A Modern Twist on a Monster Movie Classic Results in a Smart, Suspenseful Thriller
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY LEIGH WHANNELL / 2020
By now there have been many post-mortems written on Universal’s “Dark Universe.” That was supposed to be their attempt at a shared cinematic universe, ala Marvel’s Avengers franchise, albeit one headlined by their classic movie monsters. The Wolfman (2010), Dracula Untold (2014), and The Mummy (2017) were each heralded as the kick-off for a string of inter-connected monster flicks, but they were all box-office duds, and it became pretty clear that no one but Universal’s executives were interested in the idea (though frankly, a Bill Condon-helmed Bride of Frankenstein featuring Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster did sound intriguing). So when The Mummy bombed, Universal placed its dreams of a shared movie continuity on more-or-less permanent hold.
An intense and suspenseful thriller that contains quite a few shocks and surprising twists
Enter Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions. Known for their line of cheaply made (that’s not meant to be a pejorative) horror films, Blumhouse partnered up with Universal in 2014, with Universal distributing installments of Blumhouse’s highly successful Purge and Insidious series, as well as critical hits like Split, Get Out, and the Halloween reboot. With Universal pivoting their “Dark Universe” to more stand-alone, creator-driven movies, Blumhouse stepped in to produce. The first of these efforts is Leigh Whannel’s The Invisible Man. And if this movie is any indication of the quality of these films going forward, we can safely look forward to films that, while they won’t entirely eclipse the originals, will stand on their own as a new line of classic monster movies.
Whannell is a writer/director from Australia who got his big break working with James Wan on the first Saw movie. The two paired up again with Insidious. Whannell directed the third installment of the Insidious series. He would go on to write and direct 2018’s critically-acclaimed Upgrade. When Universal dropped its plans for the “Dark Universe,” Blumhouse brought Whannell in on The Invisible Man and he pitched his own take on the material. Whannel thought to tell the story not from the perspective of the mad see-through scientist, but from that of his victim. Universal and Blumhouse liked his ideas and gave him the green light.
And so we have 2020’s The Invisible Man. Elisabeth Moss, so good in such diverse roles as Peggy from Mad Men or Beck Something in last year’s Her Smell, continues to show what a marvel of an actor she is. She plays Cecilia Kass who escapes a relationship with abusive, controlling scientist Adrian Griffin at the start of the movie. Griffin, an expert in the field of optics, we are told, is so distraught by her leaving that he apparently kills himself and leaves her five million dollars in his will. All’s well and good for Cecilia then, as she finally starts to heal the mental trauma Griffin inflicted on her over their time together. However, she soon starts to get the feeling that Griffin may not be gone after all. She senses his presence even when she’s the only one in the room. When objects begin moving on their own accord, she becomes convinced that Griffin is invisible and stalking her.
Of course, trying to convince your friends and family that your dead ex is still somehow alive and invisible is a tricky prospect. Spoiler: he is and he is. And as Griffin’s torments increase their intensity, Cecilia starts to become cut off from everyone close to her, and her sanity and stability is increasingly questioned.
All of this makes for an intense and suspenseful thriller that contains quite a few shocks and surprising twists. Whannell’s reframing of H.G. Well’s story means the movie has no time for Griffin’s sob story. In the original telling, Griffin is a brilliant scientist who is unfortunately driven mad by his experiments and succumbs to the allure of power his invisibility grants him. Here, Griffin has always been a horror, invisible or not. His invisibility grants him an anonymity that allows him to go further than he would have without it (much like how people act on social media!), but he was never a good man.
Moss, as the film’s anchor, is absolutely brilliant as she takes us through Cecilia’s growing paranoia and pain as Griffin’s attacks on her become more and more dangerous. No one, not even her closest friends, will believe her when she tells them what has been happening. They’re all convinced that Cecilia is losing her grip on sanity. When Griffin begins attacking the people Cecilia is close to, she’s been adequately set up to take the blame.
The movie’s invisibility effects are fine, but mostly besides the point. Whannell is able to take a shot of a room’s empty corner and fill it with dread as we imagine who might be lurking there. He pans away from Moss at one point and points the camera down an empty, dark hallway. There’s nothing to be seen in that shot, but it’s a very pregnant nothing. Who needs digital effects and fancy wireworks when the director can make the audience share the main character’s paranoia?