Adapting stories as timeless and enduring as those of the classic Universal monsters can often be a tricky task. The immediate urge is to update the story for now, make it current and relatable to a modern audience. The danger of course, is that it’s always possible to update too much, mutating the story into something only tangentially related to the source material. This was the unfortunate case of the last Universal monster reboot, 2017’s ill-conceived franchise starter The Mummy, which took the classic horror story and transformed it into what was essentially a Marvel movie, resulting in a flop so monumental that Universal completely scrapped all its plans for their intended “Dark Universe” and went back to square one.
The cleverness, then, of Leigh Whannell’s new retelling of The Invisible Man, is in the simplicity of his update. The film remains planted firmly in the genre of horror, but Whannell flips the perspective. Instead of the tragic tale of a man who becomes a victim of his own scientific hubris, Whannell’s film tells the story of a woman terrorized by an obsessive and abusive man who will do anything to get to close to her. It’s a decidedly timely and heavy story, but Whannell smartly never lets the film tip into pure exploitation and Elizabeth Moss’ excellent lead performance anchors the drama with her vulnerable, intensely human performance.
The film opens on a cold and windy night, placing us firmly in classic horror movie territory as Cecilia Kass (Moss) quietly pulls herself free from the grasp of her overbearing, abusive husband, the tech genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, doing very grounded and creepy work). We never see the full extent of Adrian’s abuse, but the urgent and paranoid look on Cecilia’s face says it all.
She eventually escapes Adrian’s modernist, cliffside mansion and goes to live in hiding with a police detective (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Two weeks later, she receives word from Adrian’s lawyer and brother Tom (Michael Dorman, struggling his way through an American accent) that Adrian has committed suicide and has provided her in his will with $5 million cash.
The relief isn’t long-lasting though, as Cecilia slowly begins to find herself terrorized and stalked by an invisible figure. Believing that Adrian, a technical wizard in the field of optics, has faked his own death and devised a way to become invisible, Cecilia desperately attempts to prove that what she is experiencing is real and that this all another sick ploy by Adrian to make her doubt her own grip on reality and send her back into his arms.
The themes of the film are admittedly rough, and the film does not shy away from showing the real long-term effects of abuse and PTSD, but Whannell smartly never steps over the line, leaving just enough of the brutal details to the imagination to keep the film from slipping into the territory of a 70s rape-revenge film. He is also aided in this department by another gripping edge-of-sanity performance by Moss, who expresses so much trauma and pain without ever becoming a caricature. A mid-film monologue delivered by Cecilia to an unseen Adrian proves particularly moving, and showcases a synergy between writer and performer that makes me really want to see Moss and Whannell collaborate more in the future.
But, of course, the film is still at its core, a horror film and its here that Whannell showcases a strong command of the genre, utilizing all the tools in the horror utility belt- Negative space, jump scares, stark wide angle framing- to create an incredibly potent sense of paranoia and fear. Whannell also uses his knack for bravura action filmmaking (previously showcased in his sloppily entertaining B-picture Upgrade), to great effect, with a stunning and kinetic one-take fight between Cecilia and her invisible attacker being an absolute highlight.
The film is not without its faults, however. Its shaggy 124-minute runtime makes itself apparent following a fake-out ending roughly 15-20 minutes before the credits eventually roll, and the film overall probably could’ve used a bit more tightening in the edit (the production did apparently experience a pretty expedited post-production schedule). The movie also does suffer from some pretty far-fetched plot contrivances in the latter half, but the ride is so entertaining and the filmmaking so strong that this never becomes much of an issue.
Overall, The Invisible Man is a crowd-pleasing, socially-relevant piece of popcorn horror filmmaking and proves Whannell to be one of the more exciting voices in the genre today [B+].
Review by Mark Bennett