It was always a bit odd that Universal Pictures never quite got around to revisiting its famous monsters properly, especially with the knowledge that their movies from the 30s were a precursor to today’s blockbuster “shared universe” franchises. The studio finally realized how much of a wasted opportunity this was and went about creating the Dark Universe — infamous characters were cast, 2014’s Dracula Untold was ret-conned, photo-shoots were undertaken, 2017’s The Mummy was bungled into an action misfire — before disbanding the entire thing. Happily, the desire to bring these characters back into the light remains, and with writer/director Leigh Whannell‘s The Invisible Man that desire has resulted in a terrifically entertaining nail-biter that highlights the monster of the title by focusing on the woman he claims as his victim.
Waves crash against a rocky bluff, and in the shiny new house above, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is executing her escape. Go-bag in hand, she sneaks out of the high-tech house, runs through the woods, and leaps into her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) waiting car. Her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) gives chase, smashes her window, and screams into the night as the sisters drive away. The days and weeks that follow see Cecilia reveal to Emily and their friend James (Aldis Hodge) that Adrian was controlling and abusive, and a sigh of relief comes when news hits that the wealthy and highly intelligent scientist has died by his own hands. Cecilia inherits his fortune, with telling strings attached, and soon finds herself terrorized by something — or someone — that no one can see. Worse, no one believes her.
Touches of Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) and Hollow Man (2000) aside, Whannell’s rebirth of The Invisible Man feels like a fresh take blending the most minimal of threads from H.G. Wells‘ novel with more urgent themes from today. The title may suggest otherwise, but this is arguably the story of a woman whose concerns and fears are ignored to the point that she herself may as well be invisible. Whannell’s direction is noticeably sharper than his script this time around, but even with those very visible bumps the film is a cracking thriller that slowly, expertly turns up the tension with suspense, scares, and one or two surprises.
Budget talk rarely belongs in reviews, but it must be pointed out how ridiculously good this movie looks and sounds. Whannell and his team — production designer Alex Holmes, cinematographer Stefan Duscio, and sound designers Chris Terhune & P.K. Hooker, to name a few — squeeze magic out of a Blumhouse budget delivering sharp visuals and exquisite sound design. From the modern look of Adrian’s coastal mansion to the more rundown and homey feel of James’ house to the other environments that Cecilia finds herself in, these locales feel alive and wholly separate from the next. To the film’s central conceit, each offers its own nooks and crannies from which the invisible man’s next act of harassment or pain will stem, and Whannell plays with those expectations brilliantly. He trains viewers to suspect the madman is onscreen even when he isn’t, and it works to keep characters and audiences alike on edge.
Whannell’s script isn’t quite as airtight, though, and while it works more than well enough to generate thrills there are a few beats that underwhelm. For one, you can’t help but wish the film had played with Cecilia’s sanity a bit longer in regard to her paranoia. It’s instead revealed early on that the invisible threat is indeed real, and while Adrian’s gaslighting works on the supporting characters the audience is left several steps ahead and waiting with minor frustration for the rest of them to catch up. The realization that Cecilia hadn’t told anyone about Adrian’s behavior — and the fact that we’re never given glimpse of it either — could have offered the possibility that Cecilia’s claims were nothing but delusions which in turn would force viewers into finding the truth. There’s also a stretch where Cecilia, having discovered a potential workaround in combating her invisible ex, decides instead to ignore that knowledge resulting in additional frustration. Others have their own annoying lapses in intelligence, but Whannell’s direction and Moss’ performance power through to deliver a winner despite the letdowns.
Moss is no stranger to playing women fighting back against male entitlement and worse, but while The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2020) and Top of the Lake (2013-2017) touch on genre influences, The Invisible Man goes full bore with its scares, terror, and very human monster. Whannell’s script wisely keeps its themes as clear subtext while focusing on the genre elements, and Moss reveals herself to be a tough as nails protagonist. Her intensity comes through with a very physical performance, both in expression and full body encounters with her abusive ex, and the camera is with her every step of the way. As he did with Upgrade (2018), Whannell’s camera pulls viewers along for every push and shove leaving Moss little room to hide, and the result is jarring on the human level as much as it is the horror one.
Toss in a hauntingly effective score by Benjamin Wallfisch and a nice little punch of an ending, and it seems like Universal has finally found the right formula for revisiting their beloved monsters from the past — and that’s no formula at all. The Invisible Man exists as its own creation that, while inspired by a classic, is as modern a horror movie as you’re likely to find.