Unlike most horror flicks, The Monster offers solid performances and a real-world subtext. But those virtues aren't enough to keep the movie from getting stalled in some big bad woods, miles short of profundity.
The tale's Little Red Riding Hood is Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), a tween whose relationship with her single mom, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), has become irreparable. The fault is not Lizzy's. Kathy is an alcoholic whose mothering ranges from simply neglectful to overtly abusive. So the two set off, not to grandma's house, but to dump Lizzy with her father.
Kathy can't get out of bed on time, of course, so it's after midnight when she hits an animal with her car. It is, inevitably, a wolf. The crash disables the car and bloodies Kathy, and the responsible one of the pair — Lizzy, naturally — calls 911. A tow truck is immediately dispatched, but the ambulance will be delayed.
There's not much to do but wait, worry, and listen to ominous sounds from outside the car. Writer-director Bryan Bertino passes the time with some flashbacks, which don't reveal much we couldn't have guessed about Lizzy and Kathy's backstory. Typical is a scene in which the girl finds her tattooed, fuchsia-haired mom passed out on the bathroom floor, near a toilet bowl full of vomit.
Meanwhile, what the slow-paced story is really doing is building anticipation for the title character, lurking in the forest.
The low-budget film is generously outfitted with ominous touches, from a stuffed animal that plays the allegedly plague-inspired "Ring Around the Rosie" to a score that drops slo-mo piano notes like trickles of acid rain. Such mood-setters may not be novel, but they're subtler than the script.
The movie's other strength is the two central performances. The waifish Kazan, usually seen in more comic roles, is easily believable as a woman who had a baby too soon, while the steely Ballentine is utterly convincing as the girl who grew up faster than her mom. An early scene in which she cleans up mom's beer bottles and cigarette butts packs more emotional force than the higher-pitched stuff that comes later.
Although many of the widescreen compositions consist almost entirely of darkness, Bertino does ultimately provide a good look at the movie's menace. That's not a great idea, because it makes the threat too literal — and because the thing is unlikely to impress any viewers except those most susceptible to creature-feature frights. Of all the possible dangers the movie's title could signify, the one that eventually reveals itself is the least interesting.