Not so long ago, Universal Studios announced plans for ‘The Dark Universe”. The plan was to crossover all the long dead movie monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula in a Marvel Studios-esque franchise. The Mummy (2017) was meant to set everything up, including a reboot of The Invisible Man, starring Johnny Depp. The abysmal box office and critical reception to the The Mummy halted the entire operation. The Universal monsters were scary, so it didn’t make sense to turn them into superheroes. The studio learnt from their mistake, realising not everything works as a cinematic universe. Redirecting their efforts towards streamlined horror films, Universal (with the help of Blumhouse) has shown what they can really do with a new version of The Invisible Man (2020), not starring Johnny Depp.
Elizabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, an aspiring architect trapped in an abusive relationship with Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a successful technology developer. Cecilia escapes from Adrian’s fortress-like home, seeking refuge with her policeman friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge). Terrified that Adrian will find her, Cecilia stays cooped up in the house until finding out that Adrian has apparently committed suicide. Everyone around her relaxes a little bit, but Cecilia remains scared as she’s experiencing strange and unsettling things. Objects move when they shouldn’t be, sounds are heard when it’s quiet and there’s a presence felt even when alone. Despite everyone thinking she’s lost her mind, Cecilia claims that Adrian is alive and is stalking her as an Invisible Man.
Famous for his work on Upgrade (2018) and the Saw Franchise (2004-2017), Director Leigh Whannell is the perfect choice for a modern retelling of The Invisible Man. Having an invisible bad guy means you don’t need actors in the frame half the time, but you’d still need to use heaps of visual effects whenever objects and people are thrown around the room. A film with $100 million would probably resort to CGI, but Whannell doesn’t have a massive budget. With only $7 million on hand, Whannell has to be creative with his set-piece moments. Whannell can get a lot out of a little, thanks to his experience on Saw. The clever practical effects create the most effective scares possible and the CGI is used only when absolutely necessary. It’s impressive just how seamless it all is.
Cool visual effects mean nothing if the film isn’t shot appropriately. Whennall and Cinematographer Stefan Duscio completely understand that fact. Duscio has gone for an artfully grim aesthetic, highlighting every dark and haunting aspect of this world. The lighting and framing draws attention towards every corner of every room, where a sinister invisible stalker may be lurking. The audience never wants to tear their eyes aways from the screen for fear of missing any details. Whennall and Duscio rightfully don’t try to trick their audience, knowing that we’re expecting to see unnerving things occur. The gorgeous composition is not only great to look at, but is also a useful tool in creating the horror. The camerawork prepares us for objects moving around, but we still get a scare when it happens.
One thing that plagues some horror films are dumb characters and illogical plots. Thankfully, the plot is kept streamlined and Cecilia is quick to figure out what’s going on. Usually, the audience is yelling at the screen in frustration whenever characters go into dark rooms or can’t see obvious clues. Cecilia is smarter than most horror film protagonists, thinking and doing exactly what the audience would. She still goes into the dark room, but has a purpose and a plan. Where things may get a little muddy is the Invisible Man himself. In most horror films like this, the ‘hauntings’ are the way they are because it’s supernatural force. This story leans on science fiction plot elements, which confuses the Invisible Man’s actions. It’s not a huge issue, as their are character based explanations given.
The best horror films usually have some kind of emotional or physiological allegory which adds thematic weight and The Invisible Man is no exception. Once again, Whennall knows he’s not fooling anybody, thus leaving the allegorical meaning right on the surface. Namely, Cecilia is an abuse survivor and the Invisible Man is the metaphorical (and literal) manifestation of it. It may be an obvious portrayal, but there’s a clean cinematic elegance to the idea of trauma literally following its victim around. It may not be revolutionary, but the simply drawn connection between the literal story and the allegorical meaning is functional and creates the necessary drama. Even the various side characters competently stand-in for different aspects of the abuse survival analysis.
One curious aspect of the film is how it’s horrific sequences walk the line to becoming action sequences. It’s unsurprising, considering the original plans for this film were tailored to a cinematic universe. This isn’t to say that the horror scenes and action scenes aren’t well crafted, as both are expertly so. The tension in the scary moments is unbearably high and the thrills in the exciting moments rival large blockbusters. The problem is that these tones never manage to co-exist in the same moment. The first half of the story is a note perfect horror, which transitions into an action heavy thriller for the second half. Whennall handles the tonal shift seamlessly, but those expecting scares all the way through may feel disappointed. Happily, it’s completely engaging no matter the tonal focus.
Audiences (and critics) complain about a studio’s output all the time. It can be unfair, considering most viewers will never know the pressure of trying to figure out what moviegoers want. Even though it took the failure of another film to allow this one to happen, Universal’s success with The Invisible Man is what should define them. It may have seemed obvious that streamlined horror was the way to go, but that doesn’t negate the worth of The Invisible Man.
Best way to watch it: In an empty cinema. It’ll give you the creeps.