Bryan Bertino, the director of The Strangers (2008) and Mockingbird (2014), now brings us The Monster (2016):
Kathy and her daughter Lizzy take a road trip so that Lizzy can ultimately move in with her dad, as Lizzy’s relationship with her alcoholic mother is strained beyond repair. Getting off to a late start, they end up driving deep into the night, and the combined effects of heavy rain and construction on the road conspire to create an accident in which they apparently hit a wolf. As they wait for an ambulance and tow truck to arrive, something appears to be lurking in the woods around them.
The first two thirds of this slickly-made movie are gripping. Our introduction to Lizzy’s tortured bond with her mom is compelling and raw, as we experience the girl’s frustration, rage and helplessness in the face of Kathy’s irresponsibility and lack of follow-through—for the umpteenth time—on her parental commitments. As the movie advances the story of their road trip we’re shown flashbacks that eloquently illuminate the angst and resentment, the seemingly bottomless pit of despair, of their experiences, in perfect tandem with the lengthening of shadows and the coming of night. Both actresses, in particular the young Ella Ballentine, do an excellent job, emoting volumes while saying very little, sometimes nothing at all. There’s also a delicate balance at work here: though we may initially be inclined to side with Lizzy and feel little more than contempt for her reckless, self-destructive mother, scenes in which Lizzy’s attempts to help her mom’s losing battle with addiction reveal a tenderness to their connection that also humanizes Kathy’s plight and makes us empathize with her fight against inner demons. The sequence of the car accident is visceral and absorbing, sharply bringing home to us viewers just how much we’ve come to care for these rich characters.
They call for help, and in one of many well-realized details, Kathy has her daughter make the actual phone call, reflecting a complex and ongoing stream of emotions: lack of self-confidence on Kathy’s part, perhaps a desire to exert her will and dominate her daughter through the constant issuance of commands, maybe the genuine realization that Lizzy is simply more capable and put-together when it comes to practical affairs, and perhaps the desire to treat her more respectfully, like a peer rather than a child. Their foray outside of the vehicle to determine if the wolf they’ve hit is still alive is thoroughly creepy and hair-raising, and thankfully avoids a last-second jump scare in which the creature roars to life and attacks them. The way the camera moves around our two protagonists suggests the presence of a third observer, and when the tow truck finally arrives and Lizzy remarks that something isn’t right, we can’t help but agree. But what exactly is amiss? Was the wolf on the road a trap, intended to get them into an accident? Was the wolf fleeing a more sinister threat? Is the mechanic who arrives in the rain part of a set-up?
Up this point in the movie everything has been depicted with a restrained, minimalist visual sense, confident direction, excellent use of light and shadow, and impressive sound design. The way the overhead lamp posts cast a harsh white glare that only makes the characters’ surroundings that much darker reminded me a bit of the famous poster shot from The Exorcist that was in turn inspired by the work of Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Even the poster of The Monster has this air to it. It’s a strong, evocative composition. The sound design is also artful. When Lizzy leans close to the wolf’s body, is that a low rumble we hear stemming from the alleged corpse, or from some other creature?
Unfortunately soon after the mechanic’s arrival the film seems to shift into another, crasser gear, and while it continues to provide some thrills in what remains, the revelation of the presence in the dark and Kathy’s increasingly erratic behavior lead to a too-loud third act, as contrived as it is unbelievable.
In Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King’s nonfiction book about the horror genre from 1930 through 1980, King makes a solid argument that many horror stories can be traced back to one of three archetypal variants: the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name. While King acknowledges that “there are other bogeys out there in the shadows as well,” he convincingly shows by way of example that these three essentials (and a fourth category, the haunting or ghost, which he later adds) “account for a large block of modern horror fiction.” That statement held true in 1981 and it continues to hold true today. The fundamental problem with The Monster is that for two thirds of its story it effectively creates characters in whom we become invested and pits them against The Thing Without a Name, but in the movie’s final act it removes any mystery about the creature by showing us how it works—in other words, by metaphorically Naming it—while at the same time having one of our two characters behave in a way that simply defies credibility. So dramatic tension is simultaneously deflated on two fronts, and we’re left wondering exactly what the point was.
I hadn’t seen this movie’s trailer when I sat down to watch it, so I had no particular expectation about the titular monster. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that it would be a physical creature. Maybe viewers who go in aware of that fact will be less disappointed. But as the movie’s more action-heavy, survivalist finale accentuates the creature’s physical design in increasingly tighter and longer close-ups, I found myself thinking that it was becoming over-exposed, and that each additional glimpse was weakening it, rooting it in biology and an Alien-indebted FX team rather than suggesting an unstoppable, unknowable menace.
Let me reference Stephen King again, since he makes the point so eloquently in Danse Macabre:
“What's behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself. And because of this, comes the paradox: the artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time … but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your down cards up. You have to open the door and show the audience what’s behind it. And if what happens to be behind it is a bug, not ten but a hundred feet tall, the audience heaves a sigh of relief (or utters a scream of relief) and thinks, "A bug a hundred feet tall is pretty horrible, but I can deal with that. I was afraid it might be a thousand feet tall.””
That was, in short, exactly my experience with this movie. The more concrete the monster became, the deeper the sigh of relief I heaved, and the less involved I felt.
This is not to say that the premise couldn’t have been handled more consistently. For example, by Naming the Thing from the start and focusing on the characters’ responses to it, one might pre-empt the dissolution of suspense and tension. A Stephen King film adaptation that did this reasonably well was Cujo (1983), which like this movie has a mother and her child trapped inside a car, afraid to go out for fear of what hovers beyond.
I also wish the harrowing experience shared by the characters would have helped them reconcile some of their differences or at least bring them together in a more long-lasting way than it did. As it stands, I felt that the emotional nuances of the movie’s first sections were crushed by the weight of the script’s plot demands and Predator-style tactics in the closing beats. And while I can acknowledge that Kathy was severely wounded, in shock, in withdrawal, and just generally out of her mind with fear, I still think the plan she devises violates our suspension of disbelief.
I appreciate the film’s final shots and the broader metaphysical point it attempted to make about dealing with monsters, but by the time I’d reached the end I felt like the message was too broad and the closing voiceover perfunctory. That said, if you don’t mind a midcourse change in tone and a disappointing resolution, this will definitely get you through a rainy night.