Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Run time: 91 minutes
Format: Video-on-Demand, Limited Theatrical
The Lowdown: In 2008, the world was introduced to writer-director Bryan Bertino when he unveiled The Strangers, one of the best, and most intense home invasion thrillers ever committed to film.
Then Bertino disappeared.
In 2014, he resurfaced with Mockingbird, another thriller in the same vein, which incorporated aspects of the white-hot found footage movement. It was a so-so effort that stalled upon its home media release.
Fans wondered whether Bertino was destined to be a one-off wonder, a director known solely for a single film who never reclaimed the mainstream glory that seemed assured.
Well, the joke is on us. Bertino clearly has been busy, and he has returned with a vengeance, delivering not only one of the best creature features in recent memory, but an exceptionally well-acted and masterfully-lensed ode to family dynamics and the lengths a mother will go to protect her child.
The Monster is a revelation.
In the same way that The Strangers perfectly melded real life and horror in a believable way that was instantly captivating and terrifying, Bertino’s Monster takes a fairly pedestrian concept – a mother is driving her daughter to live with her father while she battles personal addiction – and suddenly, without warning immerses those relatable characters in a relentless and horrifying situation that defies logic but never makes you suspend belief.
Bertino’s visual style is superb. His decision making as a director, particularly to never over-expose the titular creature or provide any backstory to its origin, amplifies the anxiety and terror that quickly grips viewers like a vise and refuses to relinquish its hold until the final frame.
His two leading ladies – alcoholic mom Kathy (the phenomenal Zoe Kazan) and her wise-beyond-her-years daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine in a role that should propel her to the front of Hollywood’s short list) – own every moment and bring an authenticity to their fractured maternal bond that resonates with truth. Their performances are the heart and soul of the film. You care about them, you become invested in their plight and you genuinely feel their pain and the maddening disbelief that descends over them in ways that few genre films of this sort are capable of accomplishing.
Bertino’s script is rife with raw and explosive bursts of dialogue between the two that sting exactly in the way they were intended.
But make no mistake – this is a horror movie about a brutal killing-machine creature that is as mysterious and intimidating as any new life form introduced on film in recent years. The threat feels real. The small windows of opportunity for escape close without warning. And the tension that Bertino slowly ratchets is suffocating in its hopelessness.
The monster becomes a flesh and oily-slick-skinned extension of the toxic fissure that has grown between Kathy and Lizzy. It’s as if all the anger and resentment and loss of innocence they have experienced has manifested into a pitch-black beast whose sole objective is to stalk, kill and consume.
The Monster is currently playing select theaters across the U.S., but it is available for rental or purchase on most streaming video platforms.
Regardless of the reason why it’s taken Bertino so long to deliver another iconic film, fans should rejoice and immediately go seek this one out. It’s just that damn good.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes, Zoe Kazan is smoking hot.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Yes.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – Toxic family relationships and an unknown monster in the dark.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Kickboxer: Vengeance (RLJ Entertainment, 90 minutes, Unrated, DVD): Essentially a remake of 1989’s Kickboxer, which was an early introduction to the fatal flying feet of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kickboxer: Vengeance reintroduces many of the same characters with new actors and even brings Van Damme along for nostalgia’s sake. Not much has changed – if you know the basic formula of an underground kickboxing-to-the-death revenge movie, then you’re not going to be too surprised – but Vengeance is fun and fast-paced and, thankfully, doesn’t star stone-faced Scott Adkins.
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Not to be Overlooked:
Carnage Park (Shout! Factory, 81 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Writer-director Mickey Keating is a prolific genre force to be reckoned with.
In just two years, he has released three films – the extraterrestrial horror Pod, the should-be cult classic masterpiece Darling and the just-released gritty, drive-in homage survival thriller, Carnage Park.
Keating should be high on your radar if you love movies. His sense of style, camera angles, score and practical effects rival some of the best of his current peers. And Carnage Park – at least for the first 50 minutes or so – is brilliantly executed. The urgency and experimental zeal that Keating employs early on are staggering. It’s like watching Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs for the first time. You simply cannot look away. Keating breaks every convention that you’ve come to expect. Characters that you assume are central to the plot are suddenly, brutally killed. Twists abound. And your pulse quickens.
His exceptional cast includes Ashley Bell as Vivian, a poor woman trying to save her family’s farm who suddenly finds herself in the very worst, not good, 'what the hell, I don’t want to die like this!' day ever imagined. Pat Healy – so good in The Innkeepers and Cheap Thrills – delivers another standout, chilling performance, wholly inhabiting a man who is evil personified. And Alan Ruck saunters on-screen long enough to remind you why you first fell in love with him as Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off way back in 1986.
It would be foolish to think that Keating could maintain such a breakneck pace throughout, and though Carnage Park suffers a mild, late-stage lull, it’s still his most accessible feature to date and a thrilling surge of adrenaline that reminds you why you love genre movies in the first place.