(2020) Thriller (Universal) Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie, Renee Lim, Brian Meegan, Nick Kici, Vivienne Greer, Nicholas Hope, Cleave Williams, Cardwell Lynch, Sam Smith, Zara Michales, Serag Mohammed, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Brandon Wong, Xavier Fernandez, Amali Golden. Directed by Leigh Whannell
One of the unexpected side effects of #MeToo is that women are beginning to take back horror. Until recently, they were cast mostly as victims waiting to be slaughtered by a monster or a human monster. Yes, the final girl thing was a bit of a sop, but it was clearly understood that putting women in jeopardy had a sexual element to it. Horror films were often an allegory for how women were perceived in our culture; virtuous and plucky (final girls were almost never sexual) or sexy and not too bright, or at least prone to panicking when the chips were down, playing right into the killer’s hands – often literally.
That’s changing, as yesterday’s horror review illustrated, and it’s even more true of this film, inspired VERY loosely by the 1897 novel of H.G. Wells. Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship by a controlling billionaire who keeps her under 24/7 surveillance. Pushed to her absolute limit, she plots her escape, aided by her sister Emily (Dyer) who picks her up when she flees from the high-tech home she shares with her domestic partner Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen), just barely getting away. Emily drives her into San Francisco where she bunks with her good friend James (Hodge), who happens to be a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid).
Then word reaches her that her ex has committed suicide, and his creepy brother Tom (Dorman) gives her the news that he left her a sizable inheritance, enough to help Sydney with her college plans and to give her some financial relief. Too good to be true, right?
Right. Soon strange things begin to happen, merely annoying at first and growing exponentially more disturbing. Cecilia gets the feeling she’s being watched, and her paranoia only increases. Soon she seems to be coming unhinged, unglued, or at the very least, having a complete breakdown. But WE know that there is something else going on. After all, we saw that knife floating around by itself. We saw the footprints in the carpet. Is it Adrian’s ghost, or something more tangible – and ultimately more terrifying?
As horror films go, this one is long on tension but short on scares. In fact, I think it would be justifiably be considered more of a thriller than an out-and-out horror film, although there are definitely some horrific elements – they are just few and far between.
Whannell seems more intent on making a point than creating a legitimately scary movie. Fortunately, he has one of the best in the world at playing emotionally fragile characters in Elisabeth Moss (who will always be Zoey Bartlet to me) and she gets to exercise that particular skill to near-perfection here. She is certain that something sinister is going on and tells her circle of friends so, but nobody believes her. It’s no accident that her last name is Kass…could be short for “Cassandra.”
She gets some good support from Hodge (who will always be Alec Hardison to me) as the kindly but skeptical cop and Reid (who will always be Meg Murry to me) as the savvy teen. Dorman (who will always be John Tavner to me) lends sufficient creepiness as the late tech billionaire’s brother.
Part of the problem is that we don’t get much of a sense of who Adrian is. He’s essentially brilliant, vindictive and cruel, but we never really get to know much more than that. I tend to like a little more depth to my villains, even if they are ostensibly dead for most of the movie. Plus, there are few scares and that is a bit of a letdown, considering Whannell’s pedigree (he has been involved with two major horror franchises) and the fact that this is using the title of a classic horror movie. The audience can’t help but expect a horror movie when they sit down to watch.
Jilted expectations aside, the movie does a fair job of making its points about how women are portrayed, and although at times Moss can get a bit shrill she still makes a decent enough heroine, particularly in the mega-satisfying denouement. However, I can’t honestly say that the movie made a connection with me and thus I can’t in good conscience give it anything more than a very slight recommendation which is being damned by faint praise indeed.
REASONS TO SEE: Nobody is better than Moss than getting women on the edge of hysteria.
REASONS TO AVOID: The villain was not really developed properly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty intense violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe, Universal’s classic monster-oriented shared cinematic universe, but after the box office failure of The Mummy, the concept collapsed and Universal opted to go with individual stories rather than having a shared background.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Cinemax Go, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hollow Man
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Continuing Adventures of Six Days of Darkness!