The mother as the monster trope taps into our most primal fears because it is an ultimate betrayal of human nature. Mothers are supposed to be our saviors and protectors, and when that’s compromised, we’re forced to confront the greatest kind of horror—the kind that leaves us at our most vulnerable. See: The Babadook, in which the terror of the top hat-wearing, pale-faced ghoul is only secondary to that of the possessed mother (played by Essie Davis) spewing curses at her son. Last year’s Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy—about a mother who comes home after a mysterious surgical procedure with a changed, possibly evil, demeanor—is set in a cold, minimal mansion, but draws most of its chilliness from the fact that the familiar warmth of a caring mother has been completely wiped out.
Enter a different kind of mommy dearest in The Monster, the latest horror film from The Strangers director Bryan Bertino, now available in theaters and on demand. The Monster follows this recent trend of using the anxiety of the mother being the real monster, but the monster within the mother is not supernatural. She’s not possessed or evil, in the demonic sense of the word. And there exists an actual monster, too. As he did before with The Strangers, Bertino once again keeps his cast tight for maximum tension while mirroring his literal, scary-movie terrors with underlying, metaphorical ones—previously it was the strain of a broken relationship and this time, it is this distrust of the mother as a worthy protector.
Zoe Kazan, in her career best, stars as Kathy, a distraught young mother who embarks on a road trip with her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). It’s not the fun kind, though—they’re on their way to drop off Lizzy at her father’s after Kathy proves to be an incompetent mother, and the angry silence that fills the car feels too loud to bear. On their way to Lizzy’s father’s, they get stranded in the middle of the woods after hitting a wolf in the middle of the road. Before long, they find out there’s something truly horrifying lurking in the shadows.
“When I read this script, I felt the shell was a horror film, but it’s really a drama about this woman and this girl,” Zoe Kazan tells me. The film makes us question, is that monster out there as horrifying as the monster inside Kathy? We’re told through multiple flashbacks what a shitty mom she is. From the screaming and cursing to the drinking, there isn’t a shortage of reminders of this fact. If there are too many flashbacks of Kathy as an inept mother—and at some point, the neglect, abuse, and vomiting next to a bottle will feel forcibly drilled into our minds—they at least serve as unshakeable indications of how she’s previously failed as a matriarch in every other way. They also serve to color the dynamic between mother and daughter, while heightening the anxiety of whether or not Kathy can step up to her maternal duties when imminent danger appears.
The Monster lacks bite in the actual horror department, but like many other good horror films before it (Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining), it plays with the anxiety of this very primal fear—the betrayal of the mother. While steeped in traditional monster movie imagery—rainy night, isolated woods, scared women trapped in a car, a dark blob of a monster with sharp teeth—it does much more by tapping into, and subverting, the monstrous mother trope. “Because I had so little control over how scary this film was, I was just trying to ground it emotionally as much as possible,” Kazan says.
The Witch, a horror movie from earlier this year, was effective for similar reasons. While many were let down by the film’s hype of it being satanically horrifying, The Witch is really just an incredible Puritan family drama disguised as a horror film. As scary as the occult is, the film relies on the family to turn on each other in order to reach its climax. It’s not until the mother and father start accusing their daughter of being a witch that you realize something really sinister is at work here. Both The Witch and The Monster depend on human flaws of its parental (specifically maternal) figures, the distrust brewed within and by them become central to the horrors in question.
“I feel like horror films, historically, have many wonderful acting opportunities for women,” Kazan says. “Like Halloween. True, real opportunities for women to shine.” Kathy’s character isn’t your typical female character in a horror movie—not your usual scream queen or the survivor with a strong moral compass. She’s also not your typical horror mother. She’s awful and complicated, and in the most crucial moments, almost unrealistically brave—the kind of brave that only a mother might understand. And sometimes, Kathy acts so brash that it feels like she might put her daughter in danger.
“There are these stories about women being able to lift cars to protect their child,” Kazan explains. “She's operating from fear a lot. She's a real survivor. I don't think her coping mechanisms are all good but I do think that she's coming from a place of real, shit-kicking place.” Using her motherly instincts—which have previously failed her—Kathy does the heavy-lifting. The mother may be a bit of a monster, but here her vices are human—vices overcome and overlooked during the film’s most crucial moments. The Monster, despite its titular beast at the center, is a very human story that shows even shitty mothers are capable of love and protection when their offspring is at risk.