The Invisible Man (2020)

FEBRUARY 28, 2020


There's a sequence in The Invisible Man that operates a lot like the majority of A Quiet Place, where our protagonist (Elisabeth Moss) is doing several things that would normally produce sound but she has to do them in total silence, lest she be attacked, and in turn makes you the viewer not want to make a single sound (I vividly remember a lady trying desperately to quietly remove her coat for Quiet Place; I felt guilty when I shifted in my chair and it squeaked here). The inevitable moment when she DOES accidentally cause a commotion yields one of the best jolts I've experienced in quite some time, and it's all the more impressive that it's the very first sequence in the film. I didn't realize it at the time, but that the film opens this way, sans any introductions or prologue, is a key element to why the movie works as well as it does, though getting into the specifics requires spoilers so I'll get back to that in a few paragraphs (and warn you ahead of time).

Because of my undying loyalty to John Carpenter and Chevy Chase I've been making a lot of jokes about how this new movie is a slap in the face to the "original Invisible Man" (Memoirs was released exactly 28 years ago today, in fact - guess they're not superstitious), noting that they turned Chevy's character into an abusive jerk and probably never showed him chewing gum, but what I didn't realize is that Leigh Whannell's script would be ignoring the other (read: actual) version as well. It may be touted as Universal reviving its classic monster, but unlike their Wolfman remake from 2010, there are no almost no similarities to their old film, nor do they even credit HG Wells' novel with the writing credits. The title character's last name is Griffin (though the first name has changed from Jack to Adrian), but it almost seems like a little homage as opposed to a genuine attempt to present a new take on the character, and that's as close as it gets to a similarity. The science stuff is minimized, he has no allies or anyone trying to cure him, and - sorry, body count enthusiasts - he does not derail a train or cause any other massive chaos.

No, this time it's a personal, psychologically driven story that takes place almost entirely from the perspective of Cecilia (Moss), Griffin's wife who has decided to escape from him and his abusive ways (that's what she's doing in the opening scene, if you haven't connected those dots). Having hidden this pain from her only support unit (her sister and a cop whose connection to her is never quite made clear; Wiki says he's a childhood friend though), they take her word for it why she had to leave him, and she starts putting her life back together. But then he allegedly kills himself and leaves her a large inheritance, payable in monthly installments as long as she doesn't commit any crimes or be found to be mentally unfit, and that progress shatters. Within days, she is seemingly disqualified on the latter grounds, as she keeps claiming that she is being watched, and that Adrian isn't dead but has found a way to become invisible and continue menacing her. Naturally, the belief her friends had can only stretch so far - she is being gaslit by Adrian (and/or his brother, the lawyer that laid out the rules) while her friends start to wonder if she is crazy - or perhaps, was simply gaslighting them and making up an abuse story.


And this works beautifully, because we indeed never see Adrian being abusive, going only on her word that he was* and never really doubting it. It's only her say-so (and Moss' slam dunk performance) that tells us what kind of man Adrian is/was, because we never see it for ourselves, which makes this a kind of ultimate "believe women" story. Anyone who has been online for the past few years has undoubtedly seen someone reply "where's the proof?" when a celebrity is accused of this or that awful thing, because they just refuse to believe the person saying it, and here we have a heightened example - they quickly believe the abuse stories, but won't believe that he's invisible and that she's not responsible for the chaos he inflicts (using her computer to write a nasty email to her sister, stealing her portfolio out of her briefcase so she looks crazy at her job interview, etc), putting her in the same predicament as any number of real life women.

