By Naomi Roper
As much as I love Netflix its vast catalogue can mean that sometimes it is impossible to find the hidden gems among the dross. Netflix doesn’t help matters by picking the weirdest images to display. Is it an automatic thing or do they have some drunk intern somewhere who is living their best life by perversely picking the thumbnail that least represents the film? It can be hard trying to work out which of the lesser-known titles you should be giving your time. Without a recommendation on twitter, I would have completely written off The Monster. Its picture and blurb made it sound very unappealing. But this brilliantly acted, tense and often upsetting creature feature is a cut above.
The Monster is written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) and stars Zoe Kazan as Kathy and Ella Ballentine (14 at the time of the film and playing younger) as her daughter Lizzy who have a relationship that can best be described as fractious. The dynamic is set from the opening scene as we see Lizzy cleaning the filthy house she’s in, putting the (many) beer bottles in the bin and cleaning and tidying everywhere while her mother sleeps. Kathy is an alcoholic and her addiction looms large over the mother /daughter relationship. Ballentine with her huge dark, sad eyes is a little girl but not. Someone who has had to grow up far too fast in order to mother someone who should be looking after her. Kathy is driving Lizzy to her father’s, a trip she is all too aware Lizzy won’t be returning from. They drive in the pouring rain with everything they’re not saying to one another making the atmosphere in the car hideously oppressive. Kathy makes the horrendous error of travelling down an old road en route (NEVER USE THE OLD ROAD PEOPLE) and they get into an accident when a wolf runs into their car. But the wolf is running from something far worse and before long mother and daughter are fighting for their lives.
Creature features like this usually run to a certain pattern. There’s a decent-sized group full of people with a non-stop supply of clever lines who are picked off one by one in ever more inventive deaths. There’s usually a painfully tense moment when the group has to climb over the monster’s lair and the least worst of the group gets to live. In The Monster things play out very differently. Every action the mother/daughter duo take is logical and simple and it’s all played as serious as a heart attack. As a result, it is incredibly harrowing in parts- this isn’t a Deep Blue Sea or Lake Placid so if you’re looking for a light-hearted creature feature this won’t be for you. I found it surprisingly upsetting in places. The monster attacks are interspersed with scenes of Kathy fighting (and losing) the battle against her alcoholism while Lizzy gets caught in the crossfire. These domestic scenes are every bit as distressing as the snarling monster as we see the misery of loving someone who is lost in the thrall of addiction. A scene of Lizzy, just a child herself, cuddling her mother while she lies hopelessly drunk on the bathroom floor is heart-rending.
The metaphor, of course, is not subtle. Kathy has to fight her monster and put her child first knowing that the monster may overcome her. Kazan is wonderful as the mother who knows she is a total fuck up and desperately loves her daughter but just not quite as much as she loves the booze. Watching her become braver by the second as circumstances force her to extreme measures is heartbreaking. Ballentine gives one of the most assured performances I’ve ever seen from a young performer as the child who loves and hates her mother in equal measure.
It helps that the monster is terrifying. Its first appearance on screen hiding in the darkness behind Lizzy had me recoiling in horror. It’s the stuff of nightmares and features great practical special effects.
The Monster is a downbeat, harrowing, superb little gem of a creature feature which deserves to be seen more widely.
The Monster is streaming now on Netflix UK