy’s continued struggles with alcoholism and other substance abuse, an issue that has meant Lizzy most often has to fend for herself around the house. We meet the pair when Lizzy is cleaning up after her mother’s night of drinking, making breakfast, and then desperately trying to wake Kathy up so that they can get on the road. It is a fraught glimpse into a dynamic that sees Lizzy more in line with the adult role and Kathy the child. From there, they finally pack up the car and head out for what will be a long car ride. It is during this ride that fate announces other plans for the duo. While driving through the rain on a dark and secluded back road, their car hits something jutting into the roadway and they spin out. Whatever it is they’ve hit has damaged the car enough that they are going nowhere. All of this is bad enough, but the horror arrives when they discover they are not alone on this dark road, and their company is out for blood. From there, through a combination of flashbacks to fill out Kathy and Lizzy’s fractured relationship and developments in an increasingly claustrophobic and horrific present, The Monster applies its genre tropes to excavate the central mother-daughter relationship.
From the car crash on, The Monster wears its influences rather obviously. The very concept of people trapped in a confined space, here a car, and stuck out in the middle of nowhere far from help has been passed along in the genre from movie to movie. Here, you can see the threads from Night of the Living Dead and Evil Dead (1981) woven in with those from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), taking the setting and tone from the first two and bringing the eponymous ‘monster’ in from the lineage of the creature feature. Bertino seems quite aware of the limitations that a $3 million budget brings with it, but just like George A. Romero and Sam Raimi before him, he uses the darkness and setting to his advantage. There’s not much to see beyond the car, the woods, and the various emergency responders that do make their way to our stranded duo.
In building suspense and then executing the thrills when they come, Bertino seems particularly indebted to Steven Spielberg, who of course himself was drawing on an earlier generation of filmmakers. Bertino first pulls from Jaws (1975) in terms of hiding the creature from us for the majority of the run time. We are given glimpses of eyes, the sound of a rattling breath, or the rustling of something large moving in the trees, but that’s it. Bertino smartly knows as Spielberg did before him that once we see the monster it removes the level of mounting dread that accompanies the unknown. Yet, we do need some scares to build that dread, and in slowly doling out examples of what this monster is capable of, Bertino turns to Jurassic Park (1993) for inspiration. We see this first in the immediate aftermath of the car crash when Kathy and Lizzy notice a dead wolf on the roadway. Kathy assumes they hit it, but Lizzy finds a tooth broken off in the carcass that bears a striking resemblance to something you might pull out of a T-rex. A few minutes later, once they’ve returned to the car, Lizzy looks up and notices that the wolf is gone. Kathy is convinced it was still alive and simply woke up and slunk off, but Lizzy is not so sure. It was at this moment that I thought of Jurassic Park, specifically when the cars a group of visitors are traveling in power down outside the T-rex encampment on a service road during a dark and rainy night. The children realize something is wrong when a goat, set up for feeding, disappears, and then its leg splats down on the car to announce the arrival of the apex predator. The parallels are striking once you notice it, and Bertino doubles down just a few scenes later when a human arm smacks down on the hood of Kathy’s car, harkening back to this T-rex scene, as well as the unfortunate fate that Samuel L. Jackson’s character meets near the end of Jurassic Park.
I find this level of cinematic indebtedness fascinating, and a testament to how well-versed Bertino is in the genre he has chosen toadd to. To quote T.S. Eliot, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” I would not care to argue that The Monster works simply because it is “steal[ing]” from Spielberg, but rather because Bertino is crafty enough to recognize the best ways to repurpose that inspiration. We are drawn to stories that feel familiar because they remind us of something we already enjoy, that is the basic tenet of nostalgia. Horror in particular rewards callbacks, a recognition that filmmakers know whose shoulders they are standing on. This is why meta-horror like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2011) is so successful: they know the genre they’re poking at, and they also know that people who watch horror want to feel like they’re in on an exclusive joke.Bertino knows this too, and while he doesn’t make something “better” of the references, he makes something “different” that is quite accomplished.
Yet, I believe it is because of this familiarity that the aspects of the movie which push beyond such expectations work so well. The central example is Kathy and Lizzy’s relationship. Horror stories as allegorical family tales hit a high watermark with The Babadook, and there are topical similarities between the two stories. Both feature dynamics between a mother and a young child, the difference being that in The Babadook the mother is dealing with her grief from losing her husband, while Kathy is hammering up against her addictions. In both films there is tension between the mother and child due to their circumstances, but while The Babadook focuses on the mother’s emotional state for the allegorical heft of the story, The Monster expands to include both mother and child. I point to this because for me it exhibits the way that Bertino seems to have been watching old and new horror while he crafted his movie. The Babadook is pure tonal filmmaking that eschews most horror tropes, opting instead for a gothic setting, but the way that The Monster ‘steals,’ to once again nod at Eliot, the family dynamic to situate it in a movie more stylistically indebted to the past is what got me riled up to write this piece to begin with.
The majority of The Monster takes place on the abandoned road, but the interspersed flashbacks provide a deft summary of the difficult relationship that Kathy and Lizzy share. In one, we see the two prepared to go to Lizzy’s grade school play in which she has a central role. As they go to the car, Lizzy shouts out that she doesn’t want Kathy at the show. They scream back and forth at one another, and then Kathy drives away telling Lizzy she can “find [her] own ride,” leaving Lizzy crying in the garage. Elsewhere, we get glimpses of Kathy and a man who seems to be her boyfriend. While he is not abusive on screen, flashes of his anger and enabling behavior reveal that he too is most likely abusing her offscreen. What is clear is that he drinks as much as Kathy. We see this relationship from Lizzy’s perspective, so it is limited to how she understands it as she is only a pre-teen, but even so it provides us with the revelation that there is more to Kathy’s internal damage than what her daughter is likely aware of. This point is hammered home in the most moving flashback when Kathy sits on the back porch with the dregs of a Jack Daniels bottle she threw away but dug through the trash to recover. She is in the midst of trying to get sober, and it is heartbreaking to see her pull apart as an earlier scene informed us that she was successfully a few days sober.
Taken with the more classic leanings of the movie, The Monster hybridizes the norms from old and new horror. The result is a piece of filmmaking that explores the way addiction and the battle to overcome it is a horror story in and of itself, literalized by this dark road and the creature hiding in the woods. Kazan and Ballentine both deliver searing performances that anchor the bare-bones production, both in the flashbacks where their acting is required to convey years of pain and on the road where it must be raw and terrified. With a lesser director and lead performers, the two narrative strands could feel disconnected, as if two movies were spliced together, but I never felt that here. By placing this ‘new’ horror narrative in the trappings of an ‘old’ horror aesthetic, Bertino invites us to consider how trauma and family transcend the bindings of genre expectations. It is a big swing for a small movie, but because of the way he builds it and trusts Kazan and Ballentine to sell it, I walked away convinced that more horror would do well to understand the balance that Bertino strikes. Horror is in so much flux but as long as filmmakers continue to use that evolution to their creative advantage we will end up with any number of bloody little movies with big ideas.