It takes a lot to make a truly effective horror film these days. Between fan desensitization, cynicism, employment of rampant jump scares and gore the genre often has a tendency to go off track. And then there are efforts like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, which is not only an unbearably suspenseful, well drawn shocker with a stunning lead performance from Elizabeth Moss but a beautifully crafted, simplistic yet hard hitting piece of filmmaking. Moss is Cecilia, who makes a daring, hair raising escape from her evil, abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson Cohen) in an atmospheric opening sequence that sets the tone nicely. Adrian later kills himself… or does he? Considering just how nuts this guy is and how far he was willing to go to control his wife, it isn’t a stretch to believe that he’d fake his death and start stalking her like the repulsive creep he is. It doesn’t help that he’s also a millionaire optics innovator with the skills and money to build a suit that renders him invisible. It’s a lean, mean concept that has endless potential for tense, highly uneasy scenes and that’s exactly what we get. Cecilia is in a tricky spot because everyone thinks he’s dead and only she knows him well enough to believe he’d go to those lengths to keep making life miserable for her. We feel her hopelessness as each scenario plays out and when she’s finally had enough and decides to fight back… boy do we ever feel that too. Moss is utterly fantastic, never playing up drama or going into scream queen territory but rather making Cecilia a resilient, believable tough cookie that we feel for and root for. The first half of the film is the most effective, when Adrian is subtly haunting her and playing cruel tricks from beyond her field of vision, despite being right there in the room with her. The original score from Benjamin Wallfisch is a terrifying, dread filled piece that mimics the sound of blood rushing in one’s ears when confronted with danger, anxiety or trauma bubbling up. Like I said it takes a lot in a horror film to truly get to me these days, but this one pulled it off. As I left the theatre and headed home I felt like someone or something unseen was watching me, and no film has had that effect of following me out of the cinema since… well since It Follows. One of the best horror films of the past decade or so.
The idea of doppelgängers has been explored before in film, but never in a fashion quite as twisted as Jordan Peele’s Us, a furiously entertaining horror show that gets weird, wild and so refreshingly unpredictable in a genre where the climate tends to flatline with endless Conjuring universe carbon copies and what have you. There’s a ton of ideas at play here and it makes the film hard to pin down as one thing or the other, but it works beautifully as a breathless, streamlined home invasion shocker with deeply unsettling undercurrents and implications that can be read many different ways. When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) was a young girl, she had a terrifying encounter within a shadowy hall of mirrors on Santa Cruz beach, an encounter which will herald the arrival of feral versions of her, her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) as they vacation at their summer house a stone’s throw away from that very same beach. The prologue with her as a kid is set in the late 80’s and has a retro horror feel as Peele uses his favourite scary movies as both fuel and inspiration for the style on display here. The home invasion of these shadow selves is a brilliantly staged piece of white knuckle suspense and impressive physical acting, especially by Lupita as both shellshocked Adelaide and her other self Red, a growling fiend who is the only one of them that can talk. She rasps enigmatically about stuff that seems like both straightforward exposition and cryptic allegory, hinting at the secrets in store for the third act. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are flat out hilarious as the Wilson’s bickering neighbours, bringing uproarious comic relief before confronting their own set of homicidal visitors. Lupita gives the strongest performance here in both her characters, a frantic dual role knockout that holds the film in panicky distress with her wide eyes and instills deep terror with what she does to her voice, she’s a consistently brilliant actress and I love her work in this. This is clearly a passion project for Peele, the imagination on display is something else and fresh new scripts like this are always welcome for me. Some may have issues with certain things in the third act like explanation and climactic resolution, but he deliberately leaves a lot of it for us to ruminate on instead of telling us every detail about what we just saw. There is a scene where Lupita’s Red imparts some of it but it’s still somehow told in a roundabout way and not laid open bare in spark-notes fashion. Some may find this frustrating, but I loved it. This is probably the best horror film I’ve seen since 2014’s It Follows, and definitely one of the most original. A shock inducing siege thriller, an acidic jab at personal identity and a quietly discomforting look at the rifts you can see beginning to form in the world today. Great stuff.
