It’s impossible not to think of the T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park while watching Bryan Bertino’s chilling and succinctly titled The Monster. You remember: It’s dark, and the rains have started. The Jeeps have stalled en route to their destination. The kids are in one car, adults in the other, and all the grown-ups can do is watch through a fogged windshield as the children are terrorized by a vicious, many-fanged dinosaur. Now imagine the bright yellow of the Jeeps and green lizard tint have been replaced with a palette of inky black and midnight blue, the only light source two high beams of an old Chrysler on a darkened, tree-lined backroad. And instead of scientists questioning the ethics of genetic mutation, a mother and daughter are saying goodbye on what’s supposed to be their last trip together — that’s The Monster.
Mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) clash on nearly everything. Kathy’s a young alcoholic sleepwalking through parenthood, waking up only to order Lizzy to do small favors for her; Lizzy’s the alert planner, cleaning up after all of mom’s parties. The girl’s also emotionally stunted, reverting back to childish mannerisms with an old tape of nursery rhymes — one of her greatest comforts. The two have reached their end, as Kathy reveals to Lizzy that she’s taking her to live with her dad when they’re already on the road.
Kazan makes Kathy a convincing, petulant mom who’s just as much a child as her daughter, while Ballentine (who’s also the new Anne of Green Gables) infuses her character with adult anxieties as she frets about the blood-drenched wolf her mother has just hit, taking their car out of commission on the rainy, barren road. The wolf is a puddle of wet matted fur, headlights just coasting over its body and illuminating it with a shadow and mystique, but it's also a red herring.
When the monster does finally show its face, it’s appropriately terrifying, and the thick streams of rain pounding down on the scene — headlamps reflecting in puddles — disorient. An ill-fated tow-truck driver loses a limb to the monster and crawls from the mud at the edge of the woods across the road, like that frightening crawl of the carnies in 1932’s Freaks. The faint mist, the eerie silence, the saturated blacks — so much of this film is reminiscent of the classic monster movies of the ’30s and ’40s.
This is a full-fledged monster movie, but Bertino delays the reveal until halfway through the film, writing the first half like a thrilling play in a confined space; these two characters are tit for tat, arguing and trading cutting remarks until they realize how high the stakes are. Flashbacks butt into the narrative, revealing how their relationship got so tumultuous, the most salient showing Lizzy holding a knife to her passed-out mother’s neck.
The result is a stunningly simple but fierce horror film that departs from the genre's fast-paced contemporary tendencies (including Bertino’s own The Strangers) in favor of the seeping dread of old-school horror. Last year, Bertino produced Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter, another slow-burn psychological throwback. It seems he’s been affected by this in a good way, and we’ve only just begun to see what he’s capable of.