The kicker is that we know she isn't crazy, because Whannell doesn't delay that answer - we see the Invisible Man's breath forming and a knife being flung off a counter pretty early on, albeit without her seeing anything either for a while. The villain simply chooses not to let his presence be known to anyone else, so it's not a question of "is she crazy?" - Whannell just found a way to make us fully understand her mental frustration (I'd compare it to the backwards unfolding of Memento re: getting us to understand its protagonist's mind). It's sort of leveling up the scenario women have to face all the time, using the language of horror movies (and one of the bonafide "classic monsters") to - in a relatively subtle way - get doubting types in the audience to understand how vexing it can be to have no one believe you, because we get to be witness to things no one else can see (including Cecilia), and spend 90 minutes hearing everyone say it's not true. It get kind of frustrating, because that elusive "proof" has been in plain sight to us but we can't convince anyone to believe us - not unlike a woman claiming she's been abused by (name a public figure who people will defend because they don't want to believe it). It's essentially a lesson in empathy, one that will hopefully have you think twice next time you hear about abuse and your kneejerk reaction is to think the person is lying.


Luckily, if you're not in the mood to think about the abuse metaphor and just want a standard invisible man thriller, it delivers on that front as well. Due to the nature of its plot he can't quite cut loose almost right from the start like Claude Rains' Griffin did (everything has to be potentially explained as her doing), but when he does Whannell brings it, with an effective mix of lo-fi old-school techniques (i.e. gifted actors pantomiming) and some digital trickery. Nothing as state of the art as Memoirs or Hollow Man (this IS a Blumhouse film after all, so it has a small budget used efficiently, not a huge budget wasted on nonsense), but there are some very nice visual FX shots scattered throughout, such as when she tosses a paint can at him and the splatter only reveals a small percent of his body. There's also a fun long take sequence where various security guards keep showing up, seeing the chaos that occurred before they got there, assuming it's her doing, then getting the surprise of their lives (which may be about to end) before the process repeats, making you wonder just how many people need to show up before anyone believes her invisible man stories. And he gets a ton of mileage out of merely letting his camera drift or cut to an empty corner of the room, without ever telling us whether or not Adrian is actually there (I mean, the jerk's gotta go eat and pee and sleep sometimes, right? We're never told for sure).

The cast is also great across the board. Moss is in pretty much every frame and she absolutely nails it (she's come a long way from The Attic, in which she also played a woman who believes someone is trying to kill her, funnily enough), but her supporting cast is no slouch either. Aldis Hodge continues to impress, playing the only decent man in the movie, and I was instantly charmed by Harriet Dyer as Cecelia's sister, who lands the movie's best line when the two go out for dinner and she shoos the annoying waiter away without missing a beat. As for Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the title character, he naturally doesn't get too much screentime, but he makes the most of what little he has - we don't need to see the abuse to recognize a man that has impulse issues. And if you're a fan of Whannell's Upgrade (and why wouldn't you be?) you'll enjoy both a nice Easter Egg to that film's world as well as a brief turn by Benedict "Fisk" Hardie as a potential employer.

This film began life as one of Universal's stupid "Dark Universe" movies, and would have starred Johnny Depp (and maybe Tom Cruise and/or Russell Crowe stopping by), and I can't help but think with Depp in the role they would have copied Carpenter/Chevy and shown him as often as possible (either through disguises/makeup or just Carpenter's seemingly exclusive idea to just trust the audience to remember he's supposed to be invisible), and - if Mummy is any indication - it would have been a supernaturally charged action movie instead of the actual horror movie we want to see with these characters. So while I never root for a movie to fail, I'm glad Mummy tanked, forcing them to abandon that idea and start over (as for Depp, well, the reason they'd want to get rid of him too is a rich irony I suppose, given the movie's themes), because what we got instead is a suspenseful, timely horror-thriller that maximizes the potential for its villain and proves once and for all that the classic monsters can indeed be brought back for modern audiences when placed in the right hands.

What say you?

*He angrily chases after her when she tries to escape, and smashes the window of her sister's car trying to get her to stop, but considering she drugged him to get away in the first place makes it a sort of gray area example. From her sister's perspective they're basically attacking each other, since she wasn't informed about the abuse.


