With The Strangers, director Bryan Bertino earned a reputation for stripped back, lean storytelling. With minimal narrative elements, he can craft a story that strikes at universal fears. In The Monster, he proves that all he needs is a lonely stretch of highway, a broken-down familial relationship, a broken-down car and, of course, something lurking in the darkness with very large teeth.
A divorced mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), and her self-sufficient child, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), are on the road. They are finally heading towards Lizzy’s father’s home later than planned after Kathy delays the trip by sleeping in too late. Kathy is plagued by addiction and regret, and although flashbacks make it clear that things have been much, much worse in the past, the relationship between the two seems broken beyond repair.
When their car is forced onto a deserted track, they find themselves swerving to avoid a wolf that suddenly runs into the road. Unfortunately, neither their car nor the wolf survive the encounter. Now it’s just mother and daughter, alone in a storm. Alone, of course, until something wicked their way comes.
The Monster makes very liberal use of rain machines, making you feel very, very sorry for its cast, who must have been damp for weeks. With its shadow-saturated visuals, the film is reminiscent of classic creature features of the 30s and 40s. Though some modern viewers may be put off by the rubber-suit aesthetics of the monster itself, the real villain here is the monster of addiction, which has been gnawing on our protagonists from long before they even got into the car.
In order to survive, the pair must re-establish their bond and their respective roles. With the traditional mother/daughter relationship having been effectively reversed by Kathy’s substance dependency, the threat of the monster forces them to dig deep and rediscover the core of their bond. It’s a story that could all too easily pass into mawkish sentimentality, but here it feels real, weighty and complete with all the complications and rough edges of a true relationship.
Although restricted to a handful of outdoor and car interior locations, The Monster makes a useful tool of its limitations. It never feels repetitive or tedious, but rather claustrophobic, with a tension that cranks up slowly during the first act, becoming overwhelming as the film progresses. This sense of foreboding is helped along by a masterful score applied with surgical precision.
Much like breakout successes The Babadook and It Follows, The Monster falls into a strong tradition of female-led movies that use traditional horror elements to explore or illustrate universal issues. Addiction and the struggles of parenthood, complete with feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, are here made flesh (and teeth!). Internal struggles are externalised, and characters have to face their own literal demons in order to be redeemed. For those who like their horror with an added emotional bite, The Monster is one to watch.
Check out the trailer for The Monster below.