Monsters are real. And sometimes, only children are brave enough to battle them.
Growing up, films like The Gate and The Monster Squad appealed to me in a special way that other horror movies simply did not. Like scary versions of Home Alone and The Goonies, they centered on kids who were tasked with battling evil forces, and being a kid at the time I saw them, there was something incredibly empowering about that. Maybe I didn’t even realize why I was connecting with them back then, but looking back, I realize how important it is for everyone to have heroes they can look up to and, more importantly, relate to: men, women, and definitely children.
In all of those aforementioned films, the children seemed to be so much more equipped to battle the monsters – human and otherwise – than their full-grown counterparts. They were smarter, braver, and tougher than the adults; the adults were often too dumb to even realize what they were up against. Unfortunately, horror movies with young heroes don’t come around all that often these days, nor do good old fashioned monster movies. But this year, thanks to writer/director Bryan Bertino, we have The Monster. As Brad noted in his review here on BD, Bertino’s latest is a throwback creature feature, but it’s also a film that empowers children in a way that few movies do nowadays.
From the opening scene of The Monster, it’s immediately clear who’s in control and who’s not. Young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is the daughter of Kathy (Zoe Kazan), who is the very definition of a deadbeat mom. Kathy is an abusive alcoholic who frequently passes out on the couch and just plain isn’t present in her daughter’s life, forcing Lizzy to be the parent figure to her own parent. In the first sequence, we see Lizzy cleaning up cigarette butts and beer bottles from around the living room, the young girl coming off more like the mother to a destructive teenager than the child she physically appears to be.
The plot is set in motion when Kathy takes Lizzy on a road trip to spend time with her equally troubled father. On a long stretch of road at night, rain pouring down from the skies, their car collides with a wolf, stranding them in the middle of the road without any help in sight. They soon realize that the wolf was running away from something else out there in the woods, and like a modern day Cujo, the film mostly traps the mother and daughter in their car while a massive monster roams free outside.
When the shit hits the fan, it’s Lizzy who is forced, as always, to take control of the situation. The young girl is terrified, but her mother insists that she be the one who calls 911. She insists that she be the one who calls her father to let him know they’re not going to make it. And even when Lizzy goes outside to investigate, Kathy stays in the car. Kathy isn’t scared because she’s too dumb to realize they’re in grave danger. But Lizzy knows the score. And like a young Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, she doesn’t intend on sitting back and letting the monster have his way with her.
*AS A WORD OF WARNING, SPOILERS WILL BE FOUND BELOW. SEE THE MOVIE FIRST.*
In the final act of The Monster, Kathy gives up. Her actions may seem heroic, as she sacrifices herself to save her daughter’s life, but if you found yourself feeling like her plan was foolish, well, I’m pretty sure that was the point. Hiding out in an overturned ambulance, Kathy decides to head out into the woods and draw the monster to her, allowing Lizzy to run away from the scene and save herself. In giving up, Kathy essentially abandons Lizzy for the final time, and it’s Lizzy who is the real hero of the situation. Rather than running away, the young girl heads out into the woods to be by her mother’s side in her final moments, resourcefully fending off the monster in the process; she arms herself with a flashlight, and as any kid knows, monsters fear the light. Her next plan is to lure the monster out in the road and set it on fire using a lighter and flammable spray, which she enacts with total fearlessness.
Burnt to a crisp, the monster is still holding on to a shred of life, but Lizzy, like the hero she’s been since the beginning of the film, physically beats it out of him. Tommy Jarvis would be proud.
Like many recent monster movies, most notably The Babadook, the monster in The Monster is actually a representation of something very much grounded in reality. Yes, there is a monster out there in the woods, and yes, it does eat a few people, but by the end of the film, it’s clear that Kathy is the monster that Lizzy needed to escape from. As we see in an emotional flashback scene after the monster is killed, Kathy was well aware that Lizzy was going to be better off without her, and now that she’s gone, Lizzy is free from the darkness that once surrounded her.
She’s free from the monster.
A triumphant Lizzy emerges from the woods at the end of The Monster, having spent not just one night but her entire life, up to that point, battling monsters. She was as brave in the presence of a true monster as she was in the face of the emotional and physical torment she had to endure on a daily basis: a bravery that perhaps only a child is hopeful enough to truly have.
Kids need horror heroes too. And The Monster‘s Lizzy is one of the best in years. She was able to overcome the darkness surrounding her, and if she was able to, maybe we all can.