Brahms: The Boy II (2020)

FEBRUARY 21, 2020


As a fan/defender of 2016's The Boy, I was excited and a bit vindicated when STX announced a sequel in 2018, and have been patiently waiting for it to come out ever since. Alas, four years is a long damn time to wait for this sort of thing as it's not exactly Star Wars or Avengers; I think 18 months is really the max that any studio should wait before putting out a sequel to a mid-level hit such as that one was, because people just forget about it. And that's especially true in this case, because the first film relied on a big twist in the third act to make up for what was a fairly slow first 75 minutes, making it the sort of movie that doesn't lend itself to repeat viewings. Well, at long last, Brahms: The Boy II is here and... oof.

In my review of the first film I was careful not to give away its twist, but it's been four years so I'm going to do that now as I assume you know or simply don't care: Brahms the doll was not alive, but Brahms the thought-dead boy was still alive and now an adult living in the walls of the manor for the past twenty years, turning the film into a low-key masked slasher film for its final reel. To me, that was what made the movie work as well as it did, as you spend the entire thing wondering if the main character was going crazy or if the doll really was alive like Chucky or the Puppet Master toys, only to discover that it was a third option you likely didn't consider. But now that we know that, how do you do a sequel that focuses on the doll again, since we live in a world where the Annabelle sequels clean up but the masked slasher movies tank? Apparently, the answer that the creative team and producers - all of whom return from the first film, mind you - came up with is "Fine, the doll is alive."

So Brahms the flesh and blood man does not return in this film, nor does it fully embrace the slasher-ness that it had to hide last time around. Instead, a new family led by Katie Holmes moves in to the guest house next door to the original big mansion, their son finds the doll in the woods that separate the two homes, starts acting creepy with it, etc. So any fan of the original is just waiting for the real Brahms to reveal himself, but he never does, though at least some of that unwelcome surprise is dulled by the 40 minute mark or so, as that's around when we see the doll move (only slightly, to be fair) in one of the rare scare scenes that aren't the result of Holmes' character having a nightmare. Worse (spoilers ahead, because I don't care this time), the backstory we get a little while later retcons the original, chalking the real Brahms' behavior up to possession by the doll, and then going back and showing how that his family was just one of several to live there and meet with tragedy, always blaming the doll for the murders and accidents.

Quite frankly, this sort of revisionist approach sucks, and stinks of the same over-complicated mythology that made the first two Annabelle movies such a slog (the third, where they finally just let Annabelle be creepy and put her alongside other evil things, is the best). A disturbed child attaching himself to a doll is interesting, but a doll continuously possessing family after family over a hundred plus years is not. It just feels like a way to turn this into an ongoing franchise (with prequel possibilities), which is somewhat expected for any horror sequel (no one wants to stop with just part 2) but not if it had to come at the expense of what worked about the original. It feels like jumping from the first Halloween to Curse of Michael Myers, but worse because at least John Carpenter and Debra Hill didn't have anything to do with that one. Why do the people who made The Boy suddenly want to shit all over The Boy?

Making things even more frustrating is the fact that William Brent Bell and Stacey Menear seemingly lay the groundwork for another real-world explanation for the film's events. In the opening sequence we see Katie Holmes come home from work, activate a security system, and then facetime with her husband about how he will be working late again. So when she's woken up in the middle of the night by a pair of robbers, one could reasonably deduce that the hubby hired some guys (or is one of the masked robbers himself, having lied about working) to attack his wife in order to get an insurance payout, or even kill her to be with another woman (with the kid being a wild card), as evil movie husbands often do. Other events in the movie that are chalked up to the doll (or the kid) could have been the husband (in fact in one instance it would make a hell of a lot more sense than what we're ultimately told), and had they gone that route, it would have allowed for another twist (albeit a less surprising one) and retained the established "no supernatural hooey" rule from the first.

