Universal Pictures dominated the horror genre from the early 30’s through the mid-50’s with their shared monster universe, which consisted of a variety of iconic characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankenstein’s Bride, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon – with most of which crossing over for such films as ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman’ (1943), ‘The House of Frankenstein’ (1944), ‘The House of Dracula’ (1945), and the Abbot and Costello movies .
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Universal had success with their revamping of ‘The Mummy’ franchise when Writer/Director Stephen Sommers crafted an amalgam of ‘The Mummy’ (1932), ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ (1940), and ‘The Mummy’s Tomb’ (1942), with ‘The Mummy’ (1999) and ‘The Mummy Returns’ (2001), both of which serve as love letters to the classic franchise. The studio didn’t have much success with their effort to remake ‘The Wolfman’ with the 2010 film nor with their attempt to re-launch this legendary original shared universe under the new banner of “Dark Universe” beginning with 2017’s ‘The Mummy’. The problem with the planned Dark Universe is that they aimed to take these characters in the direction of big budget adventures, partly capitalizing on the success of Sommers’ ‘The Mummy’ flicks, and mostly looking to capitalize on the shared universe success that Marvel Studio’s has been having since their launch in 2008, and this direction is something that just doesn’t work with the classic monsters. These don’t need to be big budget action flicks marketed as summer blockbusters, and it took the failure of 2017’s ‘The Mummy’ for the studio to understand this point.
With the plans for Dark Universe scrapped, Universal turned to Blumhouse for a low budget, modern day take on ‘The Invisible Man’ from ‘Upgrade’ Writer/Director Leigh Whannell, and what we got is a huge step in the right direction for the future of the Universal Monsters.
Leigh Whannell’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is neither a remake of the 1933 film with Claude Rains nor a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, as it shares nothing in common with the original story aside from the title and the lead antagonist having the surname Griffin. Like ‘The Invisible Man Returns’ (1940), ‘The Invisible Woman’ (1940), ‘The Invisible Agent’ (1942), and ‘The Invisible Man’s Revenge’ (1944), Whannell takes the concept and creates a new story.
The film begins with Cecelia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) waking up in the middle of the night with the intent to flee from her abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a brilliant, yet obsessive and controlling scientist who specializes with optics. She manages to get away just in the nick of time with the assistance of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), in a tense and edge of the seat sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. As weeks pass by, Cecelia, under the care and protection of her friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), who also happens to be a police officer, and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), attempts to get her life back together but she often struggles as she’s consumed with the fear that Adrian will eventually find her. Things begin to change when she receives the news that Adrian had committed suicide, and as a result, she is to inherit his fortune, as long as she doesn’t commit a crime. At first things begin to look up for Cecelia, but soon she starts to feel that she’s being watched, and as strange occurrences begin to happen, she becomes convinced that Adrian is still alive, and that he has managed to turn himself invisible in order to fulfill his promise that if she ever left him, he will find her and torture her – and that she won’t see him coming.
What makes this movie totally effective is the combination of the deliberate pacing, the cinematography, the score (or sometimes lack thereof), and of course, the performance from Elisabeth Moss. If you’re someone who requires a story to move at a fast pace with lots of action every X number of minutes, this movie may not be for you. Here, Leigh Whannell delivers a slow-burn pace that actually enhances the continuously growing suspense that takes the viewer on the ride with Cecelia. This is mostly due in part to the cinematography and how things are framed and lit, and how the camera moves and lingers. In a way it felt like Whannell was channeling John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick with the way that the film-making style and the techniques with the camera played a major part in selling the atmosphere of this particular story. This isn’t some generic, half-baked, cookie-cutter film thrown together to cash in on an I.P. – instead it’s a great piece of horror film-making from someone with a clear vision – and it’s a well-executed effort on all ends.
As far as performances go, Elisabeth Moss is terrific as Cecelia. She convincingly portrays the range of emotions that the character experiences throughout the film, going from terrified, to desperate, to determined. The weight of this movie falls on her shoulders, and she carries it with ease. Aldis Hodge, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman and Storm Reid all do well with their supporting roles as well. Oliver Jackson-Cohen doesn’t get much screen time at all as Adrian, but honestly one of the things that I think really works with this movie is the fact that we don’t get his perspective; he’s the antagonist, plain and simple. Despite his lack of screen presence, we’re given a lot about his character and his nature to know the type of person he is: he’s a narcissistic, manipulative, controlling and abusive man who has not only made Cecelia’s life a living hell, but we also learn he used to do the same to his brother Tom since childhood. Keeping Adrian as the villain, and never attempting to get us, the audience, to sympathize with him was the right move on Whannell’s part.
My only negatives are very minor, and they mostly have to do with plot holes and lapses in logic, but none are so big that they took me out of the movie. My only other minor gripe is that I wish we did have more emphasis and understanding on Adrian’s brother, Tom. I felt like there was some interesting character stuff here that should have been fleshed out more and there was a missed opportunity by not exploring this character and his relationship with Adrian growing up.
Overall, while not perfect, I loved this movie.
Do I wish we got a faithful adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel? Absolutely. But I’m not going to complain, because what we got instead makes me hopeful about the future of Universal’s monster legacy, and right now, that’s all that matters.
‘The Invisible Man’ (2020)
9 out of 10
‘The Invisible Man’ is in theaters now.
For my ranking and reviews of the classic Universal ‘Invisible Man’ franchise (1933-1944), click here: