Director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) returns with a new horror film, not so cryptically titled The Monster. I was pretty excited to catch up with what I considered to be a very promising horror director, but I will admit that I didn't quite expect to like The Monster the way I did. It's been a while since I last watched a truly convincing horror film (as in a pure, unfiltered genre effort) and there have been no real signs of a horror renaissance. Your mileage may vary of course, but to me Bertino hit a home run with The Monster.
When you sit down to watch a film directed by Bryan Bertino, there are going to be certain expectations. That said, I was extremely relieved that I didn't see any of the promo material until after the film, because even though the presence of a monster in a film called The Monster is not exactly shocking, putting it on full display on posters and DVD covers is borderline stupid. Not in the least because Bertino goes for a slow-burning intro and a meticulously planned reveal of the titular monster. With posters like that, you kill half of the suspense and the mystery even before the intro credits start rolling. It's just all-out baffling.
With The Monster Bertino aims to blend drama and horror. This is somewhat of a proven concept, but where the drama tends to bog down the horror aspect of these films, The Monster manages to keep its full-blown horror aesthetic intact. The drama is infused through several short but extremely poignant flashbacks, grounding the characters without spending any excess time on drama, while at the same time adding some additional unease. The build-up of the horror is sly and gradual, matching the pacing of the drama, with tension slowly building up to a terrific climax. This setup allows Bertino to avoid most contemporary horror clichés, including overdone 80s references and an over-reliance on jump scares.
The story is kept pretty simple, with a mother and daughter stranded on a deserted road during a raging thunderstorm. Their car is in shambles and while they wait for help, something in the woods is trying to find out the best way to turn them into dinner. The drama comes from the mother-daughter relationship, which is pretty bruised and broken. Flashbacks show an alcohol-addicted mom and a young girl who takes better care of her mother than vice versa. They are in fact on their way to drop the girl off at her father's, but their chances of ever reaching their destination look pretty slim.
Bertino has a firm grip on the visual side of things. The cinematography matches the deliberate pacing, but not without adding its own layer of dread. Most shots are relatively static, but there's always movement in the frame. Sometimes the camera shifts every so slightly, slowly revealing more of the environment, at other times the shadows or blurred surroundings in the background create motion to keep the audience sharp. The lighting too is top notch. It's never too dark, but there's always that feeling that things are lurking in the shadows. All in all the film has a very polished, functional look with just the right amount of finish to have it rise above the rest.
The soundtrack is very much on par with the visuals. Not overly surprising or anything too demanding, just really well done. Bertino went for a pretty coherent sound that worked both for the drama and the horror parts, giving off a dark, rather heavy and tense vibe throughout the entire film. It helps to build the atmosphere and pushes you just a little bit closer to the edge of your seat. As a stand-alone score it's probably not worth a lot as it's really tailored to the film, but in the end that's not what matters.
The cast is so small there are only 8 listings on IMDb and that's including the monster and the injured wolf they find along the road (props to Meeko). But really it's just mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine) eating up all the screentime, the rest is just there for some short, functional interactions. Kazan and Ballentine really hit the mark though. It's rare to find interesting characters in a horror film, but with very little the two manage to build up an extremely intricate and broken mother-daughter relationship. Coming from Kazan that's not too surprising, but Ballentine is definitely someone to keep an eye on in the future.
There may be plenty of symbolic monsters in The Monster, but the reason why the film works so well is because of the way it deals with its actual monster. It's not just some afterthought or excuse to try and sell it to the horror crowd, instead it's the meat of the film. At the same time, the drama adds a touch of weight and dread to the horror that is often missing from simpler genre efforts. It's a very strong combination and Bertino handles it remarkably well, turning The Monster into a benchmark for similar productions.
The Monster is one of the best straight-up horror films I've seen in the past couple of years. It's creepy, it's dark and tense from start to finish. The acting is top notch, the characters are interesting and the film looks and sounds great. It's a shame that the poster/DVD front contains stupendous spoilers, but I can't really blame the film for that. If you can come up with a way to watch the film without eyeing its promo artwork, do yourself a favor and make the effort. Hopefully The Monster helps Bertino to keep his career alive, because the horror scene is in dire need of directors like him.