But no, dad's not an evil jerk, he really does just work late and we are never given an explanation for how the two robbers managed to bypass the security system that Bell and his editor (Brian Berdan, also returning from the original) took the time to establish, or what they wanted, or why they tried to kill Holmes (she actually seems dead*) but left the kid alone. As for why the man is conveniently absent every time Brahms does something naughty, I can only guess Bell/Menear wanted us to suspect him so they could pull an inverse of the first film's reveal (so going from "not a ghost - a real killer!" to "not a killer - a real ghosts"), but it doesn't work on any satisfying level, and it's never a good idea to retcon an earlier movie unless you know for a fact you're improving on it. It's not the first time a horror sequel felt made by people who never saw the previous entry, but it's certainly the first time it was actually made by the exact same people.

Honestly, I can't think of anything that works here. The young lad is effectively creepy when he starts dressing as Brahms, and I can give them a bit of credit for allowing a child to get injured in the movie's only real horrific act (even though it was spoiled on the trailer), but a few sprinkled bright spots can't make up for a film that's somehow even more slowly paced than the first one (unforgivable for a sequel) and actively goes out of its way to sweep its events and reveals under the rug. I could maybe just roll my eyes and forget about it if this was The Boy IX: Brahms Goes To Hell and they were grasping at straws, but this is only part 2 to a movie that didn't need a sequel in the first place. My unending affinity for Katie "Joey Potter" Holmes isn't nearly enough to overcome the film's uninteresting narrative decisions, near total lack of suspense, and - worst of all - seeming desire to tell me I was wrong to appreciate the first film's lack of supernatural elements.

What say you?

*When they cut to a few months later and Holmes was up and about, I spent a few minutes thinking this might be a Sixth Sense thing and she'd be a ghost the whole time, but it's quickly clear she's not as the kid's shrink addresses them both. She's just left with headaches from the ordeal, presumably to allow us to think she's just cracking up. But upon rewatching the first one this week as a refresher, I realized that the two main males in the movie were named Malcolm and Cole - the same as the two leads in Shyamalan's classic, so as dumb as it would have been to pull that twist here, at least "they both pay homage to The Sixth Sense" would give the two Boy films more in common than they actually have now.


The Pack (1977)

FEBRUARY 17, 2020


You never know what you might be in for with a post-Jaws killer animal movie. They might lean too heavily into aping Spielberg's classic, leaving you to spend the entire viewing wishing you were just watching Roy, Robert, and Richard do their thing instead. Or they might try too hard to make it stand out, resulting in an unsatisfying mess that serves no master. But some of them hit that sweet spot, where you're able to get into it enough to forget that it was probably greenlit by someone saying "What if Jaws but with a (different animal)?", and I was happy to discover that The Pack falls into that category.

The movie has been on my radar for years, but has never been given a decent DVD release (only a full frame one from Warner Archive) so never got around to it, settling for... er, The Pack (2015), which is not a remake but has a similar plot. I also bought a paperback book called The Pack a while back, thinking it was the one that inspired this movie, only to discover that it was a different one which had an even more similar plot (the one I got was written by William Essex; the one this movie was based on is by David Fisher). So I was happy to finally get a chance to see the one I wanted, on 35mm at the New Beverly, via slightly faded but otherwise solid print and with a bunch of good folks next to and around me. All that was left was to see if it was worth the wait.

And it was! It was thankfully not very Jaws-like, focusing on about ten people instead of just a few, isolating the action to a single weekend, and (best of all) staying away from any kind of "close the beaches" type subplot, opting for something closer to survival horror as they get trapped on the island and a storm knocks out their radio tower. Even better, there were no evil humans to distract away from the true threat of the feral dogs, so even when it briefly becomes a Night of the Living Dead/Assault on Precinct 13 kind of thing where our heroes have holed up in a house as the dogs try to get in on all sides, it's all about them working together and protecting one another instead of in-fighting.

