Dominic Monaghan Brings The Creepy Goods In 'Pet' [SXSW Review]

You know the drill, horror fans. A Creepy Stalker Type becomes obsessed with an Innocent Young Woman. He follows her, learns everything about her, and abducts her. And then the real horror begins. And you can predict the beats as they come, right on cue, one right after another.

Pet knows you know these beats. It knows that you think it's a certain kind of movie and it lulls you into complacency. Yeah, you've seen this before. But you haven't, because Pet zigs when you expect it to zag and takes a sharp left turn into a deep well of pitch black crazy when you least expect it. Pet is another grotesque "captive woman" movie, but it's so much smarter and cleverer than your average horror flick. It blindsides you. It earns its nasty moments.

Much of what makes Pet work can be attributed to the two leads. Dominic Monaghan is hugely effective as Seth, a soft-spoken "nice guy" loner who simply cannot understand why an old flame doesn't respond to his affections. So, naturally, he abducts her and imprisons her in a cage beneath the animal shelter where he works as a lowly maintenance guy. But Holly is no normal victim and no damsel in distress. Ksenia Solo's sly performance lets you know that something is up with her, but the exact nature of that something is liable to make jaws drop. The meat of the film is the ever-changing dynamic between these two, as the nature of her imprisonment takes on new meanings, and the evolving relationship between captor and captive, which starts out twisted and progressively finds new ways of growing more and more unhealthy.

Jeremy Slater's screenplay is smart stuff, preying on our pre-existing horror movie knowledge to take us off guard whenever possible. Pet is more than its various twists and turns, though. That we feel sympathy for the two lead characters, that we like them and loathe them in the same scene, makes it a gleefully uncomfortable experience. The extended dialogue scenes, as each character attempts to justify their actions to the other, are appropriately squirmy.

But when the film really lets loose, it delivers in the ways you'd hope it would. Director Carles Torrens, who previously helmed the hugely underrated Apartment 143, has a strong eye for this genre. His work is patient but populist, building tension and providing chilling releases on a crowd-pleasing schedule. His focus on character, even when violence lurks on the edge of every frame, allows the actual bloodletting to have real impact. By initially building a world and characters that feel plausible, Torrens is able to escalate the story to heights that would have seemed absurd in the opening moments.

The film is best summed up by its best moment: a prolonged and grimly funny murder scene that serves as shocking showcase for just how hard it is to commit a murder. Being the hero or villain of a horror movie requires a certain level competency not always awarded to the characters in Pet.

Pet is finely made and finely acted and finely written, which immediately puts it on a level higher than the vast majority of horror movies floating around this crowded genre. But for all of its subversions and its affecting performances and even its scenes of grisly violence, it's never more than a good time at the movies, a machine built to elicit reactions from a late-night crowd of thrill seekers. Pet is a purely textual film – peel back its skin and you'll find blood and sinew, but little to chew on. Any observations about men taking advantage of women (and vice versa) are surface-level. Everything exists to further the plot, all the way to the grim conclusion.

And that's perfectly fine. Pet is a cut above the average horror film, a smart example of how to re-arrange various tropes to create something fresh. It demands to be watched with a bowl of popcorn, after midnight, alongside someone who gets queasy at the sight of blood. This is what the horror genre is all about.

/Film rating: 7/10