Friday, November 11, 2016

My, What High Hopes You Have

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas 
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’m one of the few horror fans on this planet to be approaching Bryan Bertino’s The Monster with a blank slate, not having seen his 2008 home invasion hit The Strangers (he’s only made one film between then and now, the direct-to-Netflix Mockingbird, because Hollywood is a fickle, brutal desert of an industry). I came genuinely wanting to experience this particular story, not because I was a fan of his successful, (by all accounts) nasty-minded debut. Did that enhance my experience? Probably. The Monster is, tonally, nothing like The Strangers. But enhancement or not, The Monster is not a sophomore theatrical feature that inspires much confidence.

Although, “theatrical” is a term that stretches it a bit for a film that debuted on DirectTV, because Hollywood just won’t stop kicking this guy.

Here’s the barbarically simple plot: Kathy (Zoe Kazan, who looks 15 but is actually 33) is an alcoholic single mother who is driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine, who looks 15 because she is 15) to stay with her father, possibly forever. Their strained relationship is put to the test when they crash, stranding them on a desolate highway in the rain. Oh, and there’s a giant monster outside that wants to devour them.

Cujo, eat your heart out.

There are many, many horror films that have the exact same structure as The Monster (someone is trapped in a bad situation, a variety of potential saviors stumble across them only to be ruthlessly mowed down). It’s all in the way you spice the broth: Inside and Misery ramp up the tension with brutal gore and chilling performances. Knock Knock fails because it’s not very good. The Monster attempts to gussy itself up with a stab at family drama, but it’s more forced than an actress’s laugh at a producer’s dinner party, so the whole thing turns out rather bland.

There is a way to make a genuinely great motion picture out of The Monster. The elements are all there, they just need a little tweaking: The cinematography has a tendency to catch slices of gorgeousness in its rain-drenched greenery, The Monster is a weighty triumph of drippy, low-budget design (even if he looks a little too much like Pumpkinhead got into a The Fly transporter mishap with a gorilla), and the concept really is killer. There are moments of abject terror where a little girl is forced to watch a giant creature destroy adults meant to protect her and consider her own impending doom.

But that f**king family drama, man. It can work well in horror, as proved by the likes of The Babadook, but this mother-daughter rift is a miserable, sputtering dud that fogs up every inch of The Monster. Instead of letting their animosity grow from their perilous situation, the film is littered with intrusive flashbacks that stop the film dead for some grueling, overacted emotional shrapnel that in no way informs the actual story we’re attempting to watch play out. It absolutely shreds the pacing, and the movie miserably fails to jerry-rig even the simplest emotional payoff to this arc. [SPOILERS: By which I mean that Kathy does sacrifice herself for Lizzy, only for the scene to immediately make a 180 degree reversal and scuttle the entire arc by throwing Lizzy right back into the thick of things and immediately forgetting about her mom.]

Although it’s for the best, because I would be truly embarrassed if The Monster actually succeeded in making me cry.

But let’s knock that drama to the side for a minute (gladly) and focus on the lean horror story at the center of this film. Is The Monster scary? In brief, no. In not-so-brief, there are a couple sequences, like I mentioned earlier, that wring something desperate and raw from Lizzy’s situation. But the execution of this simple plot is viciously clunky, even without the flashbacks gouging out huge chunks of time at climactic moments, that the fear engine stalls long before the credits roll.

The biggest roadblock to The Monster maintaining a solid horror tone is its inconsistency. One second the girls can hear every water droplet and snapped twig in the surrounding forest, the net they’re deaf as a post when somebody is being mauled directly under the car. And the monster will strike randomly, be driven away by a single blow, then I guess chill out and watch Netflix in the woods until his prey have had the chance to hold a long heart-t-heart and argue over an action plan.

And, given the truly ludicrous amount of head-start time the monster has given them, you’d think their plans wouldn’t be so idiotic. The Monster sets up false dichotomies like it’s being sponsored by the concept of the logical fallacy: “we must do This Idiotic Thing or else WE WILL DIE(!!!)” Conclusions that are reached with no evidence are immediately disproven within two scenes. These moments are such baldly obvious bids for setting up another fright gag that you can practically see the strings. This unasked-for peek behind the curtain deflates any atmosphere that has held out for this long.

No, some vaguely sinister imagery is not enough to redeem the garishly stupid antics that eviscerate what could have been a taut, emotional thriller. Maybe I should just never have high hopes for a movie ever again.

TL;DR: The Monster is a poor horror film and a poorer family drama.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 923

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