Going to see a really bad movie can be a miserable experience for both cinephiles and casual film fans alike, but going to see a movie that comes close to greatness, then falls short, can be just as frustrating. Sure, experiences like Suicide Squad are a chore to sit through, but a film that feels mere inches away from being something truly special is a different, special kind of dissatisfying. Such is the case with The Monster, the third feature film from writer/director Bryan Bertino. The Monster has a ton going for it that could have potentially made it the horror darling of the year, made it “This Year’s Babadook,” as so many breakout indie horror films are described these days, but instead it’s a film that takes a step back for every step it takes forward. It had the potential to be a horror fan’s wet dream: a tight, tense little scarefest, with a rock-solid emotional core and awesome practical effects, but sadly it just wasn’t meant to be.
The Monster is centered on Kathy and Lizzy, a mother daughter with a critically broken relationship. Mother Kathy is clearly a trainwreck of a human being with no business raising a child, and daughter Lizzy is already very obviously smarter and more collected than her mom could ever be, despite only being around 10 years of age. It’s decided that Lizzy should go and live with her dad, but along the way their car breaks down on a deserted country road in the middle of the woods. It quickly becomes clear that the two aren’t alone, and that something very nasty is waiting just outside the glow of the streetlights.
Though it borrows a few notes from Cujo and a few other classics, The Monster has an extremely effective and mostly original setup. You’ve got two characters with a complicated relationship thrown into a desperate situation, one that forces them into a tense, claustrophobic environment where all kinds of interesting emotions can come bubbling up to the surface. It’s the kind of premise that may be a bit staid, but is still full of potential for interesting character growth and boatloads of tension.
The monster lurking out in the woods, constantly threatening to take a bite out of our protagonists, is a shadowy, terrifying “other,” its nature and origins less relevant than what its presence brings out in the characters. In true Jaws fashion, we don’t see much of it, but get reminded of its presence through some wonderful sound design. When we do catch glimpses of the monster, what we’re seeing is all practical effects – no CGI to be found here. The cinematography by Julie Kirkwood is frequently beautiful, making great use of very spare lighting. Like a lot of great horror movies, it keeps things small, sticking mostly to one very well-defined location that keeps the geography clear and amplifies the terror through sense of claustrophobia.
And yet, despite all the elements in place, The Monster keeps coming up short. It’s overly long, for one thing, with a padded-out runtime that continually reiterates how messed up Kathy and Lizzy’s relationship is through increasingly unnecessary flashbacks to their tumultuous past. The more we see of the titular monster, the more it looks like an actor crawling around in a slimy rubber suit. Even that terrific sound design that carried the film through much of the first two acts starts to weaken, with more stock sound effects popping up among the creature’s many roars and squeals.
Stars Zoe Kazan as Cathy and Elle Ballentine as Lizzy are both trying their hardest, and are at times great…..but then a line will feel flat in a critical moment, something essential will be lost, and the film’s tension is broken. The climax is especially drawn out and all-too-frequently driven by terrible ideas on the part of the protagonists. This is absolutely one of those horror films where you spend half the time shouting at the screen, desperately imploring the heroes to not be such idiots.
And whenever something like this comes up – a wonky-looking monster, a flat line delivery, a terrible decision – it feels frustrating, because the movie is so often close to being great. It plays on a very primal, basic kind of fear: the monster in the darkness, just outside your vision. You may be safe now, but you’re also trapped. It’s out there, just waiting for you to make a mistake. Yes, that’s a very time-worn and perhaps un-nuanced way to generate fear, but it works. Likewise, forcing two people with a terrible relationship into a pressure-cooker situation like this is a straightforward and even simplistic way to generate character growth and personal drama. But again, it works. The film is playing with a lot of tried and true tropes and story devices, but that doesn’t make it bad. If anything, it takes a back-to-basics approach, something horror movies should really try and do once in a while.
But it becomes apparent by around halfway through that The Monster just can’t live up to its potential. It’s the kind of movie that would have made a much better short, and it’s not hard to imagine that it may have started out as one. With a tight 20-30 minute or so runtime, a few extra takes to get the actors to really hammer home every delivery, and a bit of tweaking to the monster suit (or just never showing the thing all that clearly), this could have easily have been a standout short film. But as a feature, it’s an exercise in wasted potential.