Which is a good thing, because the dogs themselves are well trained but rarely get the opportunity to display much on-screen carnage. The body count isn't particularly high, and of that group, only two people are shown being attacked - the others die off-screen or basically get themselves killed as the dogs chase them without ever really interacting. If director Robert Clouse opted to make up for it with some asshole humans, it would weaken the overall threat that the dogs still posed, I think. Thanks to the relatively big cast of characters, it's always pretty tense because pretty much all of them could be a goner. There's hero Joe Don Baker, his girlfriend, their kids (one each from previous relationships), three local guys, and a group of city folk in "town" for a fishing excursion - and this being the '70s, you can't exactly be assured even the kids would be safe (I already mentioned Precinct 13, if you recall). There's an attack on the girlfriend at around the halfway point that really had me going (visions of The Car danced through my head), and that uncertainty lasted throughout the film's tight 95 minute runtime.

Even more surprising: Baker was pretty good! I'm more familiar with him as a heavy (Fletch, Living Daylights) or kind of a sidekick/comic relief type (Goldeneye/Tomorrow Never Dies, Mars Attacks), and I've never seen Walking Tall so when he's the hero I'm used to a guy and two robots making fun of him the whole time ("Mitchell."), but I found him to be a solid everyman type here. His character's job as a marine biologist never really comes into play (despite the island setting, he never even steps into the water), but he's a good dad to the two kids, loving to the girlfriend, and capable when it comes to fighting the dogs - it doesn't require an action hero type to play, just someone who can pull off those things when necessary, without looking silly.

The rest of the cast is good too, particularly Richard B. Shull as Baker's right hand man, who has the best possible role in one of these things: the guy you are absolutely sure will die and keeps getting in the thick of it, making you worry about him more than anyone else. I wish I could say the same for RG Armstrong, who is always great but has kind of a nothing role as the other island guy, who gets in a few good lines at the expense of the city people but otherwise serves no function and doesn't even get an actual final scene - his character rows away for help, has a heart attack or stroke, and gets rescued - but since Baker and the others take care of the dogs themselves and the movie ends there, it's not even clear if he ever woke up and told the guys who rescued him to send help to the island. I don't think he ever even encounters a dog! Also, if you're an Office Space or Cheers fan, you will enjoy a young Paul Willson (one of the Bobs in the former, Paul on the latter) as Tommy, the son of the city guy who just wants to read and look at birds even though his dad's secretary is throwing herself at him (at the dad's request, creepily enough).

As for the mutts, they are a mixed group, not all pit bulls or dobermans or whatever. The main one is a mutt, there's a Collie (Lassie, no!), a labrador, etc - in fact of all the common "big dog" types the only one I *didn't* notice was a St. Bernard, which is kind of funny considering how they would get a lock on evil movie dog breeds just a few years later. But there are also two good dogs to care about so you know the movie isn't just total anti-pooch. One is Baker's dog, who gets hurt early on but recovers and protects his people whenever the need arises. The other belongs to a vacationing family who returns to the city, a minor subplot that clarifies where all the dogs come from: people get dogs for their summer vacations there, and then leave them behind when it's time to return home, figuring they'll be found by someone else. Alas, they're not, and they turn feral and try to eat Joe Don Baker and his friends. Anyway, this dog wanders around a bit, joins the evil dogs for a while but never does anything bad as far as we know, and (spoiler for 45 year old movie ahead) is spared by Baker, who gives it some crackers in the film's closing scene, producing the greatest freeze frame to credits I've seen in ages.

Besides being full-frame, I assume the Warner Archive DVD is of decent quality if you want to see it for yourself, but hopefully Scream Factory or one of their peers can get their hands on it and do it right. It's not a masterpiece, but it's a really solid suspenser with a likable cast that milks its premise for all it's worth. Apparently it has very little to do with the book, which is fitting considering the aforementioned "no, different The Pack" confusion, but what they come up with worked really well for what it was, and was worth the drive to the New Bev (and presumably better than Fantasy Island, which is what I was originally going to see until seeing the Bev tweet that the movie was playing), as I usually only go when I can head over directly from work (15 min drive) instead of home (45-50 min drive). And I had a delicious ginger beer while I watched! A victory all around!

What say you?

