‘The Invisible Man’ Has a Scary Number of Tricks in Its Arsenal

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman

Director: Leigh Whannell

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: R for Deadly Weapons Deployed Unpredictably

Release Date: February 28, 2020

In the immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And when it comes to loosely adapting H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, one can give oneself a lot of leeway in terms of how much magic the titular fellow uses to render himself invisible. Writer-director Leigh Whannell (a veteran primarily of the Insidious series) makes it pretty clear which side of the magic-technology pendulum he’s swinging on by letting us know that his invisible man is “a world leader in the field of optics.” But while we are assured that there is a scientific basis for these strange happenings, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of movie magic. One shocking set piece in which a steak knife suddenly starts floating in the air underscores the power of good old-fashioned well-timed editing. Then there are the moments of actors getting thrashed about by seemingly nothing, and it amazingly does not come off as silly, thanks to whatever combination of camera tricks, CGI manipulation, and precise physicality is employed.

The Invisible Man demonstrates the far-reaching power of abusive relationships. They do not just tear apart the people within them, they can also break down anyone who comes into contact with their deceit and manipulation. The film begins with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) escaping the mansion where she lives with her thoroughly controlling husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). While crashing at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house, she is initially barely able to walk out to the mailbox until she learns that Adrian has killed himself. But soon enough, a series of inexplicable occurrences convince Cecilia that Adrian actually faked his death and has now become the ultimate stalker.

Everyone in front of and behind the camera takes their cues from paranormal films in which the victim of supernatural phenomena is dismissed as suffering from the hallucinations of mental illness. As Cecilia notes, that is the profound insidiousness of an abusive relationship at work, as the abuser does everything he can to make the victim look like she’s crazy. This approach also works fantastically on a formal level, as Cecilia struggles to convince the people around her that Adrian is right there when they are in the utmost danger. She is not asking them to believe anything beyond the physical realm, but rather, to sniff out a high-level illusion. Not only is Adrian invisible, he’s also apparently soundproof, odor-free, and otherwise imperceptible. I had to wonder more than once: where and when does he eat and excrete? That’s not a criticism, just a further illustration of how much he renders himself untraceable. A supervillain this inventive does not come around too often, and it is quite the catharsis when his deception is exposed.

The Invisible Man is Recommended If You Like: Monster scientists, sleek modern mansions rendered as haunted houses, overwhelming horror scores, comeuppance for abusers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Diazepam Pills

Only a Truly Demented Mind Could Adapt ‘Fantasy Island’ Into a Profoundly Inexplicable Horror Flick

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CREDIT: Columbia/Sony Pictures

Starring: Michael Peña, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Portia Doubleday, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen, Michael Rooker, Parisa Fitz-Henley

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Stabbings, a Little Bit of Gunfire, One F-Bomb

Release Date: February 14, 2020

Fantasy Island is the most unapologetically nuts movie I’ve seen in quite a while, and … I kinda loved it. It’s ostensibly based on the late 70s/early 80s TV show of the same name, which had one of those “exactly what it says on the tin” premises. Each episode, guests would arrive on an island where, for a price, they would be allowed to live out a fantasy of theirs. I have never seen an episode in its entirety, but based on clips I’ve seen, the film, which scooches the “be careful what you wish for” setup into full-on horror, feels like a very liberal adaptation. Or at least, it must be, right? Somebody surely would have told me at some point during my thirty-plus years on this Earth if the show were this unhinged. Because what we’ve got in theaters now feels like the result of an all-night bender in which some folks were like, “Hey, remember that weirdly iconic high-concept show from a few decades ago? What if it were a little more … twisted?”

Michael Peña takes over for Ricardo Montalbán as Mr. Roarke, the island’s proprietor who guides the guests through their fantasies. He welcomes a quintet of thrill-seekers: the relatively nondescript trio of Melanie (Lucy Hale), Gwen (Maggie Q), and Patrick (Austin Stowell) as well as fratty stepbrothers Brax (Ryan Hansen) and JD (Jimmy O. Yang). The latter’s fantasy is simultaneously the most enjoyable and the most stereotypically indulgent. All they want to do is lounge around by the pool with a bunch of hot babes and studs as they yell out party-hearty bromides like “Fantasy Fricking Island!” It’s so cranked up to 11 that it feels like self-parody except for the fact that Hansen and Yang are comedy vets who know how to calibrate that over-the-topness just so. This is a very silly movie.

As for the others, Melanie wants revenge on an old bully from school (Portia Doubleday), Patrick wants to live up to the example of his hero soldier father, and Gwen wants a re-do with an ex-boyfriend who proposed to her. They all assume that their experiences are something like highly sophisticated virtual reality or live-action role-playing (despite Roarke’s insistence on the legitimacy of it all), so they roll with it when dead loved ones and other impossibilities start popping up. With the just-too-perfect nature of everything, it’s clear that we’ll eventually get an explanation of how Roarke is really pulling it off. You might have a sneaking suspicion that that explanation will be deeply stupid, but (for me at least) that’s part of the fun.

