Had Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Mannot come out this week, May would have marked 21 years since the last time Universal successfully remade a film featuring one of their classic Monsters and had it make money. That film, The Mummy, took Boris Karloff’s pre-code horror stylings and applied a level of Amblin sheen to the whole ordeal, owing less to Karl Freund’s gothic stylings than it did the reflexive (but still compelling) trappings of the Indiana Jones franchise. It was a hit and spawned its own little franchise in the aftermath. But Universal assumed that it would work again and again, and that approach didn’t work out for them when it was applied to other films. Van Helsing would be a notorious flop only a few years later, and their subsequent attempts to capture the same ground in the past decade — Dracula: Untold, the 2017 version of The Mummy— would each fail in their own spectacular way (an entire cinematic universe crumbled a few years back, and nobody really noticed or cared). You’d assume that the studio would simply write off the Monsters as old news, campy relics devoid of relevance, but you should be thankful that they didn’t. The Invisible Man fucking rules, and proves that there’s still room to innovate with these classic characters.
It feels, at first blush, somewhat odd to compare this take
on The Invisible Man with the H.G. Wells novel that shares its title, or
with the Claude Rains/Vincent Price films of the Monsters’ (and Hollywood’s)
golden age, but, in practice, it shares a great deal with them. Whannell shares
Wells’s contempt for his protagonist, as opposed to the films’, which saw his
evil nature as a side-effect of his drug rather than an enablement of his worst
virtues; and there are a number of details from the original movies that have
been preserved here (and they’re tied up in spoiler territory, so you can
discover them for yourself). The innovation that Whannell brings to the table
is in his protagonist, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), the abused partner of tech
magnate Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Griffin), who is one of the world’s
leading experts on optics. We begin the film with her late-night flight from his
exaggerated mansion, having drugged her abuser with her prescription to mask
her escape, and witness his capacity for violence in the same breath – when he
discovers that she’s left, he somehow manages to catch up with her and smashes
the window of the car she’s in order to grab at her throat and strangle her.
But Cecilia’s escape attempt succeeds, and she spends the following days hiding at a friend’s (Aldis Hodge) house, full of anxiety and worry. She puts nail polish over her laptop camera and flinches when she sees joggers running down the street towards her; a victim of her nerves and her trauma. But then she gets word from her sister (Harriet Dyer) of Adrian’s death: he killed himself a few days after she left him, and he’s left her a substantial sum of money as well — $5 million. But after the will is read, Cecilia notices some odd things happening around her: clothes are out of place when, a minute earlier, they were right where they should have been. Odd footsteps are echoing throughout the house at night. And, for whatever reason, it looks like someone is sitting in the chair in her bedroom, watching her sleep, even though she can’t see them. A moment of violence makes things abundantly clear to her: Adrian isn’t dead and has found some way to make himself invisible. No one, of course, believes her, but they do so at their own peril.
As you might have figured if you have even the slightest familiarity with her work, Moss is incredible. She’s fiercely committed to her character, no matter the exaggerated circumstances of her predicament, and her pain, fear, and determination to survive are the driving force of the film’s momentum. The script gives her the space to be vulnerable, to be happy, to be afraid, and Moss seizes all of that, making Cecilia feel well-round and true. We spend practically every moment of the film’s two-hour runtime with her, and she never stops being the film’s most magnetic and compelling asset. Perhaps it’s not as flashy as Logan Marshall-Green’s performance was in Upgrade, Whannell’s last work, but it’s of a similar caliber and confirms the director as one of the genre’s best when it comes to working with his leads. The rest of the cast is solid enough, but it feels clear that they’re there to amplify and compliment her work more so than to compete with Moss for our attention.
But that’s not all: Whannell directs the hell out of The Invisible Man. He manages to every bit of negative space in his frame a potential hazard, and you’ll spend much of the film scanning the backgrounds, looking for the one thing that might seem out of place. It softens some of the (occasionally) rough writing and smooths over some of the occasional character incongruities (let’s just say that the supporting cast isn’t written with the same psychological care as Moss’s) that would bother me more in a different film. The scares aren’t cheap and feel generally very fair to those with weaker horror movie constitutions, even though they’re still effective in practice — his focus is on the extended, drawn-out tension, rather than making you jump from moment to moment. It’s creepy and gives one a genuinely grimy feeling while watching it, especially when it heads into interesting and choppy ethical waters. There’s something deeply unnerving about how, when you think about it, a good number of the shots in the film may very well be taken from Griffin’s point of view, implicating us as audience members in his voyeurism, if not his violence as well.
I don’t know if this particular take on the tale is my favorite — beyond Claude Rains’ tenure as the character, I’m bizarrely fond of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, with its mix of nutty special effects and cartoonish nihilism that scared the hell out of me as an impressionable 13-year-old — but I know for a fact that The Invisible Man is the most vital, relevant and, most importantly, scary that a Universal Monster has been in probably half a century. Yes, one could accuse Universal of once again chasing a trend here, in the form of a Blumhouse-produced Social Issues-Centric Horror, much like they did with their attempts at making the monsters into superhero cannon fodder for franchise fans. But it’s almost like those style-and-idea driven films share a more common lineage than that ever did, and if you’re going to bring these characters into the 21st century, there are few better ways to do so than how Whannell and Moss have done here.