Photo: A24

Horror is synergistic. It plays well with other genres. Maybe that’s because fear is an emotion so primal, and so relatable, that it can’t help but goose the intensity of just about any scenario. Or maybe it’s that scary movies are so plentiful—and often so formulaic—that the novelty of mixing them with another kind of movie rarely wears off. Either way, the last couple of years have provided some rock-solid hybrids, including a cannibal Western, a supernatural coming-of-age story, and an Iranian domestic drama transported to a haunted house. What happens, though, when neither side of the equation is quite up to snuff? With The Monster, writer-director Bryan Bertino plants a prickly mother-daughter drama at the center of a violent creature feature. It’s an intriguing combination in theory, but the individual elements both feel a little half-baked, and stirring them up into one doesn’t help. They’re two mediocre tastes that taste mediocre together.

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Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) are like the Gilmore Girls, if they yelled at each other constantly. Caught in the aftermath of a messy divorce, Kathy speaks to her preteen daughter like an adult, rarely condescending to her. But she also hits the bottle pretty hard, shows generally poor parental judgment, and sometimes gets in screaming matches with Lizzy in front of the whole neighborhood. (“Fuck you,” the single mother bellows over and over again, during one especially nasty showdown.) With the situation close to untenable, Kathy agrees to drive Lizzy to her father’s place on a dark and stormy night. But after peeling off the road while swerving to miss an animal, the two find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, their familial issues dwarfed by the horrific… something lurking in the woods around their totaled car.

A few years ago, Bertino made a home-invasion thriller called The Strangers, which featured one truly inspired moment: a masked intruder appearing from, and then disappearing back into, the shadowy background space of a roomy suburban home. The Monster, which takes place predominately on a single stretch of country road, plays similar games with the cover of total darkness, concealing the threat in the inky black abyss surrounding the characters. Eventually, however, the titular menace has to reveal itself. While it’s a nifty practical creation that could have escaped from an inventive Alien knockoff from the 1980s, Bertino seems at a loss for what to do with his Cujo scenario once it’s escalated from suggestion to noisy mayhem. The buildup portion of the evening is much stronger, especially as it plays at least partially on Kathy’s irresponsibility. (At one point, she sends Lizzy out into the rain alone, even after the animal they hit has mysteriously disappeared from sight.)

The monster of The Monster isn’t just a monster, of course. It’s clearly also a metaphor for… what, exactly? Alcoholism? The tension between mother and daughter? The absent husband-father (Scott Speedman, briefly) who may really be to blame for their bad relationship? The film keeps disappearing into kitchen-sink flashbacks to the pair’s dysfunctional home life, which doesn’t just puncture the single-setting suspense of their life-and-death ordeal but also frames it as some sort of extreme parenthood trial—an opportunity for Kathy to finally get her act together and put her kid before herself. It’s schematic as hell, but at least Kazan, volatile in a limiting role, throws herself into the task, suggesting a real internal life that the movie doesn’t otherwise supply. If The Monster ever comes close to surpassing the sum of its underwhelming parts, she’s the reason. Horror and drama alike are apparently in her wheelhouse.

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