Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of us are living our lives. With many either working from home or otherwise stuck inside in an attempt to "flatten the curve," a lot of folks are turning to their trusty streaming services to stay entertained while in self-imposed quarantine. Thankfully, many streaming services have plenty of new content ready to be released in the next few months (if you haven't started Tiger King on Netflix yet...you're missing out), and there are few wells of content quite as deep as Disney's.

The latest original film on Disney's streaming service, Disney+, is Stargirl, an adaptation of Jerry Spinelli's popular young adult novel of the same name. It was a novel I was quite taken with when I was younger, its message of embracing your idiosyncrasies and celebrating the things that made you different resonating deeply with my teenage self. Watching the film adaptation some 15 years laters lands a little differently, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. In fact what fascinates me about films aimed at teenagers that celebrate non-conformity is, well, how conformist they ultimately are.

Director Julia Hart (Fast Color) brings some lovely grace notes to this story of an unusual girl that calls herself Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) who moves into a boring town and shakes up the lives of the students of Mica High School. She leaves a special imprint on Leo (Graham Verchere), who has spent his entire life trying not to stand out. The two couldn't be more opposite, but soon Stargirl helps Leo embrace his own unique spirit, and inspires the entire school to look at the world in new ways, revitalizing the tiny town and leaving an indelible imprint that none of them will ever forget.

In other words, Stargirl is absolutely the prototypical "manic pixie dream girl" who's more of a device than an actual person. She's "strange" simply because she wears mismatching colors and plays the ukulele. And catalyst that eventually causes the school to turn on her is that she tried to do something nice for someone. Perhaps it's the rose-colored glasses through which I view the novel and its effect on my 18-year-old self, but Stargirl the film lacks the aching melancholy that made the book such a lovely and elusive thing.

On the other hand, the two young leads are appealing, and Hart does manage to find some lovingly grounded moments between the two of them that eschews the more manic sensibilities of your typical Disney teen drama. Yet it's hard to shake the familiarity of it all, its generic design and construction sitting very comfortably alongside the multitude of similar films currently streaming on Disney+. It's a mildly charming way to pass the time, but it feels like empty calories, a film light on real drama or conflict whose central premise doesn't really stand up to a lot of scrutiny. Was the book like this? Or was I just younger and less discerning? After seeing the film adaptation, my nostalgic side is afraid to go back and find out. It may be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon stuck inside, but its themes of being unique and true to yourself feel lost in a film that's trying so desperately to fit in.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


STARGIRL | Directed by Julia Hart | Stars Grace VanderWaal, Graham Verchere, Giancarlo Esposito, Maximiliano Hernández, Karan Brar, Annacheska Brown | Rated PG for mild thematic elements | Now streaming exclusively on Disney+

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Venus Xtravaganza in Jennie Livingston's PARIS IS BURNING.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Drag culture has become so mainstream in recent years that it's almost easy to take for granted, forgetting than in the not-so-distant past it was a mostly underground form of entertainment held in underground bars where gay men and trans women could be themselves.

Consider, for a moment, the implications of Jennie Livingston's seminal queer documentary, Paris is Burning, a portrait of New York's drag ball scene of the 1980s, and its importance in the gay community of the time - specifically the black and latinx queer community. Released in 1990 in a country still running on the fumes of the Reagan era and the AIDS crisis still very much an every day reality, Paris is Burning is at once hopeful and tragic, a look behind the sequined curtain of a culture that was still very much hidden in the shadows, and the profound effect it had on the men and women who adorned its halls, wearing everything from nightgowns to suits - serving "realness" nightly while the straight world moved along around them unaware.

At a time when "RuPaul's Drag Race" is a mainstream hit and drag queens regularly attend "Drag Queen Story Hours" at local libraries, the time of Paris is Burning may seem like ancient history. But these things are still met with controversy even today, and Livingston's fly-on-the-wall examination of recent history is a potent reminder of both how far we've come and how far we still have to go. Consider the story of Venus Xtravaganza, a plucky young Puerto Rican trans woman whose dreams of getting married in a white gown are cut down when she is tragically murdered near the film's end. Her death is a sobering reminder of the dangers of being queer in America not only in the 1980s but in 2020, when murders of trans women of color are still commonplace. Consider also the fact that "RuPaul's Drag Race" controversially excludes trans women from competition, favoring cis gay men instead. But here she is embraced - there's no gatekeeping in these halls, just celebration of gender and sexuality in all of its infinite variations. In some ways this haven feels even more progressive than our own time in its acceptance without question of each character's identity, be it feminine, masculine, something in between, or something different every night.