P.S. The theater showed a truly strange instructional film about eating beforehand, which was quite fitting as it reminded me of the ones they would show on MST3k ("Mitchell.") when the movie was too short to fill the two hour block. It had nothing to do with dogs, but it starred Robert Benchley - grandfather of Peter, which I assume was the reason it was chosen. I was unable to find it online, but rest assured if it ever appeared on MST3k there wouldn't be much need for them to quip, as it was plenty funny on its own.


FTP: The Mole People (1956)

FEBRUARY 3, 2020


It's always strange to watch an MST3k'd movie for the first time without the wisecracks, as it leaves me with a conflicting "I've seen this movie a million times/I've never seen it before" feeling, making it interesting and somewhat boring at the same time. Such was the case with The Mole People, an episode I've seen far more than average since it was one of the first I had on tape (as previously explained, I never had Comedy Central until long after the show switched to "Sci-Fi" (now Syfy), so season 8 was my first real trip to the Satellite of Love); there were obviously lines and plot points that I never quite heard before as my focus was on the jokes, but there were just as many lines of dialogue where it felt odd not to hear the response that had burned into my memory ("a total load..." in particular, for those familiar with the episode).

But to be fair, it's not exactly a great movie. As explained on the accompanying retrospective piece on Scream Factory's blu (which includes the MST3k episode for good measure), this was one of the first movies to be made under Universal's new initiative to save money on the (already lower budget!) horror and sci-fi films by using stock footage whenever possible, and... well, oof. The plot concerns an expedition and a mountain climb, and pretty much every exterior shot is noticeably taken from something else before cutting to John Agar and the others on the tighter, not very convincing sets. And all of this stuff is in the first 20-25 minutes, before they enter the underground city (where there are no exteriors, obviously), so it kind of starts the movie off on the wrong foot, looking like the exact kind of movie that should be lampooned by a pair of talking robots.

It does improve from there, thankfully, once Agar and his buddies (well, fellow humans - he never seems to care when one of them dies) find the superior race of albino Sumerians as well as the titular Mole People, who are the monsters that would scare kids and would ultimately be turned into model kits and Halloween costumes. Naturally, he gets caught in the middle of their ongoing war, but while there's an Eloi/Morlock kind of thing going on, in this version the "Morlocks" (the Mole People) are more sympathetic, as they're beaten and starved as slaves by the dickish Sumerians. This, naturally, diminishes the "horror" aspect of the movie, but since it's all so goofy it doesn't quite land as proper sci-fi either, making it an OK enough timekiller but not much more.

Its biggest crime, however, is reminding me of Battlefield Earth, as both films opt to make their villains look hilariously stupid and in turn severely reduce any menace they post. In BE it was the notorious "they must love to eat rats" nonsense, here it's that they put all of their stock in Agar's flashlight, believing it to be fire from the gods and more powerful than any of them (the mole people and Sumerians alike, having lived in darkness for their entire lives, are basically blinded by the thing). So their plan is to steal the flashlight then have Agar killed, only for things to go awry because a. the flashlight died before they even got it and b. they didn't bother to check it prior to it being needed. It's one thing when one of the umpteen victims in a slasher movie point a gun at the killer and fire only to realize it's empty before they die - turning the basic scenario around on the villain and staging the entire climax around it is just laughable.

Also, it has a bit of a bummer ending, which I thought was rather ballsy of them, only to discover that (spoiler for 65 year old movie ahead!) the reason they killed off Agar's love interest was because, as a "Sumerian" (played by a blonde American woman), Universal feared audiences would be upset about the idea of an interracial relationship. So that's icky (not to mention harsh - why couldn't they - gasp! - simply be friends?), and doesn't help the movie's modern appeal any. The MST3k gang certainly watched worse movies over the years, but I wouldn't exactly say this one didn't deserve the treatment; it's got some old Saturday matinee charms for sure, but there are far better 1950s horror/sci-fi blends to choose from even in the relatively limited Scream Factory library of such things (The Fly and, fittingly, This Island Earth among them). Stick with those, or watch this one with the 'bots to increase your entertainment value. "Down, down..."

What say you?


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget