Bryan Bertino’s The Monster is about a young girl, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), and her mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), whose car breaks down on a rainy night in the middle of the woods, where they start to find themselves stalked by a foreboding and malicious creature. From the outset, though, it feels like part of the same universe as The Strangers, since once again Bertino showcases his unique ability to fuse harrowing emotional drama with horror, and to turn horror into a harrowing emotional drama of the most unbearable intensity. Like The Strangers, The Monsters starts from a point of pain, and with a pair of characters who are already estranged before they even encounter the film’s main focus of horror. Like The Strangers, too, this estrangement speaks to a family on the verge of dissolution, and a family who are coming to terms with the idea of the family itself as a fantasy that they can never fully achieve. Finally, to an even greater extent than The Strangers, this liminal familial space takes place largely in transit, displacing any sense of the home as a source of stability.
In other words, both The Strangers and The Monster start by dismantling the familial structures that are normally dismantled by the antagonists in horror films, meaning that there is no possibility of restoring those structures once the strangers, or the monster, are finally dealt with. That was already a fairly grim prospect in The Strangers, but it’s intensified even further in The Monster. Most notably, the relationship that opened The Strangers – a couple driving home after a rejected engagement proposal – has now been replaced by an even more primal image of familial dissolution: a mother driving her daughter cross-country to live permanently with her father, after years of alcoholism and psychological abuse has driven them inexorably apart. What’s worse, it becomes clear, through a series of flashbacks, that the father is no angel either, leaving young Lizzy stranded in an indeterminate space in which neither of her parents can live up to her expectations of them.
No surprise, then, that The Monsters is suffused with the same drab, downbeat, melancholy atmosphere as The Strangers, nor that the suspense is even more suffocating this time around. With virtually all the action taking place in and around Kathy’s wrecked car, most perspectives are occluded by the thickening rain, and deflected through the windscreen and mirrors, progressively blurring the background until the entire film seems to be taking place in a single maleficent murk. In a sense, the rain functions in the same way as the sodium lighting in The Strangers, conjuring up a blurry, fuzzy, staticky miasma of unresolved emotion that leaves the characters and their personal space vulnerable to outside forces. With all external sounds muffled by rain, the car radio also plays a similar role to the record player in The Strangers, sinking us into the strange distended time that sets in when waiting for help during a breakdown. Amidst that audiovisual flux, the monster is heard a long time before it is seen, with inchoate noises gradually emerging from the rain, gradually followed by a series of flickers and movements so stealthy that it is almost as if the creature is an extension and embodiment of the storm, never quite differentiated from the outside world.
The first half of the film is particularly scary, as these occasional bursts of sound and disruptions of the visual field build a sense of slow pursuit, not unlike some of the rainy scenes in Jurassic Park. In fact, given that the monster looks a bit like a dinosaur, the film often plays as an attempt to distil the horrific kernel of Spielberg’s film that has been repressed by the streamlined reboot of the franchise, along with the primal sense of fear that made the original film so galvanising to children at the time. Yet it’s not just the monster but Kathy and Lizzy’s memories of their most traumatic moments that stalk them across these earlier scenes – memories that are impossible to fully ignore or repressed when they’re banded together in such a confined situations. Often flashbacks are not such an effective strategy in films, especially in horror films, but the flashbacks here really deepen the sombient stillness of it all, partly because it’s precisely the kind of situation where flashbacks might be expected to occur, and partly because the flashbacks themselves are so harrowing, mostly focusing on Kathy passed on unconscious as Lizzy is forced into one macabre position after another in order to contend with her alcoholism. In fact, part of what makes the flashbacks so powerful is the sense that Kathy and Lizzy desperately don’t want to remember them, but that it is impossible to repress them in the situation now facing them – stuck in the middle of nowhere, on the very cusp of being separated for good.
Before the monster even arrives, then, the film offers a beautifully drawn relationship between mother and daughter. Agonised and tender at the same time, suffused with real hatred but also moments of traumatic love, both sides of this rapport intensify as the film proceeds, and the monster appears, until it turns out that they are inextricable from one another. One of the key features of the monster is that it is capable of shifting position in an instant – all it takes is a flicker of the eyes away and it’s gone – and that mercuriality quickly becomes a figure for the sudden shifts in tone and mood that occur between mother and daughter. Even – or especially – when the monster is close, Lizzy and Kathy shift subliminally from love to rage, and the trauma of the film lies in these shifts, as their love for each other enhances their rage, but their rage also enhances their love. For Kathy, in particular, it feels as if her failings as a mother are also what make her so protective as a mother, with the monster coming to personify all the parts of herself that she wants to protect Lizzy from, and her inability to ever quite control or monitor her alcoholism enough to properly do so.
While the monster might be terrifying on its own terms, then, it’s also what allows Kathy and Lizzy to mediate their family trauma, producing one primal tableau after another in which mother is forced to shield daughter from the horrors of the world, even as she feels complicit in those horrors as well. That makes for a remarkably intense performance from Ballentine, whose rage, pain and horror is always on the verge of overwhelming her face, in one of the bravest and most uncompromising efforts from a child actor that I have seen in some time. As the monster intensifies the evanescent shifts from love to hate in her relationship with her mother, it becomes clear that the only way for them to escape is for Kathy to lure the monster away and give Lizzy a chance to run for it – ironically, by using Lizzy’s teddy as a distraction device, the comfort object that she used to use whenever her parents were fighting. The traumatic kernel of it all reaches its apex when Kathy is attacked by the monster but can only apologise to Lizzy, as the creature, and all the factors preventing her from being an adequate parent, converge on a maelstrom of visceral horror.
In these final moments, horror gives way to trauma, which in turn gives way to tragedy in the deepest and fullest sense. That awareness of the continuity between horror and tragedy, or the inextricability of horror from tragedy, was also what made The Strangers so powerful, and there’s the same grim sense of inexorability in these last scenes as well – the sense that everything is not going to be OK, and nothing can be the same again. Just as the strangers return, so the monster returns, time and again, condensing the third act to the ambit of a wrecked ambulance, and suffusing every moment between mother and daughter with a sense of imminent medical trauma that is far more confronting than any single act of violence or gore. Across this third act, Kathy is gradually dying, in agonising pain, and wincing with every move, and yet the film starts to flash forward during the climax, with the result that her last moments with her daughter are already presented as a flashback, and are displaced from any resolution or catharsis that might take place in the present moment.
If The Monsters and The Strangers are tragedies, then, they are tragedies of a particularly brutal kind, since the audience are denied the emotional release that typically forms the payoff in high tragedy. While Lizzy grows more traumatised with each new threshold of horror, her trauma is never alleviated, or contained, but instead acknowledged and even embraced as the only medium through which she can properly commune with her mother. As she stands over her mother repeating “Don’t go,” before finally confessing that “I love you,” Bertino seems to have condensed every child’s worst nightmare to a single tableau, just as The Strangers condensed every couple’s worst nightmare to a single scenario. By the time that Lizzy finds her way back to the road, dazed, the monster has been entirely eclipsed by and absorbed into this harrowing mother-daughter melodrama, especially as the father has never come back into the picture. The last note is a flashback, but a flashback that bleeds back into the present, as Lizzy recalls Kathy apologizing for having let her down again, and having exposed her to a world of tragedy, terror and horror – a world that has reached its apotheosis in the final moments of the film, which arrives at its maximum trauma just before the credits roll – consummating, rather than really concluding, one of the grimmest, saddest and bleakest horror visions in American cinema since The Strangers itself.