The best horror movies have the quality of an allegory. But being an allegory doesn’t excuse you from the task of telling a good story. The Monster sets up its allegory and then morphs into exactly the horror movie you’re expecting. So far, so good. But it keeps going. And going. And going. Eventually, you’re watching a bog-standard creature feature that has lost its allegory. It’s as if writer/director Bryan Bertino forgot what he was doing. The Monster has the quality of someone wandering into the kitchen, forgetting what he was there for, downing a beer at the sink real quick, and then belching. Roll credits.
Before it starts shotgunning its horror movie trope beer, The Monster is fairly riveting. Partial credit to Bertino’s experience with slow creepy set-ups, as he demonstrated in The Stranger, a movie about how home invasions can really rekindle a romance. But most of the credit goes to the achingly effective performances from Zoe Kazan and especially the young Ella Ballentine. The actresses connect unflinchingly, spinning out the sort of relationship you almost never see in movies, and certainly not in horror movies: an abusive parent choking on her own shame and a terrified child who has no idea what to do. These aren’t the usual villain and precocious victim. This is a real horror movie.
But once The Monster forgets where it was going and literally careens into creature feature territory, it unravels under the weight of bad decision after bad decision. On the part of the filmmaker and the characters. It goes from suggesting to brightly lighting, almost never a good idea in a horror movie. It leans heavily on characters doing stupid things like, oh, not leaving when there’s a monster in the woods. And it creates a Cujo-like situation without understanding what made Cujo work. If a mother and child are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard, they’re just going to wait until they’re rescued. Boring. But if a mother and a diabetic child without his insulin are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard, you’ve got a real horror show. But The Monster forgets about the diabetic child without his insulin part, which means it’s ultimately about a couple of people who didn’t have the sense to wait in the car. But at least you get some good backstory about them, and at least you get to appreciate a child actor who hopefully has a long career ahead of her.