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Celebrating Women In Horror Month With 'The Monster'

Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan) needs to get back to Lizzy's dad but they encounter some problems on the road in "The Monster."
Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan) needs to get back to Lizzy's dad but they encounter some problems on the road in "The Monster."

Creature feature highlights a pair of strong female characters

Women In Horror Month Suggestions

"The Hitch-Hiker" (1953)

"Humanoids from the Deep" (1980)

"The Slumber Party Massacre" (1982)

"A Night to Dismember" (1983)

"Blood Diner" (1987)

"Near Dark" (1987)

"Pet Cematary" (1989)

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1992)

"Office Killer" (1995)

"Organ" (1996)

"Ravenous" (1999)

"American Psycho" (2000)

"Jennifer's Body" (2009)

"American Mary" (2012)

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (2014)

"The Babadook" (2014)

"The Invitation" (2015)

"XX" (2017)

February is Women in Horror Month, and I want to highlight a recent film that might have gotten lost in the shuffle: “The Monster.” It is not directed by a woman, but it features two strong female leads and key women crew.

This year marks the eighth annual Women in Horror Month, or WiHM, which celebrates the contribution women make to the horror genre.

WiHM describes itself as “an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.”

“The Monster” is a film from last year that is now available on streaming services and is worth checking out.

"The Monster" opens with a quote on screen from a children’s nursery rhyme: “They are hiding and watching, just wait and see. Oh, there are monsters for you and for me.” Then we hear a young girl’s voice over black telling us that her mom says there are no monsters but that her mom is wrong, “they are out there waiting for you in the dark.”

That sets the scene perfectly for what is to follow and clearly establishes — in case the title was not clear enough — that we are in for a monster tale.

The premise is simple: Kathy (Zoe Kazan,) a divorcee with a drinking problem, needs to get her headstrong adolescent daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) back to her dad. But on this particular dark and stormy night there is an obstacle standing in their way. And since the film is called “The Monster,” I am not giving anything away by saying that it is a blood-thirsty creature that is preventing their passage.

Writer-director Bryan Bertino likes horror. His previous two features, “The Strangers” and “Mockingbird,” displayed a flair for confined, tense tales that turned limited budgets to an advantage.

“The Monster” works along similar lines. Much of the action takes place within Kathy’s stranded car or in the darkness of the surrounding woods. Bertino builds tension by giving us two vulnerable females who have few resources at their disposal to fight off an unimaginable terror.

The press notes serve up this quote from author H.P. Lovecraft in which he calls fear “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind.” That is the primal fear that Bertino taps into for “The Monster.”

Bertino states in the press notes:

“I think that horror as a genre can be misunderstood. But in truth, fear can be fascinating. It’s a great equalizer that cuts through the complexities of human emotions, and it shows us the raw realities beneath. Fear can be a necessary evil when it comes to growth. I like writing stories about broken people that find some sort of clarity … Horror can be a great cleansing of the soul.”

So initially, the “monster” of the film seems to be something very real in terms of Kathy’s drinking problem and what it turns her into as well as Kathy’s abusive boyfriend. But as Bertino did in his previous films, he gives us broken characters and people at odds with each other and then introduces a horrific outside element that forces the characters to find untapped strengths and that forces them to work together despite previous differences.

In the case of “The Monster,” we get a creature feature horror story on the surface, and underneath, it is a story about a mother and a daughter finding each other again and about a young girl coming of age under unusually trying circumstances. Without this monster threatening the two, who knows if they ever would have on their own been able to break the destructive cycle of their relationship.

Bertino is again working with a small budget, under $3 million, which is far below such recent indie horror successes “Lights Out” (just under $5 million) and “Don’t Breathe” (just under $10 million). But he puts the money where it counts and that is in the practical effects for the monster. He gives us a creature that is massive and brutal and has no humanity to appeal to. It reminds me a bit of the alien creatures in “Attack the Block” because both are relentless killing machines, and both are creatures of the night that can disappear into darkness.

A creature feature is only as good as its monster and Bertino’s film delivers on that. And he is not afraid to let us have a good look at the beast terrorizing this mom and her daughter. The film once again proves how practical effects are so much more compelling than CGI.

The film is beautifully shot by Julie Kirkwood, proving yet again how beauty and horror work well together. (You can see that in “The Witch,” another film by the same distributor, A24.)

Bertino and Kirkwood use the night to give the film a sense of claustrophobia, since neither the protagonists nor we as the audience can see more than a few feet into the woods. Kirkwood surrounds the characters in a gorgeously ominous blackness that always seems about to swallow them. It is a rich darkness full of all sorts of potential horrors. And although the setting is confined, we never feel that the filmmakers are limited in their choices.

Then, when we finally get to see the beast that is causing so much terror, it is impressively revealed. You can readily see the influence of “Alien” on the film.

In addition to a woman cinematographer, there is Maria Gonzales, a talented women editor, on the film. Gonzales paces the film well and allows for a slow build until we finally get to see the monster.

Bertino casts his film well. Kazan gives us a juvenile mom, while Ballentine gives us a mature young girl. The film occasionally indulges in too much teary-eyed emotionalism between mom and daughter but for the most part their relationship is well-rendered.

“The Monster” (rated R for language and some violence/terror) is a small indie film that deserves to find a bigger audience. It serves up a classic scary monster movie along with a poignant coming of age story. And it is a film that celebrates women in horror both on screen and behind the scenes.

Check out "The Monster" and seek out more films highlighting women in horror this month. See my sidebar list. From the list, "XX," a horror anthology by four women directors, will be screening later this month at Digital Gym Cinema and "The Hitch-Hiker" will screen in September at the Museum of Photographic Arts as part of the Film Geeks SD's Famous Firsts series.

You can also check out a blog post from "The Monster's" female producer, Adrienne Biddle, at Women and Hollywood.