Review: ‘The Invisible Man’ is a Fresh Step Forward for Universal Monsters
by Daniel Rester
Universal Studios has had an affinity for monster movies for decades. Their most successful run was with the Universal Classic Monsters from the 1920s through the 1950s. That shared universe, the first of its kind in filmmaking, includes characters like Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Invisible Man.
Universal tried to launch a similar “Dark Universe” last decade with Dracula Untold (2014) and The Mummy (2017), but audiences and critics didn’t really take to those pictures. This led the company to focus more on standalone projects for the monsters instead. The first of these is The Invisible Man, from horror producer maestro Jason Blum and writer-director Leigh Whannell; the latter is known for his work on the Saw and Insidious franchises.
Whannell’s version of The Invisible Man is a fresh take on the famous H.G. Wells story, departing from the source material — and the 1933 film adaptation (review for that film here) — in many ways. His take focuses on Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who escapes an abusive relationship. Her abuser is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a scientist working in optics. After Adrian supposedly dies by suicide, Kass believes this is fake and thinks the strange things happening around her are caused by Griffin. How? Well, he’s become invisible of course.
By shifting the main character focus from a loony scientist to an abuse victim with serious PTSD, Whannell has allowed for the material to take on a new intensity and scariness. It’s also timely with its themes, with its female strength against toxic masculinity striking a chord in the Me Too movement. Jackson-Cohen (who was so good as Luke Crain in The Haunting of Hill House (2018)) is no cackling Claude Rains, instead playing an all-too-real narcissist bent on controlling others’ lives through his power.
This new direction largely succeeds because of Moss. She is electric here, filling Kass with believable fear and pain in her eyes. Her physicality is impressive too, especially given that she is often acting against nothing as she moves around the seemingly empty rooms. Aldis Hodge also elevates the film in what could have been a throwaway role; he plays a childhood friend of Kass’ with warmth.
Instead of overdoing it with jump scares, big effects, etc., Whannell builds a creeping suspense in the first half with scenes constructed with brilliant camerawork. These moments often have no music accompanying wide angles that leave Moss in open spaces. There are slow camera movements to suggest Griffin is in certain places, but Whannell smartly stays away from going to his point of view. It’s great less-is-more filmmaking.
The second half is where Whannell fumbles a little. The inevitable scenes of action rely on booming music and often take place in settings where it is hard to believe there wouldn’t be any security cameras. These include a restaurant and a hospital hallway. Instead of showing Griffin breaking the cameras or something, we’re left to assume there are some cameras and they work. And in that case, some side characters should definitely believe Kass’ theory sooner than they do. These logic holes should have been covered since Whannell puts our minds on security cameras when he introduces them as being important tools to the characters early on.
Whannell has already proven himself a strong writer with multiple screenplays, but now he is also making a name for himself as a director after helming the underrated Upgrade (2018) and this film. I hope he continues to deliver smart horror films like these in the future. Universal made a wise choice to inject some fresh blood into their monster work with The Invisible Man. Hopefully they continue to pick up filmmakers with solid standalone visions like Whannell as they move forward with their monsters.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
MPA Rating: R (for some strong bloody violence, and language)
Running Time: 2h 4min
USA Release Date: February 28th, 2020
*Part of this review will feature in an upcoming book on horror movies by Daniel Rester.