Universal Pictures, the studio which birthed the famous “Universal Monster” series of the 1930s through the 1950s (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf-Man, and the Creature From The Black Lagoon) has been struggling to rekindle their famed horror movie embers for decades, with mixed results; from 1999’s “The Mummy” to…well, Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” (2017). Teaming up with prolific low-budget horror factory Blumhouse Pictures, they may have finally found their way back with an imaginative, albeit flawed remake of “The Invisible Man” (2020).
*****MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The most brilliant move of this reimagining, written and directed by Leigh Whannell (very loosely adapted from H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel), was changing the focus of the story away from the titular character and around his victim… in this case, a frightened thirtysomething woman named Cecilia “Cece” Kass (an absolutely brilliant Elizabeth Moss). Other than a few names, there is very little of Wells’ novel or Whale’s 1933 film in this latest version…but what it lacks in fidelity, it more than makes up for in fresh perspective.
The film opens with Cece planning a methodical escape from the Northern California gilded cage of her possessive, Tony Stark-wealthy, opticals-genius live-in boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Quietly slipping out from his sleeping grasp one night, Cece carefully packs a few essentials, changes into sweats, disables security cameras and is juust about free…until she accidentally trips a car alarm as she runs into their dog. Hurriedly making a run for freedom, she arranges a late-night pickup from her loyal sister Emily (Harriet Dyer). In Michael Myers’ fashion, an enraged Adrian runs out to the waiting car, smashing Emily’s passenger side window with his bare hand (a long debunked movie myth, but still effective for a jump-scare), as Kim speeds away in the nick of time.
A few weeks later, we see an emotionally shattered Cece staying with a cop friend named James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenaged daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Cece’s fear of her ex runs so deep that she is terrified of even walking to the mailbox for fear of being spotted. Emily unexpectedly shows up at James’ house with news that Adrian has apparently committed suicide. Relief? Maybe, maybe not…
At a will reading given by Adrian’s creepy lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman), Cece learns she has received a sizable fortune from her filthy-rich ex, which she plans to use to help college-age Sydney fulfill her dream of going to Parson’s Fashion School in New York City. Staying with James and Sydney begins to settle Cece’s nerves a bit, as they settle in a family-vibe, with Cece acting as a maternal figure to Sydney.
Gradually this makeshift domestic arrangement is disturbed by ghost like incidents (shades of Blumhouse’s own “Paranormal Activity” franchise) as stovetop flames are mysteriously turned up, important architectural designs go missing (sabotaging Cece’s job interview), a hateful email is sent to Kim from Cece’s email address, and Sydney is mysteriously slapped while speaking with Cece. The last incident prompts daddy James to take Sydney out of the house for safety…not sure what to make of what just happened.
With James and Sydney away, Cece begins to believe that Adrian has faked his own death and used his own genius in optics to create some kind of invisibility suit (a move away from hokey chemicals and potions). Using various means to try to ‘catch’ her ex in the act, Cece hits upon the idea of using the house’s landline to call Adrian’s cell. In a well-executed sequence, she hears the buzz of his phone coming from the attic…
Climbing up to the attic, she sees Adrian’s phone and goes through his pictures to see photos taken inside the house while she and Sydney were sleeping (why Cece didn’t just take this very incriminating phone as evidence eludes me, but hey…horror film’s gotta horror, right?). Realizing Adrian might be coming back up into the attic to retrieve it, she positions a bucket of fresh paint near the attic access and dumps it onto a shimmering figure of a momentarily visible ‘invisible’ man.’ Hearing Adrian cleaning the paint off in the kitchen sink, she cautiously follows, only to be repeated battered by him. She breaks free only by shattering conveniently placed dinnerware against Adrian’s unseen form…
Fleeing the house, Cece breaks into her ‘dead’ ex’s luxurious oceanside home (yes, the same home she fled from in the opener), looking for clues as to Adrian’s curious lack of visage. After some digging in his laboratory, she finds his invisibility suit almost by accident, just as her deserted dog alerts her to his entry with its barking. Once again barely escaping with her life, a terrified Cece calls her sister and arranges a truce at a very busy (for safety) Chinese restaurant.
Cece tries to reassure Emily that she didn’t send the email. She also tells her sister that she’s found tangible proof of Adrian’s newfound invisible status. But before Cece has a chance to say more, a knife picks itself up and slashes Emily’s throat, before wedging itself firmly into Cece’s shocked hand. The restaurant patrons, of course, only see Cece standing with a bloodied knife over her sister’s dying body. A mortified Cece is then arrested and held in mandatory psychiatric detention.
In the psych ward, Cece realizes that Adrian can watch over her with impunity, as no one believes her story about her optics genius-ex developing an invisibility suit to stalk her. The camera carefully shifts focus from the actors to the negative spaces around the actors, nicely capturing the palpable paranoia of Cece’s perspective. Every empty space in frame could be him. This is low-budget filmmaking at its smartest…using negative spaces and differing focal points to create a character.
From there, the story sees Cece deciding to turn the tables on her tormenter. Learning from the hospital staff that she is mysteriously pregnant, Cece is met by Tom, who whisperingly confides in her that his brother is indeed alive, and that he is willing to make the case against her disappear…if she agrees to have the baby (a battered woman’s right to choose extorted away from her as well). Realizing the baby is her only leverage, Cece refuses to commit to an answer, but secretly swipes one of Tom’s pens from an open briefcase while he’s distracted…
Alone in her cell, she takes the pen and tries to slit her wrists in the shower, knowing it’ll prompt her invisible ex to stop her. Right on cue, he tries, and she stabs at him as well. The resultant chaos gives her a Sarah Connor-like opportunity to break out of the psych ward and follow her unseen attacker into the streets. Picking up a dropped gun from one of several security guards the invisible man has killed or disabled, Cece hijacks an SUV and warns James that Adrian might be after Sydney.
