Today’s horror movies aren’t satisfied with high body counts and buckets of fake blood.
No, they often dig deeper into the lives of their potential victims. It’s an encouraging trend for a genre that too often falls back on cardboard characters and stale dialogue. Disagree? Re-watch 70 percent of horror movies from the ’80s and we’ll talk.
This ambitious approach doesn’t always yield horror classics. “The Monster” is a perfect example.
Indie film darling Zoe Kazan stars as a troubled mom trying to connect with her daughter. Their rap sessions get interrupted by a beast lurking in the woods. They never mentioned that in therapy, did they?
It’s a shrewd way to enter your basic monster mash. You still need a compelling fright story to tell, no matter how eager the storytellers are to push past the genre’s limitations.
Kazan plays Kathy, a divorced mom with a serious alcohol problem. Her lack of control leads pre-teen daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to move in with her father (Scott Speedman). A series of flashbacks tell us Lizzy’s choice isn’t just wise. It could save her life.
Kathy decides to personally drive Lizzy to her father’s house one fateful night, a trip delayed by yet another hangover. Their car breaks down after hitting an animal along a dark forest roadway.
The creature may be dead. Their car certainly is. Only while they wait for the tow truck to rescue them they realize there’s something else lurking nearby.
This creature is very much alive … and hungry.
Director Brian Bertino earned more kudos than necessary for his 2008 cult hit “The Strangers.” Here, he’s blessed with two good performances and a terrific set up. Can a seriously troubled mom find enough maternal strength to give her daughter away for the child’s own good?
More importantly, can Kathy summon the courage to defend her child against the title creature?
The film nails the little details that make Lizzy’s plight all too real. She’s forced to care for herself as momma lays low after her latest binge. She may seem mature, but we see glimpses of the childhood she left behind thanks to mom’s neglect.
Horror fans should appreciate the dedication to the often obligatory first act storytelling. It’s the monster part of the equation that invites trouble.
FAST FACT: Zoe Kazan is the granddaughter of Elia Kazan (“A Streetcar Named Desire”).
Bertino paints himself into a narrative corner after the car accident. The setting is spare with little room for creative escape. Directors have handled that situation before. Consider the crisp 2008 “Splinter,” a film essentially set in a convenience store under assault by a monster.
Here, the story’s limitations prove its undoing. Bertino can’t massage the women’s plight into an effective nightmare. We should be clutching our couch cushions hoping mother and daughter can make it out alive.
Instead, the tension slowly ebbs away, just when it should be spiking.
HiT or Miss: “The Monster” isn’t your ordinary horror film. Too bad the movie’s scares are ordinary … at best.