The film also introduces us to Dorian Corey, an aging drag queen who dispenses stately pearls of wisdom while applying eye makeup and lamenting the younger generations ignorance of the great Hollywood divas of the past, Octavia Saint Laurent, a transgender woman who aspires to a modeling career, and Pepper LeBeija, whose cheeky insights lead us further into the world of the Harlem drag balls. It's almost like gazing into the world of the Weimar Era Germany, a world of dazzling decadence that forms a kind of oasis in the midst of great turmoil, where queer men and women are free to be themselves.

Yet its celebratory air is tinged with tragedy. Haunted by the specter of AIDS and the murder of Venus Xtravaganza, Paris is Burning is both an exuberant portrait of gay culture and queer defiance during a time when visibility was low and discrimination was high, and a deeply moving exploration of the lives of people who were forced to create their own families and networks of support in a world that didn't try or want to understand them. In the ensuing years so many ideas introduced here have entered the popular lexicon. Even straight people have appropriated words like "shade," "voguing," and "realness" (a reference to the verisimilitude of one's drag ensemble), and Paris is Burning documents their origins in the black and latinx drag ball scene, making the film not only a classic of queer cinema but a touchstone of LGBT culture. This may not be where it all began, but it's an essential document of a very specific point in history, when AIDS was ravaging  the community and the culture stood on on the precipice of a popular coming of out of its own, these queens dared to be themselves by becoming someone else for a brief shining moment under the glaring lights of a Harlem nightclub; and their honesty, their audacity, and their unvarnished soul-baring captured by Livingston is a kind of collective realness that can't be faked.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.


DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES 
  • New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Jennie Livingston, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New conversation between Livingston, ball community members Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris 
  • Over an hour of never-before-seen outtakes Audio commentary from 2005, featuring Livingston, ball community members Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja, and film editor Jonathan Oppenheim 
  • New interview with LGBT film historian Jenni Olson 
  • Episode of The Joan Rivers Show from 1991, featuring Livingston and ball community members Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Ninja Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and a 1991 review by poet Essex Hemphill

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Pre-Code era Hollywood, those glorious few years between the advent of sound in 1927 and the adoption of the restrictive Hays Code in 1934, has always had a reputation for being a naughty free-for-all of vice and sin. While the films were still somewhat restricted by social mores of the time (at least compared modern standards) there's something arguably more loose, unrestricted, and fresh about them that is unmistakable - a willingness to take risks and explore subjects in more explicit ways that simply wasn't possible after the adoption of the Production Code.

Rouben Mamoulian's The Song of Songs (1933) is one such film, a delightfully risqué love story about a virginal girl from the provinces (Marlene Dietrich) who falls in love with a worldly artist (Brian Aherne) after he convinces her to pose nude for his latest sculpture. Their romance is interrupted by a wealthy baron (Lionel Atwill) who purchases the sculpture and decides to make Lily his own by any means necessary, and pays the starving artist off to make him move away in the night leaving her helpless and alone. Through it all her only comfort was Solomon's "Song of Songs," a notoriously erotic Biblical love poem whose meaning she never quite understands until she experiences physical love for the first time.

The film is surprisingly sexually frank, even by the standards of 1933 - the year that finally caused Hollywood to bring down the hammer and enforce the Production Code the following year. The scenes in which Richard sculpts Lily tingle with eroticism, as his hands caress the curves of the nude statue, Dietrich trembling with each stroke as if it were her own body. Sensuously shot in evocative black and white by Victor Milner, The Song of Songs captures each longing glance, each sigh of desire, exploring the couple's sexual dance with both a frankness and a sense of slyness that make it one of the period's most direct films.

