Universal has had its ups and downs with the revamping of their classic horror movie line-up. I’m not going to get into it too much, but few years ago they had a plan to revitalise the Universal Classic Monsters, Universal’s Dark Universe, but it crumbled before anything could really get going. The Invisible Man was to be re-imagined with Johnny Depp in the title role, however, the movie never got off the ground after Tom Cruise’s The Mummy did not fair well with critics and at the box office.
Now, we are here to witness the rebirth of the Universal Monsters, with our classic monsters/villains/anti-heroes re-imagined for contemporary stories starting with Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man with The Haunting of Hill House star Oliver Jackson-Cohen in the titular role. If the following movies are anything like it, Universal may have a formula that cannot fail.
The Invisible Man from 1933 is the story of a genius scientist, Griffin, who discovers a way to become invisible. The experiment backfires as he is unable to reverse the effects, and he descends into madness. Unlike the film, the novel of the same name by H.G. Well’s always alluded to a preexisting psychosis, hence his intense fascination with optics. In Whannel’s take he runs with the idea of Griffin being the bad guy. We have Adrian Griffin (played by Jackson-Cohen who is not seen often but leaves an impression), a brilliant man who specialises in optics, but he is not the lead in our story. His wife, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) leads the charge as she is his victim in an abusive marriage. The movie kicks off with Cecilia exacting a plan to escape the abuse, after she does Adrian supposedly kills himself. Shortly thereafter it has become clear that Adrian has figured out the key to invisibility and is now menacingly stalking and torturing Cecilia, but only Cecilia believes this.
Whannell’s film focuses on Adrian’s psychopathic nature through the eyes of Cecilia. There is certainly a film that could be made through Adrian’s perspective that still paints the same picture, Cecilia is his victim. However, Whannel priorities telling the story of The Invisible Man through the most terrifying lens, through the eyes of someone who cannot see her abuser. This narrative decision heightens the experience exponentially, sending shivers down your spine at the very prospect of Adrian hovering behind Cecilia at any given moment. It is never clear exactly where he is, but the feeling of not knowing where the danger is makes for a more compelling and vital experience.
The Invisible Man is not so much about genre-y aspects of this story, it is a cautionary tale of what it is like to be completely and utterly helpless to someone who means you harm. An intimate partner who is a constant danger to you. To use this classic horror tale to tell this story creates an experience that some people will never understand, and that some unfortunately do. Whannell zeroes in on one of the greatest horrors there ever was: being a woman. From the subtle unwanted remarks on your appearance by men you have just met to being in a relationship with a sadistic man, there is a great deal that women are unfortunately forced to face on a daily basis. And, Cecilia is grappling with how she ended up where she is and with a situation set up against her.
There is a point in the film where Cecilia is certain that she is speaking to Adrian and she begins to question why he picked her. Her question is seemingly directed at Adrian, but it is very much a question women in her position ask themselves when they have fallen into a dangerous relationship. Why me? As Moss’ Cecilia meekly expresses the desire to know, your heart will seize knowing she will never get an answer that would satisfy.
Besides being a well thought out and structured tale of a woman hunted by her invisible ex, the film is a startling and effective horror. There is only so much one can do with a monster that cannot be seen. The best tools for the job are the camera, score, and the acting. While the score from Benjamin Wallfisch and performance from Moss truly capture the menacing situation at hand, it would be nothing without the filming techniques on display.
Whannell utilises his camera to great effect, having the camera swinging around Cecilia as Adrian circles his prey. He also uses the special effects surrounding the invisibility sparsely, just as he utilised the special effects in his under-seen film Upgrade. Whannell knows when to lean on the classic horror tropes, like walking down a dark hallway, and when to surprise the audience with Adrian’s invisibility via VFX. The most impressive task is to have us at the edge of our seats with the stillness that surrounds Cecilia, and the question lingering over our heads, “Is he really there?”
The film never falls into the trap of doing too much with an invisible enemy wrecking havoc. The calculated and quiet tactics by the invisible man are for more effective in unsettling the audience, rather than him slamming doors or making things appear to float. He is too smart for that and there is where the scares exist.
The Invisible Man is an excellent step forward for Universal’s attempt to bring their classic monsters to the modern age. Using horror icons to speak to socially relevant issues, just as the originals did, but more grounded in our reality. This film is every bit a horror that it can be at every level, while also being a commentary on abuse. It is chilling and unnerving, as well as exciting and cathartic. Moss and Whannell will wow you at every turn.
The Invisible Man opens in theatres on February 28th
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa Abdi is a lifelong film student and aspiring film festival programmer. Her favourite genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and horror and her favourite director is Guillermo del Toro. She is madly in love with Eva Green and believes she should be cast in everything. You can follow Ferdosa on Twitter @atomicwick