Bryan Bertino’s path through the genre has been an interesting one, first directing the great home invasion thriller The Strangers, only to follow it up six years later with the not-so-good Mockingbird, which was a found footage wreck. So with that I’m happy to say that his third film, The Monster, is a return to form and he thankfully ditched the found footage format altogether (and hopefully forever). In it, a mother and daughter must confront a terrifying monster when they break down on a deserted road.
It’s hard to believe that the guy who made Mockingbird is the same dude behind The Monster, which is stunningly shot and grounded in two powerful performances. And although its premise is very Cujo-like, there’s something to be said about Bertino’s familiar, character-driven approach to a genre that’s as old as horror itself—the monster movie. It’s also that simple, straightforward style of storytelling that allows its characters (Kathy, the mother, and her daughter Lizzy) to really come to life, which is very important when the entire weight of the movie is being carried by just the two of them.
What surprised me the most about The Monster, however, was its focus on the breaking bond between a mother and her daughter, which was anything but healthy. Their toxic relationship is so severe and damaging that the only thing left to do is separate—a long drive down a deserted road is the only thing between them now, a better life for Lizzy just waiting in the distance. It’s no doubt heartbreaking, but it gives the film a sharp, affecting edge that puts emotion behind the terror. Bertino smartly uses that to heighten the impact of his monster, taking a simple tale and spinning it into a refreshing old school monster movie.
But what kind of monster movie would it be without a great monster? While the film has no interest in telling us what it is or where it’s from (that could be frustrating for some, but I quite liked the ambiguous nature of it), it certainly lives up to the title of the film. And because it takes place almost entirely at night, blanketed in rainfall, it gives the monster a creeping, stormy atmosphere to thrive in—that’s one of the things I really dug about the film, too, was the world it takes place in. Seeing the monster for the first time is genuinely great, and a lot of that has to do with Bertino’s use of tension.
I won’t get too much into the creature here, it’s best to see for yourselves, but I can say that the monster design is completely practical—if there was any CGI it definitely fooled me, which says a lot about the production. Because the movie takes place at night, it gave Bertino the freedom to hide certain elements of the monster, leaving a lot to the imagination, just like a great monster movie should.
The one thing I will say that I didn’t quite like was that every character in the movie that wasn’t Kathy or Lizzy felt one-dimensional, like they only exist in the narrative to pad the body count. Survival movies like this—where the number of important characters is very small—tend to do that, but I just hate how predictable it is. A dude shows up and you’re like, “yep, he’s dead.” It’s not really that big of a deal (obviously) and it does result in a few really fun (and totally horrifying) deaths, so there is that!
The Monster is expertly crafted, building tension through a claustrophobic atmosphere with a couple of characters that you’ll actually give a shit about, and that’s all we can really ask out of a movie like this. The monster design is perfectly creepy as the film reveals just enough but not too much. And binding that all together is that it’s an authentic thriller that never tries to be anything that it isn’t—it takes these characters, throws them into the mouth of a beast and mayhem ensues. It’s simple, effective, and it works.