Dietrich's performance is also one for the ages. She was always more than the sex symbol vixen history has recorded her as, but she's incredible here, playing against type as the winsome farm girl whose evolution into a hardened and worldly baroness is the film's central tragedy, a woman turned into a sex object for the enjoyment of the men around her all in the name of art. There's something disarmingly personal about Lily's journey and Dietrich, now several years removed from the voluptuous siren of von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, embodies it with a quiet power and a barely constrained sense of rage. Mamoulian's layering of sexual tension accompanied with his withering eye toward the destructive power of the male gaze makes The Song of Songs a fascinating case study in gender roles of the 1930s, often working on several levels at once; on the surface an erotic drama and just underneath a rather scathing critique of Hollywood's treatment of women that's somewhat undercut by its own ending in which the couple finally reunites and all is forgiven. But it's hard not to admire the gutsiness of what Mamoulian achieves here, crafting a film that is ultimately a critique of itself and the very audience that's watching it. The Production Code would render such a film impossible in just a year's time, but here Mamoulian and Dietrich are free to explore the dark underbelly of artistic exploitation while still finding a kind of painful beauty in the pursuit of sensual desire. It's a hidden gem ready for an overdue rediscovery thanks to the lovely new Blu-Ray now available from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE SONG OF SONGS | Directed by Rouben Mamoulian | Stars Marlene Dietrich, Brian Aherne, Lionel Atwill, Alison Skipworth, Hardie Albright | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Betty Gilpin in Universal Pictures' THE HUNT.

Originally slated for release in 2019, Craig Zobel's The Hunt came under fire on conservative media for its story of liberals kidnapping Trump supporters and hunting them for sport. The film eventually even caught the attention of President Trump himself, who issued a condemnation of the film from his Twitter account, causing a controversy that eventually led to the film being pulled from the schedule altogether.

Now the film has finally found its way into theaters, using the controversy as its main marketing draw, and to the surprise of no one who actually watched the trailer rather than just listening to the president's unhinged rambling on social media, The Hunt is more of a satire of liberals than it is of conservatives, casting the "liberal elites" as the villains and the hunted "deplorables" as the heroes on the run. It's not hard to see that Zobel is going for some sort of "both sides" condemnation of our polarized electorate, casting the Trump supporters as wild-eyed conspiracy theorists whose worst fears have come true, and the wealthy liberals who hunt them as privileged elitists whose disdain for other side has lead them into an insular world of fake news just as bad as what they claim to be against.

The problem is that its satire is so broad, so blunt, and so misguided that absolutely nothing works. This is a film in which a villain, tasked with posing as an American ambassador, actually carries a box labeled "bribe money," which he uses to pay off foreign military agents. Subtle and clever this film is not. The idea is that an innocent text message exchanged among friends who run a powerful multinational corporation leak to the press, leading fringe right-wing conspiracy theorists to concoct a wild story about "liberal elites" hunting conservatives for sport at a manor house in Vermont. They call the theory "Manorgate," and it spreads like wildfire on conservative media. After losing their jobs in order for the company to save face, the liberals actually decide to hunt conservatives at a manor overseas for revenge, getting back at those who brought them down by making the conspiracy theory come to life.

This plan backfires spectacularly when they accidentally kidnap the wrong woman, mistaking Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a special ops veteran  who served in Afghanistan, for another woman of the same name who made disparaging remarks about ringleader, Athena (Hilary Swank) on Twitter. Lots of blood, guts, and gore are splattered across the screen as Crystal calmly wreaks vengeance on the people trying to kill her, determined to get back home at all costs. Gilpin turns in a strong performance; her laid back demeanor and Mississippi drawl seemingly at odds with the over-the-top decadence around her, but the film itself is one of the worst pieces of garbage to clog up multiplexes in recent memory. Zobel's brand of satire is messy and obvious, taking a kind of "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to see what lands, and very little, if anything, actually does.

The depiction of the liberals in the film is straight out of the Fox News "latte-sipping liberal" stereotype playbook, coming across as the kind of caricature that someone who thinks "did you just assume my gender" is the height of humor would come up with. The conservatives are likewise broadly drawn, shown as racist, gay-hating, gun-toting hicks that are everything the people trying to kill them think they are. For a film that seems to be pleading for understanding, its utter condescension toward everyone in the film consistently undercuts its message. No one wins here and everyone is terrible, and that kind of nihilism not only makes The Hunt an unpleasant watch, it also seems to suggest that everyone is just as terrible as the other side believes. It doesn't seem to actually understand where anyone in this film is coming from. One of the liberals actually refers to one of her partners as "comrade," as if a bunch of wealthy white liberals would actually co-opt the language of Marxism. This kind of utter lack of understanding of who it's depicting and why results in a film that has no idea what it's trying to say, but it's saying it loudly and constantly -  proudly ignorant, arrogantly self-assured, with nothing to back itself up; just like the people its attempting to lampoon. The Hunt is reprehensible trash, neither as edgy or as smart as it thinks it is, offering up little more than empty shock value with nothing the least but constructive or interesting to say. This one's not worth risking the spread of coronavirus - stay home and avoid this film like the plague.

