Universal have attempted to reboot their Monsters universe many times. In 2017, they launched the newly minted ‘Dark Universe’ with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy. Johnny Depp was cast as The Invisible Man, with the film to come after Bride of Frankenstein. Universal thought they had their MCU. Unfortunately for them, The Mummy—despite being led by Tom Cruise—had middling box office returns and was a gigantic, critical flop. The universe was cancelled before it even had a chance to get started. Universal then put the focus on what they should’ve done in the first place—creating standalone stories.
Now under the Blumhouse production banner, Australian screenwriter Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, Insidious: Chapter 3) was brought on write and direct, with Elisabeth Moss set as the lead and Johnny Depp replaced by The Haunting of Hill House’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the titular antagonist. We follow Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss)—a woman who’s trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). One night, she’s able to escape his grasp and seek refuge with her childhood friend, James (Aldis Hodge). A fortnight later, Adrian is found to have committed suicide. However, after a series of sinister incidents, Cecilia suspects his death was faked and desperately tries to prove she’s being haunted by an invisible force.
The best choice Leigh Whannell employs in this remake, is to have this story not be told from the perspective of its titular character. Instead, we follow Cecilia’s journey and her mental struggle after the suspected death of her husband. One thing Whannell notably does is not give us a chance to sympathise in any way with Adrian Griffin. From the opening scene, we follow Cecilia planning to stealthily exit her home unnoticed by her husband. Adrian’s emotional abuse never has to be justified or seen. Whannell puts us straight into Cecilia’s perspective from the get-go and it allows us to fully connect with her from frame one. It also allows Whannell to immediately create a sense of terror and suspense. One noticeable element throughout the film is the incredibly loud sound mix. The opening frame consisting of waves crashing against a rock face feels thunderous and instantly creates an uneasy soundscape. This is a very loud film, for the better. Even a dog’s food bowl crashing against the floor sounded explosive. In a film which strongly creates tension through silence, I’m inclined to think this was a deliberate creative choice by Whannell, and a good one at that.
Blumhouse occasionally receive flack for some of their more generic and bargain-basement offerings. Honestly, some of this criticism is well and due. For every Get Out or Split, they’ve got a Truth or Dare or Ma. Thankfully, The Invisible Man is one of their stronger offerings and this is due to Whannell’s prowess behind the camera as well as his respect for the source material. Upgrade proved he was a real technical craftsman who could execute fantastic, visceral, practical action. What he also did in that film was build an interesting, gunky world around its broken protagonist. While Upgradewas an action film with prevalent sci-fi elements, Whannell returned to the horror genre and proved how adept he is at crafting real scares which never feel cheap and are wholly tied to character. His use of the camera always feels precise and calculated. Even his use of jump scares don’t feel overly tacky or cheap.
It’s true that horror is far more effective when it’s tied directly to the story and characters you’re invested in, and that’s especially true with this film. I can’t emphasise enough how superb Elisabeth Moss is here. She completely elevates this film in every way. The scares are as effective as they are because she is 100 per cent committed to this performance. Moss is a well-renowned television star but hasn’t had many chances to shine in a leading part on film. When she has been able to, she’s been excellent, as evidenced in last year’s Her Smell—a musical drama which was criminally under-viewed. Moss was a powerhouse in that film, portraying a chaotic and self-destructive character. Yet, despite the two films being completely different from a genre perspective, she brings a similar, palpable, physical energy to this film.
One element I’ve noted in many of Moss’s performances is the way she’s able to communicate real emotion—in this case, terror—through a simple expression. There’s a sinister, dare I say, almost psychotic glint in her eyes at many points throughout, like she’s about to break down at any point within seconds. Without her being able to sell the shedding of her psychological wellbeing, this film wouldn’t work nearly as well. Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid are also very good in the supporting roles. There are no wasted characters. Having James’ character be one of the cops that’s investigating Cecilia’s wellbeing automatically gives him more depth than a regular cop character would.
But, along with Whannell’s craftmanship and Moss’s performance, it’s the thematic depth that this story has which elevates it above a standard Blumhouse horror film. This is very much a contemporary take on the source material. Ultimately, it’s a story about a woman having to overcome the shadow of domestic abuse and the lingering emotional trauma that comes about because of said abuse. Having this story told from the abused person’s perspective rather than the abuser’s was an incredibly smart choice for today’s landscape.
The film admittedly does get a bit convoluted in the third act. Whannell throws many twists at the audience and it can feel overwhelming. There’s a fantastic action scene that I expected to be the big climax, however, we hadn’t even gotten to one of the film’s main reveals yet. I was so on board by the third act that I was able to accept how schlocky it became.
The Invisible Man is an example of a reboot which works because it’s created by someone who wants to bring a fresh, relevant spin to the material. Whannell clearly understood what direction he had to take this story in and despite it being a century-old text, he makes it feel far timelier than it has any right to be. With Upgrade and now this, Whannell is proving to be one of Australia’s strongest directorial talents working today. He imbues his films with bombastic visual creativity and as evidenced with this film. He also knows when to apply restraint to the film’s plethora of suspenseful moments. But it’s Moss that comes out of this shining the brightest. She delivers true a powerhouse performance with real emotional weight. It’s definitely one which should ascend her to real stardom.
This review has teed itself up for one terrible joke: see The Invisible Man. You know I had to.
The Invisible Man is in cinemas February 27.