The powerhouse production engine at Universal have always been synonymous with many cinematic icons over a century of entertaining the masses. Before the yellow Minions, realistic CG dinosaurs and unrealistic CG felines they had backed, there were monsters. Impressive creature features forever destined to break the mold of what’s become your typical sci-fi, horror, or mystery feature. After a pair of big budget misfires, the studio’s faith in producer Jason Blum (Get Out), and one of his greatest pupils, has proven justified in crafting an oddly relevant, astonishingly terrifying piece of horror filmmaking whose near-masterpiece quality may be left unmatched this year. Once a classic HG Wells story, later a heritage Universal horror flick from their early years with Claude Rains in the title role, and now a fantastic reimagining by director Leigh Whannell, The Invisible Man could perhaps be the first film of 2020 to pull out all the necessary stops to both entertain, and truly surprise.
Whannell’s tale starts out rather quiet, and dark (in an eye-catching way). Not for long, though; once it’s out of the gate, endless tension, for the better. As budding architect Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) attempts to escape the home of her rather unstable boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she’s willing to break free of a cycle of poor, manic, insane behavior and try to start anew. But the past can always catch up, and some wounds never really heal, if the person one’s running away from is there to prolong recovery.
Two weeks after fleeing with sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), she’s comfortably settled in the suburbs with James (Aldis Hodge), a close friend and hard-nosed detective, and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), with whom she builds a close kinship. But then comes the sudden news of Adrian’s death by an apparent suicide, with his brother Tom (Michael Dorman) stepping in to handle the finances, with Cecilia taking a small sum of the deceased optics scientist’s net worth, approximately $5 million. And all seems to be well, until her psychosis convinces her that Adrian’s presence has never left. It’s only grown to disturb and distract her, the less visible he appears.
Whannell, last heard from keeping audiences on their toes in 2018’s Upgrade, seizes the finest possible opportunity to look beyond Wells’ story, and even James Whale’s iconic golden age classic, to create something totally new of an overly familiar tale. Hardcore horror fans likely have the most to gain from this accurate representation of abusive relationships, where they go wrong, and what manner of catharsis there could be in approaching those demons.
Though in enacting a certain type of investigatory revenge, that’s where the realism pauses briefly. Whannell makes it no less powerful or impactful as Moss takes the driver’s seat in a dramatic descent toward madness and rage, hell-bent to turn the tables on her abusive enemy once and for all. Jackson-Cohen commits to his part, as nefarious as he becomes; he’s impossible not to hate, eventually. While Dyer, Hodge, and Reid (still the delightful youngster that made A Wrinkle in Time so fun) fill out the supporting cast with comfortable aplomb, leaving much space for their mutual friend to work.
The stage is then set for a deliberately torrid psych thriller, handled more eloquently than most as that tension continues to build, and Cecilia’s fearful instinct further motivates her drastic actions. And in genuine horror flick fashion, we experience a few mild jump scares, but never for show; more in the way of expert choreography, which is becoming a unique art form in itself. The enjoyment, if one can call it that, is in seeing the coil compress, with many an unexpected surprise or throwback to a prior incarnation that will likely fly over most viewer’s heads.
Add on top a level of ambience, in both visual and aural sense, no one could possibly anticipate in a highbrow film like Invisible Man. From the opening shot, cinematographer Stefan Duscio builds a palette of shots based on the unsettling nature of stillness, followed by graceful fluidity as if we were watching ballet on screen. Particularly between visible and invisible characters; without giving much away, there’s some manner of visual effects to be found, but never is the prospect obtrusive in any way. It’s not far from essential to invoke the idea of an enemy you can’t really see but can knock you out if you’re not one step ahead of them. The story’s effectiveness needn’t be hindered by the necessary use of computer assistance; that’s what matters. Throw in Benjamin Wallfisch’s chilling musical landscape, and the picture feels most complete.
By the end of The Invisible Man, anyone who dares embark on this bold, experimental, lengthy (at over two hours with zero post credit payoff) adventure will be at the edge of their seat, gasping for air, unsure that the ride is actually over. Whannell has successfully championed a great new spin on a property most sci-fi fans were educated on, making it the scariest thing imaginable by way of unbridled imagination, much like Whale accomplished with audiences back in the day, and keeping it in tune with a major focal point of conversation.
Considering I had avoided Universal’s last attempts at reviving their old monster movie DNA, what the studio can accomplish here with the right level of talent is the breath of fresh air we rightly deserve. I already know I’ll be revisiting this cinematic gem before long, it could easily stand out as one of the year’s finest surprises. And if the studio responsible can manage and maintain that element we didn’t think we needed until now, a bright future for understated creature features could be on the way. If we all can handle them, of course. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Invisible Man opens in wide release this weekend; rated R for some strong bloody violence, and language; 124 minutes.