At James’ house, Sydney and James are both terrorized and badly beaten by Cece’s ‘ghost’ as she barely arrives in time to aim a fire extinguisher at their attacker, making him momentarily visible. Using this temporary vulnerability, Cece quickly shoots several rounds into the invisible man’s chest. The cloaking suit is deactivated, and Cece pulls off the hood to reveal…
Taking one cue from Wells’ novel, it’s revealed that Tom has been the partner-in-crime for his brother, playing the role of the lowly degenerate whom Griffin coerces to do his bidding in the novel (lawyer, degenerate…I see what you did there, movie). Police units are sent to Adrian’s deserted home, where they find a still-alive Adrian, bound in a closet. Adrian has not only faked his own death, but arranged for his dead brother to become the fall guy in his own faked kidnapping as well. With all of the crimes now pinned to the late lawyer bro Tom, James tries to assure a disbelieving Cece that justice will be done. She doesn’t believe it. Cece knows the two brothers were working together, since the late Tom spoke of being bullied by Adrian.
We later see a glammed up Cece arranging to meet Adrian over dinner back at the house. Wired for sound, we see James listening to her every move. During dinner, she tries to get Adrian to confess his role in the whole thing, but he repeatedly feigns ignorance. Cece then excuses herself. While she’s gone, we see Adrian on the security camera, appearing to slit his own throat with a knife.
Justice is served as the main course, as Cece exits the luxurious home. James agrees to go along with her revenge, since the home’s security cameras clearly showed no one else in the room as Adrian’s throat was cut.
Show Me The Money.
This low-budget ($7 million) film uses its resources wisely, giving it the appearance of much higher-end horror flick. Director/screenwriter Leigh Whannell creates a palpable feeling of suspense and dread in that first hour or so that is on a par with the works of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick… and yes, I stand by that statement as a fan of both filmmakers.
The camera’s repeated shifting onto unused negative spaces of the frame in order to convey the possible ‘appearance’ of the titular character is as effective as the shark-cam from “Jaws” (also from Universal), and it’s achieved with simple movements and focal changes. Easy-peasy.
Even in the more effects-laden scenes of the movie’s climax, we see no betrayal of the movie’s modest budget; the CGI invisibility suit effects are on a par with almost anything you’d expect to see in a $250 million Marvel superhero movie.
While the movie is cast largely with no-name actors, Elizabeth Moss (“Mad Men” “Handmaid’s Tale”) gives the movie more than enough star power, with an Oscar-worthy performance that will probably never be duly appreciated by the Academy. Recognized or not, make no mistake; this is Moss’ movie and she owns the hell out of it.
A Few Visible Nits.
The layered, palpable feeling of pure dread created by Whannell in the first hour begins to slowly give way to a more conventional “Kill Bill”-style revenge climax. While the revenge finale is predictable, in hindsight it’s hard to imagine this movie not giving Cece her due revenge. All the same, the careful buildup of that nuanced, traumatizing first hour is eventually reduced to “Killed Adrian. Got the suit. Don’t rat me out, James. Let’s go.”
Maybe if Adrian’s comeuppance had been a bit more clever than ‘eye-for-an-eye’ (or throat-for-a-throat) style revenge…? Perhaps we could’ve seen Cece turning the tables and chasing her wounded stalker, still wearing his invisibility suit, right into heavy traffic. That would’ve cleaned Cece’s hands of unnecessary blood, yet still allowed Adrian’s own creation to be his undoing, but in a more darkly comedic way.
Some other nagging questions are left unanswered as well. What exactly was brother/lawyer Tom’s deal, anyway? Was everything he did just for loyalty to his brother? Was it for fear of Adrian’s bullying? If so, then why? Tom had the invisibility suit, so he was no longer subject to anyone’s whims, not even those of his bullying older brother. So why would he sheepishly agree to help Adrian torment this woman? It’s implied by Adrian’s lack of a confession that perhaps it was Tom acting solo the entire time. Perhaps Tom is the father of Cece’s pending baby (?). None of these possibilities are properly dealt with. For a film that took such meticulous care to establish its mood, the writing of its climax feels like a bit of a rush job, despite the movie’s two hour and five minute running time.
Seeing “The Invisible Man” For What’s There.
While this latest adaptation of “The Invisible Man” is not without a few flaws, its most successful accomplishments come to mind just as easily. The film’s shift in perspective from title character to prey makes all the difference, turning what could’ve been yet another cheapie “Hollow Man” sequel into a meaningful analysis of what it means to live in fear of a stalker (having been stalked once myself, I can tell you firsthand that it’s not flattering, nor is a joke).
The film also speaks to previously ‘invisible’ people, such as victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, who’ve recently found their voices and courage in the wake of the MeToo movement. With former Miramax studio head Harvey Weinstein recently found guilty of two felony sex crimes after a lengthy trial, “The Invisible Man” couldn’t be a more timely horror film; very much like “The Silence of the Lambs” coming out a few months before Jeffrey Dahmer’s murderous reign of suburban cannibalism went public.
With a well-timed release, a powerful central performance, smart direction, and some solid scares delivered on a tiny budget, there is more to admire about this ambitious little horror film than not.