“The Monster”, which will belatedly be released in South Korea during this month, is a little independent horror film which works better than expected despite its rather thin premise and limited background. While it surely has a freakish creature as you may expect from its very title, the movie puts more emphasis on the troubled human relationship between its two main characters, and it is interesting to observe the dramatic development in their relationship while they try to cope with an unknown external threat.
At the beginning, we see how things are problematic for a young divorced woman named Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Seriously mired in alcoholism, Kathy does not show any responsible attitude while occasionally uncaring and abusive to her daughter, and she prefers to sleep more in her bed when her daughter wakes up early in the morning. Lizzy has been pretty sick of her mother, and she wants to leave for her father’s residence as soon as possible, but, anyway, she takes care of the aftermath of her mother’s another wild drunken night because she still feels emotionally attached to her mother despite many years of anger and resentment between them.
When she feels a bit better later around the late afternoon, Kathy leaves her house along with her daughter by her car, and the mood soon becomes quite awkward between them. It will take several hours to get to her ex-husband’s residence, but both Kathy and Lizzy do not have any particular thing to talk about, and Lizzy flatly suggests at one point that she may not want to stay in her mother’s house again.
In the meantime, the night subsequently comes with lots of rain, and then something unexpected happens as Kathy is driving her car through some remote forest area. Her car hits a wolf which suddenly appears right in front of it, and she and her daughter find themselves stuck alone in their accident scene because her car is seriously damaged as a result. Fortunately, she can use her smartphone, so she instantly calls for help, but then she and her daughter will have to wait for a few more hours at least.
So far, everything seems okay, but Lizzy cannot help but feel unnerved after checking the dead body of that wolf on the road along with her mother. It turns out that the wolf was seriously injured already when it was hit by Kathy’s car, and Kathy discovers a certain sharp object stuck in the dead body of the wolf, which seems to belong to some big predatory creature.
And then the situation becomes more disturbing as Kathy and Lizzy keep waiting inside the car. Around the time when someone finally comes for help, Lizzy notices that the dead body of the wolf is somehow gone. While she finds it at a spot near the road, it is apparent that some of the dead body of the wolf was devoured by something, and then we see a big and dark creature moving in the background during that unnerving moment.
While rarely showing its titular creature throughout its short running time (91 minutes), the movie patiently builds up the sense of dread and suspense along the plot, and director/writer Bryan Bertino, who previously directed “The Strangers” (2008), did a solid job of establishing the tense and ominous atmosphere on the screen, and he also pays some attention to his two main characters. As the situation becomes more perilous and desperate for Kathy and Lizzy, the movie occasionally moves back to their hurtful past, and we come to sense more of how both Kathy and Lizzy feel pressured inside and outside as they come to discern that they have no one to help them except each other. While trying to protect her daughter as much as she can, Kathy realizes that she still cares about her daughter despite all those bad things she committed to her daughter, and there is a poignant moment later in the story when she decides to do what should be done right now for her daughter. In case of Lizzy, she must deal with her conflicted feelings toward her mother, and, as reflected by the allegorical opening narration of the film, she also has to confront whatever is lurking somewhere out there for growing up and then moving forward with her life.
It certainly helps that the movie is anchored well on the emotional level by its two main performers. Zoe Kazan, a likable actress who drew my attention for my first time with her breakthrough performance in “Ruby Sparks” (2012), is convincing during a number of intense moments in the film, and she is complemented well by her co-performer Ella Ballentine, who did far more than filling her spot beside Kazan. Thanks to their flawless interactions on the screen, we become more emotionally involved in Kathy and Lizzy’s dynamic relationship, and we accordingly come to care a lot about what is being at stake for them.
Overall, “The Monster” achieves as much as intended, and, in my trivial opinion, it is two or three steps above “The Strangers”. While I disliked that film for its barebone storytelling and characterization as well as its unpleasant nihilism without any human depth, I appreciated the considerable skills and efforts put into it to some degree, and it is surely nice to see that Bertino has advanced much from that starting point of his. In short, this is a solid genre piece to be admired for its competent aspects, and I think you should give it a chance someday, especially if you are a devoted fan of horror flicks.