GRADE - zero stars (out of four)


THE HUNT | Directed by Craig Zobel | Stars Emma Roberts, J. C. MacKenzie, Hilary Swank, Justin Hartley, Ethan Suplee, Macon Blair, Betty Gilpin, Glenn Howerton | Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


The surface of Céline Sciamma's captivating period romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is somewhat deceptive. At first it appears to be a stiff and staid costume drama, a film of stiff upper lips and even stiffer fabrics. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, Sciamma peels back the layers to reveal something deeply passionate, even fiery, beneath its mannered veneer.

Set in the 18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire chronicles the lives of two women, one a painter (Noémie Merlant), the other a wealthy debutante (Adèle Haenel) engaged to be married to a man she has never met. The painter, Marianne, has been hired by Héloïse's mother to paint a portrait of Héloïse to send to her betrothed for approval. But Héloïse has other ideas, already having refused to sit for one artist in protest of her arranged marriage. Marianne is then tasked with painting Héloïse in secret, posing as a companion hired to keep her company and nothing more. But soon Marianne finds herself with much more than a companion; drawn to enigmatic and melancholy Héloïse, trapped in a societal system in which she does not want to participate, the artist slowly falls in love with her subject. As they defy both family and society, they must also face a ticking clock as Héloïse prepares to leave the island to be united with her new husband and begin her new life.

There is a sense of prim propriety in every frame - the emotion restrained as society would have dictated at the time. There is only music in two key scenes, resulting in a kind of hushed silence that hangs over the film, broken only by tentative conversations shared between the two protagonists. Sciamma finds the passion in stolen glances, verbal tete-a-tete between painter and muse, a cautious exploration of feelings left unsaid. Its inner world is unleashed when Marianne and Héloïse read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the doomed love of the Greek heroes forming the backbone of the deep, poetic longing the two lovers share. It is through that lens that the film builds its emotional center, through a prism of longing and memory, regret and resignation, a dreamy recollection of a love affair long past slowly returning through the haze of time.

Sciamma has crafted a period piece that doesn't feel like a period piece; all the trappings are there - the costumes, the production design, but while she crafts the film like a Merchant-Ivory drama, it's the deep well of emotion coursing just beneath the surface that makes it so special. It's a film of restraint, of buried emotion, exploring the ways in which women were expected to speak and behave, and then boldly reading between the lines. It manages to be smoldering and sexy and deeply romantic more because of what the characters don't say and don't do than what they actually do. Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes repressed sexuality and emotion and turns it into the stuff of great romance, of star-crossed lovers seizing their moment of burning passion and holding onto the embers for the rest of their lives.

“Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne during one scene in the film; and indeed, Sciamma seems to be inventing love anew, giving us something at once familiar, like the lingering memory of lovers long past, and vibrantly, thrillingly new, a love story that is wholly its own. She not only invites the painter to see herself through her subject's eyes, she invites us to reexamine life through the female gaze, and look at love anew. For a film of such delicate quietude to achieve such earth shattering power is something truly special indeed.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE | Directed by Céline Sciamma | Stars Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino | Rated R for some nudity and sexuality | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, March 06, 2020

MOM AND DAD (1945)

For decades the underground movie circuit has popularized  B-films from the 1930s and 40s that sought to exploit their subjects under the guise of being "educational." 

From the short-lived "nudist camp" sub-genre to didactic screeds against the evils of sex and drugs, these schlocky grindhouse films have been a staple of midnight movie screenings since their rediscovery sometime around the end of the Production Code, a set of rules many of these films were able to subvert by pretending to have educational value beyond their obviously titillating nature. Audiences flocked to these films for reasons perhaps less savory than their makers intended, but one can't help but imagine the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, slyly undercutting Production Code rules by covering up exploitation thrills in finger-wagging moralism. Kino Lorber has partnered with Something Weird Video to brings several of these midnight classics to Blu-Ray for the first time in their new series, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, featuring some of the most well-known films of the era.

