THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The key to making a good horror movie isn't just the scares, it's having a solid lead performance. Far too many fright flicks get charisma-free actors to star in them, figuring that the concept itself will be the real draw. (See The Bye Bye Man and Rings. Or better yet, don't.) The Monster, written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) is anchored by an exceptional lead performance from Zoe Kazan. That makes the film, which is fairly standard in many other respects, stand out from the crowd.
Kazan plays Kathy, an alcoholic, verbally abusive single mother. She has a lot of resentment toward her 10-year-old daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). That feeling is mutual. To say they have a dysfunctional relationship would be an understatement, so strong is the animosity between them. One dark, rainy night, they are driving down a remote road, on their way to drop Lizzy off at her father's house. Their car hits a wolf and is wrecked. Stranded, they soon discover that there is a bloodthirsty creature looming in the woods outside. Kathy's mama bear instincts kick in, as she realizes it's up to her to save Lizzy from the beast.
Bertino tells two different parts of the story simultaneously. The “in the present” part, involving the attempt to stay alive in the face of the creature, occasionally pauses for a flashback to show the past conflict between Kathy and Lizzy in detail. Their most tumultuous moments are focused upon. This approach creates a striking contrast which allows us to see how deeply this mother's love for her daughter runs, despite the bad blood between them. At its heart, The Monster isn't about a creature so much as it is about unconditional love. In fact, it's not unreasonable to say that the beast is a metaphor for the issues that drove a wedge between these two characters.
Zoe Kazan, so good in Some Girls and Ruby Sparks, turns in powerful work, convincingly showing Kathy's misplaced aggression toward Lizzy. You can see that this woman has become so frazzled from alcoholism and bad romances that she blames the most pure person in her life for her own poor decisions. Kazan equally nails the more loving side of Kathy that emerges once they're trapped in the vicinity of the creature. Faced with the thought of losing her daughter, the anger melts away, replaced with a forceful show of compassion. The actress's portrayal makes the movie tick.
In terms of scares, The Monster is well-executed, but fairly predictable. You can tell when the creature is going to jump out and which of the people who could potentially help Kathy and Lizzy are going to get eaten. Still, Bertino stages the scenes with efficiency and a minimum of gore.
It's the interior monster – the fractured bond between Kathy and Lizzy – that provides the true chills in The Monster. Watching them slay it together, especially when acted so well by Kazan and Ballentine, is very rewarding. This is a horror movie with real soul.
( out of four)
The Monster is rated R for language and some violence/terror. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!