With The Strangers, Bryan Bertino crafted what superficially seemed like nothing more than your standard home invasion picture. However, what made that movie resonate with audiences (not to mention become a modern genre staple) was the writer/director’s acute attention to character detail. It may seem like a rather evident element to highlight, but emotionally attaching the audience to your quarreling couple fending for their lives in the middle of nowhere goes a long way toward making your movie work. All of a sudden, we care whether or not these beautiful people live or die at the hands of the titular masked invaders, and every wound inflicted psychosomatically transmutes into invisible lacerations on the viewer’s own flesh. When combined with Bertino’s slick visual execution and Carpenter-esque utilization of the 2.35 frame, The Strangers became a minor miracle – a horror movie that cemented iconography via fundamentally sound filmmaking.
Bertino’s follow up, Mockingbird – a “found footage” riff that felt somewhat influenced by Korean revenge cinema – sat on the shelf for nearly two years, and for good reason: it sucks. Plagued by every standard issue flaw the worst FF aesthetic experiments exude (confounding continuation of filming, routinely staged jump scares, characters that make decisions any rational person would instantly disregard), it’s easy to understand why Blumhouse kept it locked away. Mockingbird is a movie so bad it made you question whether or not Bertino’s freshman fright fest was a fluke. Even if the viewer believed it was the usual case of a young filmmaker’s stereotypical sophomore slump, it was difficult not to be infuriated by the writer/director’s rejection of the foundations that made The Strangers so enjoyable. He was trading genuine formal proficiency for a cheapo wade in the deep end of a fad pool. To be frank, it was embarrassing.
Thankfully, Bertino’s latest, The Monster, is a literal return to form – stripped down and driven by the audience’s empathy for the two young women stuck in its disturbing focus and a display of old school cinematic control. From the opening moments, Bertino ensures that we’re hooked into the troubled existence of Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Lizzy is sick of her mom’s shit – an alcoholic burnout with a bad boyfriend named Roy (The Strangers’ Scott Speedman) and a penchant for explosive anger. Nights spent cradling the vomit-stained addict on the bathroom floor have grown increasingly tiresome. But today is a new day – for it’ll be the last morning she cleans the empty beer bottles off the living room table and shakes her hung-over disaster of a mother until she’s awake.
The two are hitting the road so that Lizzy can stay with extended family, and not even Kathy’s passive aggressive bequeathing of a familial heirloom can keep the little girl from saying bon voyage to her first (and hopefully only) toxic relationship.
Nevertheless, Bertino’s script doesn’t seek to damn Kathy; it humbly shows a woman coming to terms with the fact that she’s unfit to raise a child. Lizzy is simply a symptom of her disease – no doubt a byproduct of partying without protection. A quick flashback to an argument over an afterschool play illustrates (via terse, sharp screams of dialogue) that this bond has been broken for a while. Both are only attached thanks to the shared DNA that runs through their veins. They’d be better off without one another, and they know it.
After hitting a wolf in the middle of a rainstorm, Kathy and Lizzy find themselves stranded on a stretch of dark, wooded road. Neither is badly injured, and Lizzy calls for a tow truck and her dad to come pick her up (Kathy is now Roy’s responsibility). Yet something else is hiding amongst the trees, drool dripping from its maw and the scent of meat filling its nostrils. Like The Strangers, thirty minutes of adroit character sketching is merely prologue to a brutal hour of menace and mayhem. Soon, all hope for help seems to fly out the window into the drenched, dreary air, as the unseen beast keeps the mother and daughter trapped in Kathy’s old beater like it’s a pleather-scented prison. The only shield standing between them and death are thin panes of auto glass. It’s Cujo for the Millennial crowd; only instead of a fluffy Saint Bernard gone rabid, the eponymous carnivore is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Bertino is a master at rising tension, slowly building dread by revealing the dusk-skinned killer little by little, as it lurks in the blurrier portions of his wide lens, emitting inhuman rattles. When it does strike, the monster seems to almost be toying with its prey, tossing out limbs of past victims like a harbinger of the inevitable. Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (who shot Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which Bertino also produced) paints every scene in an oily darkness soaked through in dirty rainwater. We feel the frigid air and breath catching in our lungs whenever the thing decides to rear its ugly head and stomp on the roof of the car. Headlights and flashlights barely seem to pierce this endless evening, as the girls grip one another tight, hoping that the sun will finally rise and save them from facing this unknowable evil and the awful memories their time together has etched into their brains.
The metaphor here is rather obvious, as even without the fictional marauding ogre, we’d be left with the very real monster that is addiction. That’s what truly marks Bertino’s comeback as being so special – he wrings genuine pathos out of both his script and performers (Kazan is notably excellent). The Monster is a hellish descent into the souls of two shattered individuals, who are forced to pick up the fragments of their fractured relationship in order to persevere. Tense, gory and thrilling as the actual attacks are, the true treat in Bertino’s third feature is the human heart at its core. It’s great to have the writer/director back implementing the fundamentals, because it’s like watching a major league slugger practice his base hitting. The mechanics all work together in service of delivering a hit, with very minor flash.
The Monster is currently in select theaters and on VOD via A24.