So here’s the deal: if your favorite part of Lost was all the mystical mumbo-jumbo about how the island itself was basically sentient and wish that that formula could be applied to any media that takes place on a remote tropical island, then Fantasy Island is definitely for you. If you would also like a hundred twists that gradually make less and less sense piled on top of each other, you need to go see a psychologist immediately, but also, this movie is for you, and also also, you and I are kindred spirits and we should be friends. Writer-director Jeff Wadlow, I don’t know what you ingested or what exists within the core of your soul that led you to take us on this journey, but whatever it is, I salute you!

Fantasy Island is Recommended If You Like: The most fantastical elements of Lost crossed with the glossiness of modern horror and a dash of the sadism of Saw, all mixed up in a cocaine-fueled blender

Grade: 3 out of 5 Regrets

Movie Review: Teenagers Who Just Want to Have Fun Get Caught Up in a Generation-Spanning Revenge Plot in ‘Ma,’ a Tonally Wild and Ambitious Horror Mash-Up

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, Kyanna Simone Simpson

Director: Tate Taylor

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R for A Multitude of Torturous Weapons, Sloppy Teen Partying, and Deeply Disturbing Secrets

Release Date: May 31, 2019

In terms of how closely its advertising matches the actual product, Ma fits in one of the most satisfying of cinematic molds. It is very much the movie that the trailers have promised you, but it is also oh so much more. I am reluctant to go into any more detail because of how satisfied I was to discover everything as it was revealed to me. Even my “Recommended If You Like” section below is a bit of a land mine, as the mere mention of predecessors that Ma resembles could constitute a spoiler. But suffice it to say that in this stew of theoretically clashing flavors, Octavia Spencer is more than able to handle all the tones and motivations she is required to convey.

It should go without saying that if you’re a high school student, it’s probably not the best idea to party in the basement of a random woman who you know only because she buys you alcohol. But teenagers are known for making boneheaded decisions, and Sue Ann’s (aka Ma’s) house seems a lot safer than the alternative of drinking in the woods. Also, these kids don’t realize that they are characters in a horror movie and thus being lured into a trap. Furthermore, Sue Ann is remarkably savvy about understanding the way young people communicate, both in person and through social media. Just when you think she is going to go in for the kill right away, you realize that she is actually playing the tangled, multifarious long game. Ultimately, she becomes reckless in ways that threaten her upper hand but that keep the audience satisfyingly stunned and entertained. This is a wild, risk-taking movie that takes inspiration from plenty of classics that have come before it but that also stands on its own as a truly unique and deadly specimen.

Ma is Recommended If You Like: Carrie, Misery, Saw, Sharp Objects

Grade: 4 out of 5 Cases of Booze

This Is a Movie Review: A Classic Game Turns Deadly in the Sloppy But Intermittently Effective ‘Truth or Dare’

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CREDIT: Peter Iovino/Universal Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Hayden Szeto, Landon Liboiron, Nolan Gerard Funk, Sophia Ali, Sam Lerner, Aurora Perrineau

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Douchey College Behavior, Serious Alcoholism, Disturbing Secrets, Freaky Images, Sudden Broken Bones and Gunfire, and One Quick Sex Scene

Release Date: April 13, 2018

It takes a while for Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare to really get going. At first it’s just about a group of college friends hanging out in Mexico on spring break, which is fair enough because these movies are often about attractive young people whose lives get upended by some ancient curse. But you would think there would be a little more foreboding about the dangers to come. Instead, we get the most banal opening credits sequence in a good long while, which is effectively just a social media vacation slideshow that is livened up in no way at all with genre signifiers. At least the first third gives us Ronnie (The Goldbergs’ Sam Lerner), the ultimate parody of a fratty interloper, who delivers beautiful poetry like, “I can’t say no to shots. Everyone knows that.”

Thankfully director Jeff Wadlow and his fellow screenwriters figure out how to make their premise truly unsettling about halfway through. The stakes of the titular game, cursed by a demonic presence, are literally life-or-death: tell the truth, or you die; complete your dare, or you die. Trouble is, the challenges can be just as lethal as the consequences. When these kids are not told to literally kill someone, they are asked to reveal secrets that might drive their friends to kill themselves. There are Final Destination-style dynamics of victims being picked off one by one here, but the methods used to terrorize them are uniquely effective. This is the horror of confronting painful secrets that can lead to irreparable rifts between loved ones. On top of that, there is the creepy signature visual effect involving faces contorted into uncanny valley-style bulging eyes and unnaturally stretched-lips smiles.

While it is appreciably unsettling, Truth or Dare could have taken more care to grapple with its morality. It confronts the eternal dilemma of choosing between saving a small group of loved ones and a larger group of strangers, as well as the conflict between self-interest versus protecting others who may not be deserving of such care. Olivia (Lucy Hale) is both the narrative and moral center. She gives money to the homeless and professes that she would save the larger group, while dealing with her own feelings for the boyfriend of her best friend, who is constantly cheating on him. This all leads to an ending that is undeniably devastating that but might just betray the message that Olivia has attempted to demonstrate throughout. It is fine when a horror flick ends on a sour note, but it is not exactly playing fair when it is such a stark departure from what has come before.

Truth or Dare is Recommended If You Like: It Follows But Wish It Were More Like Traditional Friday Night Multiplex Horror (For Good and For Ill), The Ring, Final Destination

Grade: 3 out of 5 Creepy Smiles