VOLUME 1: MOM AND DAD 

Perhaps one of the most infamous "educational" films to be embraced by the exploitation circuit, Mom and Dad (1945) tells the story of a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand all because her mother refused to allow her to be taught sex-ed.

Easily one of the best films of its kind, in that it actually feels like a real movie in places rather than simply a didactic finger-wagging screed, Mom and Dad is nevertheless an often self-important piece of propaganda that fancies itself more progressive than it really is. While it reserves much of its ire for the puritans who refuse to allow their children to learn about the facts of life, its essential message of abstinence makes its in-your-face presentation of graphic STD wounds and images of childbirth feel just as moralistic as the scolds it claims to rebuke.

On the other hand, unlike many of its contemporaries who sought to warn parents about the dangers facing the youth of its day, Mom and Dad has an actual story with real actors who are actually mildly compelling. It's something of a fascinating time capsule, as it pauses for an intermission in which a spokesperson would stand up and lecture the audience on "hygiene," before segueing back into the film to show several educational videos on childbirth, syphillis, and gonorrhea that feature some truly stomach-churning images, and are a big reason why the film was such a big hit on the midnight movie circuit, ultimately going on to become one of the highest grossing films of the 1940s. Selected for preservation by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry as "historically significant," it remains an intriguing window into the world of sex education in the 1940s and how many of the puritanical ideas of bliss through ignorance that it critiques are still widely prevalent even today.

GRADE -★ (out of four)


VOLUME 2: REEFER MADNESS/SEX MADNESS

Perhaps one of the most infamous exploitation films of all time, Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda piece, Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) became a midnight movie sensation in the 1960s due to its unintentionally hilarious depiction of the "dangers of marijuana." The film was designed as a warning to parents about "public enemy number one," and centers around a young man who is made to believe that he committed a murder while high on pot. The film is strictly an amateur-hour production, filled with laughably over-the-top acting and a silly sense of self-righteousness that make it the perfect exploitation camp classic.

Also included on this new release from Kino Lorber as part of their "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture" series is Dwain Esper's 1938 film, Sex Madness, a film that takes the moralistic lecturing of Reefer Madness to new heights in its crusade against extramarital sex and the scourge of gonorrhea. Featuring graphic depictions of STD wounds, and a plot about a group of teenagers whose inability to say "no" lead to life-long afflictions of venereal disease, ruining marriages and destroying their lives for one night of passion. Even more amateur-ish than Reefer MadnessSex Madness may spend most of its brief running time wagging its finger at its audience, but its sensationalistic subject matter was clearly designed to titillate while preaching a very different message, which is part of what makes these films so goofy. They're not "good" by any stretch of the imagination, but they're such a joke now that it's hard not to get a kick out of them.

REEFER MADNESS -★ (out of four)
SEX MADNESS - ½ star (out of four)


VOLUME 3: UNASHAMED: A ROMANCE/ELYSIA, VALLEY OF THE NUDE

A biracial woman falls in love with her boss, but her beauty is consistently diminished by those around her for "looking like another race," despite having a nice body. So she devises a plan to get her boss to go to a nudist camp with her so she can show him her body and convince him to fall in love with her, only to face competition from a pair of beautiful tourists who stumble across the camp by accident.

Unashamed is a truly bizarre curio that came out of the nudist camp craze of the late 1930s that allowed nudity to be shown on screen for "educational purposes." Its racial politics are incredibly cringe-worthy even for 1938, especially in the way it treats its protagonist as an object of pity and her biracial heritage as some sort of disability (despite easily being the most beautiful woman in the film). But its real sin is being completely dramatically inert - like many exploitation films of its ilk, it's simply boring. You'll see plenty of butts and breasts, but that's really all the film is interested in, despite all the lip service it pays to the "health benefits of nude living." There's a goofy good time here if you're in the right frame of mind, but otherwise it's a bit of a slog.

