Chilling ‘Invisible Man’

By Tom Von Malder | May 23, 2020
Photo by: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Elisabeth Moss stars in "The Invisible Man."

Owls Head — The Invisible Man (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 124 min.). Leigh Whannell’s reinvention of “The Invisible Man” builds suspense on the viewer’s early expectations, heightens things with the experience of a woman who has literally escaped an abusive relationship and pays off with a satisfying action finale. It is a sophisticated work. Writer-director Whannell has previously brought us “Insidious: Chapter 3,” wrote several of the “Saw” films and will direct the update of “Escape from New York.”

A terrific Elisabeth Moss (TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) plays the abused woman, Cecilia “Cee” Kass, whom we first see sneaking out of Adrian Griffin’s bed and house in the middle of the night. One room she passes through appears to be a laboratory, giving a first inkling as to whom the invisible man might be. Cee’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer of “Love Child”) is slow to arrive to pick her up, thus giving us a first glimpse of Adrian’s anger as he smashes through the car window, trying to grab Cee. Oliver Jackson-Cohen (“Faster,” TV’s “The Haunting of Hill House”) plays Adrian.

The film picks up two weeks later, with Cee staying with friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge of “Straight Outta Compton”) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid of “A Wrinkle in Time,” HBO’s “Euphoria”). Cee is so traumatized that she almost never ventures outdoors and when she goes to get the mail, a passing runner scares her into a quick retreat. She anticipates the threat of Adrian at every moment, just as the audience is expecting some action by the invisible man of the title. Soon, Cee is convinced they are one and the same, even though she is told Adrian committed suicide and, shockingly, left her $5 million to be paid off in $100,000 installments each month.

When strange things starting happening around her, Cee is convinced that Adrian only staged his death and is coming after her. As for the money, she only plans to use it to fund Sydney’s college education. Those around Cee take the tack that Adrian has so invaded her mind through their months of being together that it has her imagining things – until a body count starts to build up. Michael Dorman (“Daybreakers”) plays Adrian’s smarmy brother Tom, whom one guesses is complicit in any plot of Adrian’s.

While it was a potion that transformed Claude Rains into “The Invisible Man” in the pre-Code 1933 classic Universal Horror film, directed by the great James Whale and based on H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, here Whannell creates a semi-plausible scientific explanation, as Adrian is a leading expert in optics. Technically, the film excels in its own optics.

Extras include audio commentary by Whannell, who shot the film in his native Australia; nine deleted scenes (13:24); a look at Moss and the stunts (3:54); behind-the-scenes views with Whannell on days 1, 6, 8, 14, 19, 24, 32 and 40 of the shoot; a look at the characters (5:24); and a look at how Whannell reimagined the film through modern technology and socially relatable themes. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Emma. (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 124 min.). Director Autumn de Wilde in her feature debut, after many a music video, including many for Beck, gets the period look of early 1800s England down in this breezy, but not quite winning Jane Austen adaptation. Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch,” “Split,” “Glass”) plays Emma Woodhouse, a young lady with a meddlesome nature of trying to arrange marriages among her acquaintances, while staying above the “love zone” herself. My two problems with the film are that Emma is not a very likable character – and in one scene she is particularly cruel – and therefore I was never rooting for her, and the treatment of servants throughout the film, even though those scenes are played slightly for laughs at times (especially in the deleted scenes and gag reel). Never once is a servant thanked and, good god, these people cannot even dress themselves?

It should be mentioned that Austen never intended her readers to like the selfish Emma, whose planning is never long-range and who never considers the consequences of her actions.

The film does get better as it floats along, but really, it is so obvious from the start that Emma’s neighbor and life-long friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn of TV’s “Genius”) will be the match for her, even though he sparks the imagination of Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, who was in “Marrowbone” with Taylor-Joy), whom Emma has steered from farmer Robert Martin (Connor Swindells of Netflix’s “Sex Education”) to vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor of “God’s Own Country,” TV’s “The Crown”). Of course, Mr. Elton actually favors Emma and Knightley is the one who pushed Martin to propose to Harriet. Further complicating things is the mysterious Frank Churchill (Callum Turner of “War & Peace”), whose absence for the first half of the film has made Emma’s heart grow fonder. Knightley also is the one who calls out Emma on her machinations several times.

Overall, the acting is very good and includes Bill Nighy (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” two “Love Actually” films) as Papa Woodhouse, Rupert Graves (“Maurice,” “A Room with a View,” TV’s “Sherlock”) as Mr. Weston, Amber Anderson as Emma’s rival, Jane Fairfax, and breath-of-fresh-air Tanya Reynolds (also “Sex Education”) as Augusta Elton. Kudos too to Angus Imrie (“The Kid Who Would Be King”) as Bartholomew, one of the two hovering footmen.

Extras include audio commentary by de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton and director of photography Christopher Blauvelt; a piece on creating the world through the sets by production designer Kave Quinn, the estates used and the colors (4:48); a look at the director’s work on the film (4:46); a gag reel that includes a honking goose (10:54); 10 deleted scenes (13:24), including four more with the male servant duo, the fact that Emma keeps the tea locked up, two scenes that show Churchill being duplicitous (in retrospect) and a post-reveal meeting that should have been in the film; and a look at the characters and the two weeks of rehearsals (4:57). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Warner Archive, NR, 78 min.). Gloriously restored, the film is one of the early color films, using the Two-Color Technicolor process. The film, directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “White Christmas”), was thought lost for decades, until a well-worn print was discovered some 50 years ago in Jack L. Warner’s personal collection. That print has been restored, along with footage from a more-recently-found French work print.

