I hope the studio has paid attention to what works so well here. There is no doubt Universal and Blumhouse are already well aware of what writer/director Leigh Whannell has accomplished with his modern take on The Invisible Man, but seriously, bring me more like this. I am firmly in the camp that feels the Universal Classic Monsters is not only a term related to the studio, but to the nature of these characters. They can, in fact, be universally adapted to suit any time and location. With the right filmmaker, one can place a Dracula, a Frankenstein(‘s monster), or a Wolf Man anywhere. Based on the terrific work done with The Invisible Man, it doesn’t even need a huge budget to accomplish such a task.
This version of the story has very little connection to the original novel by H.G. Wells (and definitely nothing in common with Ralph Ellison’s guide through societal issues). Set in modern times, the film opens with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) quietly escaping the home she shares with her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Terrified of his controlling ways, Cecilia can’t even find the strength to step outside of the home she hides out in, despite encouragement from her friend and homeowner James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid).
Right from the start, there’s no denying The Invisible Man wants to accomplish two goals. It is hellbent on delivering a terrifying thriller, with the sound and production design working overtime to create a feeling of emptiness around Cecilia, enhancing the sense of dread. This is also a film speaking to the times on a thematic level regarding what a woman can be forced to put up with and how the world reacts around her.
The suffering Cecilia is going through gets a temporary reprieve when informed by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) that Adrien has committed suicide. While known for his attachment to Saw, Insidious, and Upgrade, filmmaker Leigh Whannell should get plenty of credit for knowing when to strike with the grislier aspects of the films he’s worked on, as well as the heavy emphasis on character. The title of the film is revealed right away to have the audience aware of some sort of invisible menace, but the focus on Cecilia is what keeps the film as compelling as it is gripping.
We, as the audience, know what’s afoot. This movie has an invisible man in it, and it will only be a matter of time before the things setting off alarms in Cecilia’s mind will become more intense and manifest themselves in more frightening and dangerous ways. What works especially well for this film, however, is knowing she is absolutely in the right, wanting her to convince the others, yet having feverish anticipation for extended sequences involving the scare tactics of an invisible man.
In saying all of this, it’s important to note the possible triggering effect this may have on those who suffered the pain of an abusive relationship in both physical and psychological ways. While there is a goal in showing the various stages Cecilia must go through to confront her literal demon, Whannell has made very deliberate choices to both heighten the stakes while keeping the actions grounded. It’s a tricky line to walk, but he, fortunately, has Moss delivering excellent work to keep it all balanced.
The emphasis on Cecilia’s struggles also highlights what works so well about an invisible man as an antagonist – he’s a bastard. Even in Wells’ story, one can look at the tragic nature of this character and see how it pales compared to the horrific actions he takes. With the other classic monsters, you can find ways to sympathize (Dracula tends to have his own thing going on, but at least he’s suave). With The Invisible Man, however, the guy is a jerk. This movie understands that and makes no excuses for it. He’s a horror villain, through and through. We learn Adrian is a brilliant scientist, but the film wisely does little to dive any deeper. He’s a symbol as much as he is a villain, and it works for what this film wants to accomplish.
From a production standpoint, there’s plenty to admire in the way Whannell utilized his limited resources (standard for a Blumhouse production). Without getting too far into it, I really enjoyed the modern take on how the invisibility aspect works. Better yet is seeing this threat in action.
It’s one thing to watch “nothing” attack characters and think about the choreography and camera tricks to make that work. There’s another kind of respect to watch the film place emphasis on negative space and make it spooky. Scenes of silence become very scary because of what we can’t see or hear. It’s all quite chilling, making for a film that holds onto a sense of anxiety throughout its two-hour runtime. This also means plenty of credit goes to cinematographer Stefan Duscio, editor Andy Canny, and composer Benjamin Wallfisch, for helping to realize the vision for this crafty horror flick.
The brutality speaks to this being a monster movie as well, even as one understanding how to take its time. Whannell is all for setting the stakes and making the audience wait for the inevitable to happen. That said, by the time the third act begins, enough waiting has occurred, and the film lets loose with the violence an invisible threat can cause under the right circumstances. That said, while there is some gratuity in the amount of carnage, key moments underscore how much these actions affect the characters.
I enjoy what appears to be the amount of thought that went into making a proper Invisible Man fit for today. This is a movie that manages to satisfy on a genre film level, which means being effective in terms of the high concept, as well as baking in social commentary relevant to its time. That’s what the best horror movies are capable of.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a truly great take on the Universal Classic Monsters. The Invisible Man has done well to reveal some positive light on this dark universe.