By: Glynis Neely
The Monster, a small intricate movie now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, is a simple horror story revolving around a tortured mother/daughter relationship. Zoe Kazan stars as Kathy, an abusive and alcoholic young mother to shy and frightened Lizzy, played excellently by Ella Ballentine. A long road trip to take Lizzy to her father’s house leads the pair down a largely abandoned and unfamiliar road during the middle of a thunderstorm at night. A wolf runs into their path and they crash, sending the car spinning out of control and stranding them in the dark waiting for a tow truck and ambulance to arrive. After assessing the damage, they go out to check on the wolf but upon closer examination of the animal they notice it has more wounds than sustained from their car and a giant tooth is embedded in its back. Then, the wolf disappears from the road. What follows is an intense game of cat and mouse with a real monster that happens to lurk in those woods.
Yet once we see the literal monster lurking in the woods, things really start to get going. I did not expect it to be such a successful creature feature, as they are difficult to pull off well, but when they are good they’re some of my favorite horrors. Most recently I can think of Attack the Block as having a very accomplished, low budget creature, but The Monster’s titular character is almost more comical looking, like a giant lizard with incredibly largely teeth, and yet it’s still incredibly effective. It likes to hunt and play with its food, and moves much faster than you would think, so after the tow truck driver is mutilated it still has energy to mess with any one else that comes in his path. Once they finally find the creature’s weakness, it’s clear it’s only survived in those woods because not many people pass through there.
Lizzy is positioned from the start as the smart one who might come out of this mess; despite or rather in spite of everything she’s been through she is extremely observant and resourceful, though she lives in fear of her mother. Yet while she has a tumultuous and hateful relationship with her mother, she’s only ever wanted to be loved by her mother in return. It’s easy to sympathize with Lizzy as we see her falling asleep next to her mother on the bathroom floor because she happened to pass out there that night, or her cleaning up their apartment and taking care of herself when her mother just won’t wake up after a binge. Kathy’s inability to listen to Lizzy and understand, as a mother, what she needs in any given moment is present throughout the film.
She is also someone Lizzy fears – the main monster in her life. Lizzy seems frightened often, but once it’s obvious to her that there is a real horror in the woods, Kathy still dismisses her and tells her to get over it. She ignores the danger because she has a habit of writing off her daughter. In a moment of intense fear, Lizzy calls out for her father and the hurt is apparent on Kathy’s face; yet she shouldn’t be surprised. That’s around the time when she starts to take responsibility for the situation. She tells Lizzy to be brave and they start to work together. She ultimately steps up to save her daughter because she knows she’s been a bad mother and this is the best she can finally offer.
The film’s singular three-act flashback structure also lends to the evolution of their relationship. We see the first third of the film as Kathy and Lizzie start the day and begin their road trip punctuated with flashbacks of Kathy neglecting and dismissing her daughter as her alcoholism consumes her every thought. Once they are stranded on the road in the woods and Lizzy truly needs comfort from her mother, as she’s terrified, the flashbacks become truly abusive as we see Kathy striking Lizzy and Lizzy tempted to kill her own mother. Once they are both on the defensive with the monster, the flashback structure changes and we see flash-forwards as Kathy and then Lizzy carry out their plans to defeat the creature, finally working together. The final flashback that ends the film is a moment of calm between mother and daughter; an honest moment in time where the two shared that they loved each other, and never meant the horrible things they said.
Recently there has been a trend in horror, though not new to storytelling in general, to have dual stories that compliment one another, wherein the horror is both real and metaphorical. This double meaning is present in recent films like It Follows, which could be interpreted as an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases or sexual anxiety, and The Babadook, where the monster is an allegory for one mother’s manifestation of grief. The Monster is very similar to the latter in that it focuses very closely on a tortured mother/child relationship. And despite Kathy reassuring Lizzy that there is no such thing as monsters, but the monster here is real. Lizzy begins the film tentative and scared of her mother and the creature in the woods; yet by the end of the film, Lizzy vanquishes the monster and her own deep-seated fear. It takes attacking this monster head on to realize that she is no longer frightened of any monsters – metaphorical or literal. She emerges from the woods in the safety of the morning, the youngest final girl in memory, more aware of the darkness lurking in the shadows – and twice as ready to take it on.