In Elysia, Valley of the Nude, a reporter goes to a nudist camp to write a piece about the nudist lifestyle, and becomes enamored with the easy-going people he finds there. Billing itself as an educational film, Elysa is an exploitation picture through and through, in which much of the cast remains nude for the entire length of the film, with strategically placed objects and cheeky angles keeping their genitalia just out of view. This being 1934, the only way to get butts and breasts on the screen was through the lens of an educational piece on the health benefits of nudism, so most of the film is a dry lecture from the professor giving the reporter a tour of the camp - but you can bet most people who went to see it didn't go to learn about how exposure to sunlight can cure what ails you - they went to see nubile young men and women cavorting in the nude, and there's plenty of that to go around, despite the film itself being a dry as dust.

UNASHAMED -★ (out of four)
ELYSIA: VALLEY OF THE NUDE - ★ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber!

Monday, March 02, 2020

Universal's attempts to retool its classic monster films the 1930s and 40s for a modern audience has been something of a mixed bag. From the 2010 remake of The Wolfman failed to find an audience despite an Oscar win for its impressive makeup design, and the attempt to start a Marvel-style "Dark Universe" with the 2017 Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy, fell flat with both audiences and critics. 

Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man is a different animal altogether. Rather than try to remake what's already been done or fit into a previously established universe by forcing connections to films that haven't been made yet, Whannell has completely reinvented the classic H.G. Wells story, using the basic premise as a jumping-off point for something completely original. Originally brought to the screen in 1933 by director James Whale (Frankenstein) with Claude Raines in the title role, The Invisible Man was one of the most playful and mischievous  entries in the classic Universal Monsters series. In the 2020 update, Whannell takes the basic premise of a mad scientist who invents a way to become invisible and takes it in a different direction, reframing the narrative around the scientist's wife, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), who begins the film by escaping her abusive ex and going into hiding with friends.

It isn't long before she receives news of Adrian's suicide, and believes she is finally free of his grasp. But soon strange things start happening in the house - objects move on their own, covers are pulled off her bed in the night, and Cecilia can't escape the feeling that something, or someone, is watching her every move. Convinced that Adrian has found a new way to torment her by inventing a way to become invisible, she attempts to prove his existence to her closest friends, but her insistence that an invisible dead man is torturing her makes her look insane, as Adrian isolates her from her family and friends bit by bit in increasingly devious and violent ways, leaving her to stand alone against her abuser.

The entire plot of this new Invisible Man is a brilliant metaphor for emotional abuse and gaslighting. No matter how much Cecilia insists to her friends that she's being abused, no one believes her because they literally can't see it. She even begins to question her own sanity as Adrian isolates her from her network of support. That's what makes the film so utterly terrifying - its plot may be science fiction, but it's based in a razor-sharp evocation of real-life trauma, and that makes its scares so much harder to shake. Whannell expertly builds the tension with sparing use of special effects, letting the unseen presence of the invisible man loom large even when he isn't there, keeping the suspense so tautly wound so that when it does finally payoff the eventual scare lands with that much more power.

But none of it would have worked if not for the powerhouse performance by Elisabeth Moss at the center. Moss is a wonder, crafting a perfectly calibrated portrayal of a woman coming unraveled, questioning her own sanity and culpability in a web of abuse from which there is seemingly no escape. She's so good it's as if she's taking on the entire patriarchy single-handedly, standing against an invisible enemy of male aggression and rage even when everyone around her is telling her it's all in her mind.  By telling the story from the victim's point of view rather than the monster's, and by foregrounding her journey rather than focusing on the inherent science fiction elements of his invisibility, Whannell has created something truly, deeply frightening, a monster movie in which the monster feels like a real threat, an evil that could be lurking around any corner. And not just because he's a literal invisible man, but because of the very real threat of patriarchal abuse and gaslighting that he represents - attacking women both physically and emotionally and then manipulating them into thinking that it was somehow their fault, or that maybe it was all their head. That constant questioning of reality is what makes the film so unnerving, and as Whannell builds tension past the point where other films would have offered a cheap payoff, he instead continues to turn the screw, resulting in a film that's not only scary, but genuinely surprising. In an age when monsters are very real, centering their victims' narrative not only robs them of their allure, it also makes their presence much more insidious and horrifying. That's the way to honor the legacy of the Universal Monsters (who were often tragic, misunderstood figures); not by trying recreate yesterday's boogeymen, but by acknowledging that today's monsters aren't always quite so obvious, and that's far more scary than any fictional manifestation of evil could ever be.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE INVISIBLE MAN | Directed by Leigh Whannell | Stars Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Benedict Hardie | Rated R for some strong bloody violence, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.