The Invisible Man breathes new life into Universal’s classic monsters

Almost three years after Universal Pictures fell flat on its face attempting to relaunch its classic monster movies with the disastrous Tom Cruise edition of The Mummy, the studio has finally gotten it right with The Invisible Man. Boasting a killer Elisabeth Moss performance, Leigh Whannell’s reboot is a clever, suspenseful horror-thriller that suggests the future of the Universal monsters isn’t so dark after all.

When we last left the Universal monsters, the studio’s aim was to launch a Marvel-style series of interconnected films with its lineup of classic characters, including Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. But with 2017’s The Mummy, they rushed into it much too quickly, with that film spending an absurd amount of time advertising the so-called Dark Universe when we weren’t even sold on this individual chapter yet. The Mummy also suggested a series with a profound lack of vision, mixing Mission: Impossible-style action sequences with Avengers-style quips and brief moments of horror, as if it was trying to check every audience-pleasing box but without anything original to offer.

Before The Mummy, Universal also had a swing and a miss with 2014’s Dracula Untold, which essentially slapped the comic book movie formula onto Dracula to profoundly forgettable results. Both films left audiences deeply unconvinced as to why, exactly, the Universal monsters should be brought into today’s cinematic landscape at all. Would it just be to dig up some recognizable intellectual property for uninspired blockbusters that continuously fail to actually, you know, scare us?

Universal officially killed the Dark Universe after The Mummy, and The Invisible Man serves as a massive course-correction. For one, it’s a completely standalone horror story. More Universal monster reboots are on the way, but you wouldn’t know it from this one, and for now, that’s exactly the right approach. Even better, the film, unlike The Mummy, is consistent in its vision, and it actually has an interesting, timely idea to communicate that makes bringing back this particular monster very much worthwhile.

In an oppressively quiet opening sequence, Moss’ Cecilia Kass carefully sneaks out of bed with her husband, scientist Adrian Griffin, executing an escape plan so carefully orchestrated it communicates all we need to know about the threat he poses with no flashbacks to their abusive relationship ever required. Cecilia makes it out, only to learn that Adrian has committed suicide. But she soon suspects he faked his own death to continue abusing and controlling her in plain sight, as he may have invented a way to turn himself invisible.

Diverting almost entirely from the H. G. Wells novel and original 1933 movie, The Invisible Man ultimately becomes a chilling #MeToo-era story about gaslighting and domestic abuse. Shifting the point-of-view away from the titular villain and recognizing we need no sci-fi explanation for his horrifying actions, Whannell has thus found an ingenious way of bringing a fresh perspective to a story more than a century old. If The Mummy didn’t make the case for the modern relevance of the Universal monsters, this harrowing tale of a rich and powerful man inflicting suffering upon the victims of his abuse that coincidentally hits theaters the same week as Harvey Weinstein’s conviction sure does.

Moss impresses especially in scenes that neither gloss over Cecilia’s trauma nor blithely treat the situation as an opportunity for some cheap scares. In one powerful moment early on, even while seemingly far from Adrian’s torment, she becomes overwhelmed with anxiety stepping outside to check the mail, just one small part of the film’s very real horrors.

When it comes to the scares, The Invisible Man‘s bag of tricks is varied. Whannell devises plenty of creative ways to freak us out with the invisibility conceit, making particularly great use of a bucket of paint in one scene, and he keeps up the tension with the help of stellar sound design and creepy lingering shots of places where Adrian may or may not be lurking. But Whannell also mixes in sequences of psychological horror as Adrian tortures Cecilia in even more sinister ways, and his grasp over her fate becomes utterly suffocating. At one point, just when we think the movie has shown us everything it’s got to offer, it takes a massive turn with an absolute sucker punch of a scare. This is the kind of horror movie where there are no “safe” scenes, making for one delightfully tense viewing experience.

In its third act, The Invisible Man does run dangerously close to becoming overly silly as the broader plot unfurls, perhaps with just one twist too many. It’s generally the case that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do, and the more The Invisible Man peels back the curtain, the more it has trouble maintaining the same amount of dread. But Whannell ultimately brings the film in for a smooth, satisfying landing that effectively pays off its numerous sneaky set-ups. For the most part, this is just what you want from the concept, a crowd-pleasing thrill ride with an appropriate amount of meat on its bones.

As Universal marches on with more monster reboots, The Invisible Man should serve as the studio’s lodestar. It turns out, the formula isn’t too complicated: eschew the universe-building, and bring on immensely talented horror filmmakers to put their stamp on age-old characters with an updated twist that still gets at their core appeal. See, was that so hard?

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