Ron Howard usually plays it both straight and safe, never taking too many risks, never siding too much with abstraction or grey areas, and over the years this has made me somewhat of a non fan. Not a hater, simply seldom blown away or challenged by his work. With The Missing, however, he strayed from the path and brought us a dark, threatening picture of life on the frontier in all its brutal, treacherous glory. With the success of last year’s brilliant Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this beauty, as there are elements of horror and evil dancing on a thread with origin points in both films. Different altogether, but from the same elemental stew and highly reminiscent of each other. Cate Blanchett is hard bitten single mother Magdalena, trying her best to raise two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and the excellent Jenna Boyd) with only the help of her sturdy farmhand (Aaron Eckhart). One misty night, someone or something snatches Wood right out of her bed and disappears into the wilderness with her. Magdalena is raw and determined, launching a desperate search across woods and plains to find her kin. Joining her is her half breed injun father Samuel, played by an eerily convincing Tommy Lee Jones. Samuel left her years before and only re-emerges in her life for fear of being punished for forsaking his family in the beyond. Gradually he turns around and a bond is formed through the crisis, an arc which Jones nails like the pro he is. It turns out they are tracking a group of despicable human traffickers who take girls and sell them across the border into sex slavery. They are led by a mysterious witchdoctor (Eric Schweig) whose tactics border on voodoo prowess. It’s scary stuff, never outright horror, but sure aims for that with its hazy nocturnal atmosphere in which any denizen of the night could be poised behind the next thicket or cluster of trees, ready to pounce. Blanchett is tough as nails, a terrific female protagonist blessed with a mother’s love and a winchester to back it up. Jones is gruff and badass, believable as a native american and treated as a well rounded character seeking redemption in his twilight years. There’s also fine work from Steve Reevis, Clint Howard, Elizabeth Moss and a cool cameo from Val Kilmer as a sergeant who helps them out. My favourite Ron Howard film by far. Just a mean, dark genre piece that aims to thrill and chill in equal measures and comes up aces.
I recently had two viewings of Queen of Earth on successive nights and the film has stuck with me ever since. This one won’t be for everyone. It’s challenging, it’s uncompromising, and it features a riveting lead performance from the stunningly talented actress Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake) that will leave you emotionally drained by the end of the 90 minute run time. Up and coming filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (last year’s bitterly funny Listen Up Philip, which also s…tarred Moss) could do a lot worse than be wholly inspired by Robert Altman’s one of a kind masterpiece 3 Women, and even if Queen of Earth isn’t on that level (NOTHING could ever be…) I’d rather see a young talent emulating Altman as opposed to half-dozen other filmmakers I won’t mention. This is the sort of film that isn’t really “about” anything tangible, but rather, it’s an intensely internalized piece of storytelling that holds at its center the chance for an actress to go to some genuinely pained places as an artist. And it’s unquestionably one of the most unique films I’ve seen all year, a bold piece of work that feels crafted by a smart group of collaborators who knew exactly the story they wanted to tell.
There’s an unnerving quality to much of the film, due largely in part to the ominous score by Keegan DeWitt and the measured, highly stylized cinematography by Sean Price Williams. The elliptical editing by Robert Greene only intensifies the unpredictability and vulnerability being demonstrated by Moss, and the sense of uncertainty being felt by Waterston. Perry’s film centers on Catherine (Moss), a psychologically fragile woman who is still suffering the traumatic effects of her father’s recent suicide, who reconnects with an old friend (Katherine Waterston, making good on her promise from Inherent Vice) at a cabin in the woods, trying to calm her life down. But that’s not going to happen. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this isn’t going to happen. So you just watch as Moss presents the ultimate portrait of a person coming apart at the seams, unable to gather her thoughts coherently, and the way that Perry doles out implied backstory and various narrative clues demands that viewers actively engage with the film rather than passively experiencing it. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the filmmaking, for Moss, and for the overall ambition on display, but it’s a film that will likely leave many people feeling uncomfortable, if for no other reason than it literally feels like you’re a secret guest to a mental breakdown, which is something that many individuals just won’t want to deal with when deciding what movie to watch on a Friday night.