Based on Charles Belden’s 1933 short story “The Wax Works,” the film tells the story of sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill of the recently reviewed “Lost City of the Jungle,” Curtiz’s “Doctor X”) who is tragically scarred and left with deformed hands after his business partner starts a fire that destroys their wax museum in London in 1921. The partner was seeking the insurance money to get them out of debt. All of Igor’s creations, including his beloved Marie Antoinette, were destroyed.

Jumping to New Year’s Eve 1933 in New York City, the now-wheelchair-bound Igor is preparing to open his new wax museum the day after the holiday. There is a twist though; some of the models in the museum are based on or actually use the bodies of the deceased, as some eight bodies have gone missing from the morgue. Why the police do not station more men at the morgue could be explained by scenes of them reading magazines in the police station. In any case, the corpse of apparent suicide victim Joan Gale is the latest to go missing, as we see a man lower her wrapped body out of a window in the morgue. The suspect in her death is her rich boyfriend, George Winton (Gavin Gordon of “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Bat”).

About to lose her job, wisecracking, sassy newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell of “Little Caesar,” “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and as reporter Torchy Blane in nine films) goes to interview Winton in jail, where she learns of Gale’s missing body. In turns out that Gale is being turned into the latest wax museum creation by Igor’s associate, Prof. Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Cat and the Canary”).

Halfway through the film, Fay Wray (“King Kong”) is revealed to be Charlotte Duncan, Florence’s roommate who is engaged to Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent, writer of “Johnny Belinda” and “The Face Behind the Mask”), who just happens to work for Igor. When Charlotte visits the museum with Ralph, Igor is struck by her likeness to his beloved Marie Antoinette. (No coincidence there because Wray actually was the Antoinette model in the London scenes, as the lights required for the color filming were causing the wax models to melt. Wray was not the only actor to portray a wax figure.)

Igor is determined to turn Charlotte into Marie Antoinette, thus setting up the film’s exciting conclusion in a vast underground laboratory with metal balconies, lots of stairs and a huge vat of bubbling wax.

Curtiz directed 178 films, some 70 of which were made in Europe, before he came to the United States. The film, through its use of shadows and especially the morgue and wax laboratory sets, designed by Pole Anton Grot, who worked with Curtiz on 20 films, contain a strong flavor of the German Expressionism of the 1920s (see Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” as an excellent, early example).

The film is notable for its pre-Code use of many taboos, such as discussion of a suspect’s drug usage, a scene with Wray’s bare legs and much of Florence’s dialogue. The lowering of the corpse out of the window scene caused problems with some censors and England did not like the London reference in the prologue, which, by the way, features an outstanding fire sequence.

Bonus features include two audio commentaries: a very informative one by Alan K. Rode, author of “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film”; and a second by Scott MacQueen, head of preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Portions of MacQueen’s commentary include an interview he did with Wray. MacQueen also talks during the restoration featurette (7:11). Also very good is an interview with Victoria Riskin about her mother, Fay Wray. One interesting comment is that her father, screenwriter Robert Riskin, a frequent collaborator with Frank Capra, also dated Farrell. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars

The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 6 (New Zealand, Acorn TV, 2 Blu-rays or 4 standard DVDs, NR, 385 min.). The popular series has been called a tongue-in-cheek answer to Great Britain’s “Midsomer Murders.” The detective drama is witty, with quirky characters and complex cases set in the small town of Brokenwood. Having come from the big city, DSS Mike Shepherd (Neil Rea) is partnered with Det. Kristin Simms (Fern Sutherland). The third detective is Sam Breen (Nic Sampson). The cases involve a deadly explosion at a steampunk event, a novelist’s killing modeled on a murder in his new book, the shooting of an animal rights activist who was protesting a duck hunt, and a suspicious suicide at a women’s prison. The latter case places them among convicts they have put away in the past. There also is a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Agatha Raisin: Series Three (Great Britain, Acorn TV, 3 DVDs, NR, 398 min.). Emmy and SAG-nominated actress Ashley Jensen returns as private eye Agatha Raisin in four more mysteries based on the bestselling novels of M.C. Beaton. Agatha is known for her comic antics and chic fashions. Now officially a PI, Agatha has opened her first detective agency, but she needs to keep business flowing. In the Halloween special, “Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House,” James (Jamie Glover) suggest they investigate the haunting of Ivy Hill, a mystery that has baffled the locals, historians and treasure hunters for centuries, as a means to drum up business.

In “Agatha Raisin & the Deadly Dance,” Agatha investigates a young woman who is about to be married; however, a would-be assassin is found dead and Agatha has to enroll in dance class. In “Agatha Raisin & the Love from Hell,” James vanishes after a loud row with Agatha, leaving behind only a trail of blood and the dead body of a woman he had been arguing with. Finally, in “Agatha Raisin: As the Pig Turns,” Agatha takes a relaxing trip to the traditional Winter Fayre with her team, but the gruesome discovery of a human corpse instead of a roast pig has all of Carsely fearing for their safety. Also in the cast are Matt McCooey as Det. Constable Bill Wong, Matthew Horne as Roy, Agatha’s former assistant, Jason Merrells as the charming Sir Charles Fraith, Lucy Liemann as Agatha’s friend, Sarah, and Jodie Tyack as Toni, Agatha’s new assistant.

The set comes with a bonus disc with a locations tour, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a Q&A and games with the cast.

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