What a neat little horror movie. “Monster” (2016) is unencumbered by any sort of belabored mystery or backstory — or even the need for familiarity with werewolf or vampire lore. Its title baddie appears to simply be a horrible, nameless, forest-dwelling predator that waylays and assails a mother and her young daughter along a lonely highway at night. The story’s simplicity alone makes it interesting.
And it’s a well crafted, thoughtful story. It focuses heavily on its characters while its plot-driving antagonist is concealed in the rainswept woods, and the movie’s extensive use of flashbacks isn’t too jarring and is generally very good. We see two interwoven stories — the first is a bare-bones scary campfire tale, while the second is about a mother-daughter relationship effectively destroyed by alcoholism. The flashbacks do not feel like filler, nor are they maudlin. They pack a decent enough emotional punch and, despite being sparsely scripted, they seem to reflect a sophisticated understanding of alcoholism on the part of screenwriter and director Bryan Bertino.
Bertino also shot this movie beautifully, making the most of its primary location on a rainy rural road. It looks just great, and the isolated, pretty and nearly surreal environment here lends itself well to the movie’s horror elements.
The many positive reviews for “The Monster” point to a great performance by Zoe Kazan; I definitely agree with them. Equal credit, I think, should go to 15-year-old Ella Ballentine (who is playing a much younger character here). She brings a mixture of vulnerability and intensity to her role … I actually think Bertino could have improved his story somewhat by allowing her to have a bit more pathos, and having her fight a bit more — both against her mother and against the monster. In the latter half of the movie, she does feel underused when depicted only as an imperiled child.
If I had a major criticism of “The Monster,” I’d suggest that it is maybe 20 or 30 minutes too long. Yes, the simplicity of the story is what makes it interesting. But … it also feels like too little to sustain the full length of a feature film. There … actually isn’t a hell of a lot of story here.
I would also better conceal the monster itself to the shadows. We do indeed get a good look at it — and its artistic design is actually great. But Bertino obviously didn’t have a tremendous special effects budget, and it shows a little — particularly when the monster should be shown moving. For a movie that succeeds so well in being character-driven, I think a less-is-more approach would have worked just fine here.
I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 and I’d recommend it.
Weird trivia — that violent, abusive prick of a boyfriend that we see in flashbacks? That’s none other than Scott Speedman, who plays nice-guy Michael Corvin in the “Underworld” movies. I thought that was funny.