The success of the Marvel movies prompted other studios to blow the dust off their geriatric IP and see what could be linked to form some – indeed, any kind of cinematic universe. Universal’s big idea was to revive their classic monsters under a “dark universe” umbrella. But when Alex Kurtzman, he who ruined Star Trek for a generation, botched the birth with his bloodless version of The Mummy, the dream was over.
Fortunately, someone had the good sense to explain to Universal that its mistake had not been to make fresh versions of Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, etc, but to risk blockbuster budgets on star-driven revivals of the same, when there was scant evidence the audience existed to make such blow outs profitable. After all, no one really cared about seeing Tom Cruise fight the Mummy; the niche pleasure was always in the monster, and consequently, the safer bet was to give each new movie the low budget horror treatment. Said constraints would force filmmakers to be innovative, and the venture was low risk, because even a moderate success would turn a profit.
With this new approach in mind, Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man, is a Jason Blum produced, character-focused repurposing of old schlock, that reimagines the titular unseen menace as a domestic abuser (and tech billionaire) who uses his invention of an invisibility suit to fake his death and stalk his ex-girlfriend, when she has the temerity to leave him.
There’s something of Spielberg’s Jaws in Whannell’s method (albeit without the technical skill). Budget necessitates the monster be kept from view and that the threat he represents remain a psychological apparition for much of the running time. The masterstroke employed here, is to link that stalking terror to an all too familiar nightmare, an abusive relationship, giving Elizabeth Moss’s plight an emotional reality that cuts through to the audience.
She’s convincing and committed as the woman fighting a rear guard action against her former boyfriend’s innovative form of gaslighting, and although his method may be novel, his playbook – separating his victim from friends and family, sabotaging attempts at independence, and attempting to convince her the whole thing’s her fault, will resonate with anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of being trapped in a coercive union with a monster.
The budget’s limitations don’t allow Whannell the luxury of elaborate setpieces or bravura effects sequences. Instead, he makes the best of his limited sets and locations, relying on the effective framing of space to imply Moss is not alone. The result is the incremental building of tension with the imagination getting an all too rare workout.
The lack of conspicuous stylisation or striking composition, means the movie lacks memorable artistry, but Moss’s central performance; in turns jittery and dissembling; is sufficiently weighty to mark out this version of a classic story, lending it the grounded thriller credentials many versions lack.
Whannell’s desire not to distract from his leading lady extends to casting a generic lunk in the title role. That’s a pity, as a more dimensional villain might have leant the climax (and the relationship) greater heft. It’s not a story about him, you say – whatever the fucking title, but the absence/presence is a missed opportunity to make a more rounded movie.
However, The Invisible Man – so invisible that he barely has a presence in the film at all, beyond the nightmare he represents, is a well-plotted thriller with horror trappings that deserves praise for finding a new and unsettling spin on an old premise. If Universal keep them cheap ‘n’ deep like this inaugural flick, their new run of monster movies may resonate with audiences as no generic set of blockbusters could.