Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man (Photo: Universal)
THE INVISIBLE MAN
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Leigh Whannell
STARS Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge
The Mummy might be the best thing that ever could have happened to The Invisible Man.
Those who have managed to block out the aborted aberration that was the Dark Universe will be forgiven for not recalling all the details, but that was Universal’s attempt to create a franchise whose films all took place within the same universe (yes, the ample riches generated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe led to this brainstorm). Universal, of course, is the studio behind the greatest compilation of horror films in cinema history, starting with the silent classics starring Lon Chaney, moving through the ‘30s and ‘40s gems featuring Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr., and ending in the ‘50s with The Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy. (After this, the studio focused on science fiction rather than horror.)
Amusingly, those films were often part of a shared universe, with the monsters crossing over in such efforts as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Back then, though, studio employees spent more time on entertainment than advertising, so no one wasted valuable hours devising cute nicknames like the Dark Universe.
Although most of Universal’s one-shot horror flicks in the 21st century have proven to be dreadful (Van Helsing, The Wolfman, Dracula Untold), that didn’t stop the studio from plundering its priceless past by launching a new interconnected franchise with the release of 2017’s The Mummy. Unfortunately for the studio — but fortunate for those of us who had the film leading our 10 Worst of 2017 lists — the movie was such a monumental bomb that the whole Dark Universe idea was scrapped. That in turn led to the cancellation of a version of The Invisible Man starring Johnny Depp.
Since the Depp flick doubtless would have been patterned after the beats of The Mummy, we dodged a bullet there. Instead, we’ve been given an Invisible Man that’s meant to stand on its own. And that it does, admirably. Writer-director Leigh Whannell, whose previous picture was the intriguing Upgrade, has opted to keep H.G. Wells’ title and basic premise and … that’s it. The rest is his own fanciful and captivating take on the tale.
The central character is not the titular dude but rather the woman in his life. That would be Cecilia Kass (an excellent Elisabeth Moss), who, as the film opens, is quietly slipping out of the bed she shares with brilliant scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian is a serial abuser, and Cecilia simply cannot take any more of his bullying, beastly behavior. She escapes the house with the aid of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), and she moves into the home of her longtime friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his young daughter Sydney (Storm Reid).
News soon arrives that Adrian committed suicide, but Cecilia nevertheless still senses his presence. While everyone else writes it off as his lingering effect on her psyche, she’s privy to some unexplained phenomena occurring around the house (sheets sliding on their own, footprints without accompanying feet) that convinces her that Adrian is not only still alive but has discovered a way to make himself invisible.
One might think that a man with such an astounding invention would immediately expose it to the world in exchange for obscene wealth and lasting fame. Certainly, he wouldn’t just use it to play childish pranks on his ex. But these folks would be underestimating the mindset of the insecure American male. If nothing else, The Invisible Man is a potent look at the abuse foisted upon women by the nation’s predators, and how it feels like that threat is perpetually present even in moments of calm. It’s the perfect movie of the moment, a dangerous and frightening period when MRAs continue to blanket-troll the Internet with impunity and wealthy men of power are too often cheered (by men and, alas, women alike) whenever they exercise their self-given right to grab ‘em by the … uh, below the waistline.
Yet while the message is there and the meaning is clear, Whannell keeps it on such a low simmer that The Invisible Man functions first and foremost as a crackling horror yarn . Using minimal effects for maximum impact, Whannell creates and maintains a fraught atmosphere by placing the collective audience in Cecilia’s shoes and keeping everyone unaware of Adrian’s location at any given moment.
Apparently, the only thing scarier than what you can’t see in the dark is what you can’t see in the light.