Nearly two years after The Mummy failed to kick off the ‘Dark Universe’, Leigh Whannell (Upgrade) and Blumhouse Productions have resurrected the Universal Monsters. This isn’t the first time Blumhouse has re-ignited a dormant franchise. And Whannell is no stranger to mixing horror and science fiction. While The Mummy was a bloated combination of horror and action, The Invisible Man follows the Blumhouse template. This 2020 re-imagining of HG Wells’ classic tale is a modestly budgeted, back-to-basics horror movie. Moreover, writer and director Whannell has kept the story both intimate and socially powerful. Not surprisingly then, The Invisible Man has impressed in its first weekend.
Late on evening, Cecilia Jackson drugs and escapes from her abusive boyfriend, tech-billionaire Adrian Griffin. Weeks later, a still-traumatized Cecilia learns Griffin committed suicide. She’s even more startled to discover that Griffin has left her $5 million dollars. But as Cecilia struggles to re-build her life, she increasingly suspects Adrian isn’t dead. Wherever she goes, she still feels his presence. When Cecilia believes Adrian – a genius in optics research – has made himself invisible, friends and authorizes believe she is crazy.
The Invisible Man an Exercise in Scares and Suspense
Forget the manic, loud action of 2017’s The Mummy. No, writer and director Leigh Whannell scales back to focus on simple, scaled-back scares. Straight out of the gate, Whannell uses wide-camera shots and natural sounds to make tiptoeing through a house a pins-and-needles moment. Things rarely let up from that point onward. The Invisible Man uses all the horror scare tools to great effect without overusing any one in particular. Whether it’s misdirection or jolts or drawn out stretches of expectation, The Invisible Man feels lean even at just over two hours. In particular, Whannell aptly exploits the premise of a danger you know is there, but cannot see. Both a trip to the attic and late-night bedroom scene score some of the movie’s most impressive scares.
…writer and director Leigh Whannell scales back to focus on simple, scaled-back scares.
In addition, The Invisible Man cleverly updates its antagonist for contemporary audiences. Though there’s a couple of of quick nods to James Whale’s 1933 original movie, this ‘Invisible Man’ fits well into our technological reality. Aside from the impressive effects as Griffin ‘glitches’ between visible and invisible, Whannell’s update addresses one of the biggest problems with the antagonist – the inconvenience of having to be naked while invisible.
The Invisible Man Re-Imagines HG Wells’ Premise for a #MeToo Era
Late last year, the Black Christmas triggered unfair backlash for its subtext. It was an unabashedly feminist horror movie for the #MeToo era. Sadly, we live in divisive times right now. Regardless, horror movies have always served as vehicles for pointed social commentary. Neither Carpenter’s They Live nor Craven’s The People Under the Stairs were subtle with the targets of their criticisms. What Whannell does with HG Wells’ original text is exactly what we should expect of remakes. That is, Whannell respects the concept – brilliant but mad scientist who can turn invisible – and re-works it to address contemporary social issues.
What Whannell does with HG Wells’ original text is exactly what we should expect of remakes.
The Invisible Man flips the Universal Monsters model of the tragic monster to focus on the victim. While it’s the mad scientist who can be invisible, Cecilia Jackson is, in many ways, representative of the ways in which domestic violence and sexual assault survivors are ‘invisible’ to the system. Whannell’s uses The Invisible Man’s premise to illustrates the ways in which abusers ‘gaslight’ their victims. Adrian Griffin’s slow isolation of Cecilia is a very real thing outside of movie theatres. And it’s this story-telling that elevates The Invisible Man, making it a potent, urgent movie.
Elizabeth Moss Turns in an Emotionally Powerful Performance
In just the last few years, Toni Collette, Lupita Nyong’o, and Florence Pugh have all delivered awards-worthy performances in horror. Sadly, the Oscars have a history turning a blind eye to the genre. Though Elizabeth Moss may be similarly forgotten come the next awards season, she turns in a stunning performance. Given the nature of The Invisible Man’s story, the movie hinges on Moss. And she doesn’t disappoint. With such tight pacing and a requisite need to still scare, The Invisible Man demands Moss convey a range of emotions to make her arc feel believable and powerful. Moss obliges taking audiences on a gut-wrenching roller-coaster ride. From traumatized to desperate to strength, Moss makes ‘Cecilia Jackson’ a protagonist you’d gladly re-visit in a sequel.
A strong supporting cast backs Moss up. Though Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The House on Haunted Hill) plays the titular ‘Invisible Man’, he’s not on screen much. And not just because he’s invisible. Yet with his short screen time and limited dialogue. Jackson-Cohen convincingly mixes arrogance, narcissism, and sleaze. But it’s Aldis Hodge who is the real stand-out in his supporting role. He possesses a certain screen presence that commands attention. Hopefully, big things are in store for Hodge in the future.
The Invisible Man a Masterful Update of a Classic Story
Despite a few early duds in 2020, The Invisible Man finally marks the first great horror movie of the year. Consider it a massive course correction for the Universal Monsters. Instead of a hyper-vigilance on setting up a web of related intellectual properties. Blumhouse let Whannell craft his own, stand-alone story. As a result, The Invisible Man is scary, thought-provoking horror movie even with a few small plot contrivances. Whether its success paves the way for a ‘shared universe’ remains to be seen. At present, it looks like Universal and Blumhouse are committed to supporting independent filmmakers’ visions for single movies. And after The Invisible Man, that may be the best approach.