There are horror movies in which unexpected frights befall relatively happy, emotionally stable people. And then there are the horror movies of Bryan Bertino, in which the characters are often at each other’s throats from the get-go; when the terrors finally do arrive, they feel like a queasy yet logical amplification of what we’ve already seen.
That was the template for Bertino’s hit writing-directing debut, “The Strangers” (2008), an unnerving thriller about a couple at a crossroads who suddenly find themselves at the center of a random home invasion. And it continues with his nifty little freakout of a third feature, “The Monster,” which is centered on a mother-daughter relationship so brutally estranged as to initially confuse your understanding of the movie’s title.
The mother is Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a divorced woman with streaky red highlights and a serious drinking problem, and the daughter is Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), a strong-willed pre-adolescent who has become all too accustomed to being the grown-up in the relationship.
The anger and frustration coursing between them is unflinchingly depicted: When Kathy unleashes a torrent of expletive-laden invective at Lizzy, you can sense the two of them settling into emotionally destructive patterns that have clearly been reinforced over the years.
With the mood between them already tense, Kathy decides to take Lizzy to visit her father (Scott Speedman of “The Strangers,” seen briefly), necessitating a long nighttime drive on deserted country roads. A rainstorm hits, and Kathy, swerving to avoid an animal on the road, crashes the car, leaving the two of them stranded in the middle of nowhere — at which point it becomes clear that they’re in for the sort of life-altering jolt that will force them to put their differences aside.
How that happens is best discovered not here but in the darkness of a theater, where the full measure of the movie’s spare, exquisite tension-building can be fully appreciated. Working with cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, Bertino extracts all the slow-drip eeriness as you could expect from this curious scenario of entrapment — focusing on Kathy and Lizzy as they wait, initially unsuspecting, in the tight space of their broken-down vehicle, or occasionally wander onto the hunting ground that awaits them outside.
A skilled, efficient horror practitioner (his little-seen 2014 film, “Mockingbird,” was a riff on the found-footage thriller), Bertino doles out the jolts with a judicious hand. For a while, “The Monster” smartly keeps its teeth-snapping main attraction either on the edges of the frame or draped in shadow, distracting us instead with the sinister patter of raindrops on the windshield, or the glow of a flashlight beam.
The suspense is intermittently undercut by flashbacks that return us to earlier, though not happier, times, illuminating the nature of Kathy’s struggle and Lizzy’s inevitable role as both victim and nurse. The seemingly pure loathing we saw between them in their early scenes is matched by moments of tenderness and affection, laying the groundwork for the harrowing sight of mother and daughter fully leaning into one another once the monster decides he’s enjoyed enough foreplay.
Ballentine gives a fine, fierce performance as a child wise beyond her years and unafraid of confrontation. And Kazan, whose skill and range have been evident in films as different “Ruby Sparks” and “The Exploding Girl” (as well as the HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge”), is unsurprisingly excellent in a role that calls for her to play both a raging alcoholic and a down-and-dirty scream queen, all while ultimately clawing her way to a bloody form of redemption.
Not least of the surprises here is that even when “The Monster” is trying to scare you witless, its every scene insistently reaffirms its characters’ humanity.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence/terror
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood