If you can spare 91 minutes for a taut, tense horror flick, check out “The Monster,” which had a limited theatrical release last year and is now available on Amazon Prime. Starring an against-type Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks,” “What If”) as mother Kathy and 15-year-old Ella Ballentine as daughter Lizzy, this riff from writer-director Bryan Bertino dispenses with the cheese and delivers a lot of scares for its relatively low budget.
In the opening scenes, a viewer will feel like Kathy is the title character (and, arguably, she is). This deadbeat, alcoholic mom drunkenly oversleeps while Lizzy cleans up the booze bottles from the night before. In one of the flashbacks effectively peppered through the film after the horror story kicks in, mother and daughter exchange a barrage of “F*** you”s. Adding to Lizzy’s real-world horror, dad Roy (Scott Speedman) is also a violent alcoholic. Functional, this family is not.
Kathy is taking Lizzy to the dad’s place – a day’s drive away – when their station wagon strikes a wolf and skids to a crash on a rainy backroad. Starting at this point, “The Monster” takes place in roughly real-time and we feel the tension ratchet up as the girls discover a large tooth in the wolf carcass, then wait for the tow truck and ambulance to arrive.
A good chunk of the picture plays out like the T-rex attack scene in “Jurassic Park,” with the girls in their immobile vehicle while the tow-truck driver tries to mend the broken axle enough to tow it. Ahead in the rain and headlights sits the tow truck, with dark woods beyond – perfect for a beast to pounce out of and provide a jump-scare or three.
Bertino (“The Strangers”) is committed to “The Monster” being rooted in reality, rather than a cheese-fest. Aside from the fact that the antagonist is a literal monster, the events are believable; this isn’t a case where a series of stupid decisions puts the characters in more danger. The outstanding design of the creature – sort of a muscular version of the “Alien” xenomorph — allows the director to show it off quite a bit after some tantalizing early glimpses; “The Blair Witch Project” this ain’t.
“The Monster” also works as a character study and social commentary once the subtext and text begin to mesh. It opens with a voiceover of Lizzy saying her mom told her there’s no such thing as monsters, and – like Newt in “Aliens” – she learns that’s a lie, and yet another example of her mom failing her. As we wonder if there’s any redemption to be found in this mom who passes the buck to her kid even in this nightmare situation (having Lizzy make the 911 call, for example), we simultaneously see Lizzy go through a Ripley-like journey of realizing she has to fight for her life; no adult is going to save her.
In her early teens, Lizzy is too old for singing teddy bears, but she’s too young to be a horror-flick heroine – so it’s a daring move by Bertino to put Lizzy in that very role, and in Ballentine, he finds a capable young actress. In an era when many parents don’t let their kids out of their sight – and indeed, when even adults are bombarded with messages about how they need to be protected from the world’s evils – “The Monster” is a refreshing reminder that humans, even the small ones, are quite a resilient species.