Well, I had nominal expectations going into Blumhouse Productions’ new release of “The Invisible Man.” Marketing had not been expansive, and let’s be honest, it being one of the legendary pantheon of “monsters” from the golden era (along with Dracula, The Mummy, and their far lesser cousin The Wolf Man), none of which have had any particularly stellar outings on the big screen in a very long time. That stretch of time becomes even longer when studios have opted to go with a fairly extensive resampling of the original material. Simply put this is probably one of the best re-envisioning of one of those classics since “The Mummy” (the good one, back in ’99).
As such I’m going to refrain from my normal “will divulge no more than is in the trailer,” because I hadn’t watched the trailer until after seeing the movie this evening, and it does the film no favors. It both gives away too much, and is cut with a less well-crafted look than the film itself has. So, while the trailer will appear at the end of this review, I would suggest you don’t watch it, just go see the film.
In addition to it being fresh, it’s also a positively captivating dark thriller, and almost an inverse telling of “Wait Until Dark” (if you’re unclear on that reference, ask one of your theater or cinema friends for elaboration). The film’s lead is not so much the Invisible Man, Adrian Griffin, a brilliant scientist specializing in the field of optical technology (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), but his girlfriend, Cecilia Kass (played by “Handmaid Tale’s” Elisabeth Moss).
The film opens with Kass and Griffin in bed, it’s 3am, and her eyes open on the camera. There’s no insipid voiceover, there’s no flashbacks, there’s no bruises – but from frame one, Moss along with writer/director Leigh Whannell leans into the less is more school of horror. Let the audience create the horror and tension in their own mind, as that is always going to be more effective than anything short of John Carpenter will be able to come up with. We get the sense immediately that Kass is afraid out of her mind of this man, and she is desperately trying to get away.
As she goes through the high-tech house you realize that it was likely built the same architect that built Tony Stark’s mansion. We get glimpses of a laboratory and it’s equipment so we get the idea that, ok, that part is also coming into play. Omitting the details, she does escape, but even as she finds sanctuary in the house of a San Francisco policeman and his daughter, she can still barely bring herself to step outside of the house. Even when pressed on, what happened to her, the details aren’t highlighted, because to every viewer, what could have made a woman so afraid will be internalized to themselves and far more effective than giving a full litany.
It’s not long before she begins to sense his presence all around her, but no matter who she turns to, everyone either dismisses her, or tells her to put it out of her mind and move on with life. There are scenes where lesser films would indulge in special effects to perhaps hint at the invisible man’s presence, but here, Cecilia is often looking into an absolutely blank corner, and our mind is happily filling in the blanks more effectively than any SFX house could do. And as a contemporary re-centering of the story onto a gaslighting experience so clear that even the most dudebro individuals in the audience will likely be able to catch on.
As an overall story, I would actually say this “The Invisible Man” is honestly better than H. G. Wells‘ original. I had by happenstance read it only a few months ago, and the focus on the titular character’s invisibility being that which drives the inventor’s hubris to pathological levels and he plots to take over the world (seeing himself as being onto a god). Even in the late 19th century when it was written – one invisible individual if hunted for en-masse would not be able to take over much of anything. By the 21st century, it’s even less of a useful parable (with so many contemporary hubris-run-amok cautionary tales to choose from in the real world). It’s considered a classic because when it was written Wells was continuing to help define the science fiction and horror genres into what we know today. However it’s one of those stories (and later films) that are as much classics because they were at the time more than they are now (I’m sure I’ll catch flack from my literary friends on that, but I’ll stand by it).
But what Whannell does that carries over as noted above from the earlier eras of film is his minimalist approach, and he does it brilliantly. This is only his third time directing a feature film (his last was 2018’s “Upgrade“, the film you probably didn’t see but is the far better version of “Venom“) and on his current trajectory it bodes well for his next film – the reboot of “Escape From New York.”
By making it a very personal story of one man’s attempt to control and dominate a woman and those around her, it brings the tension and the horror far closer to home and very much more able to be relatable towards. It’s not a perfect film, both with something being lost in the Griffin’s particular approach to invisibility and it’s impact on him, and it moves the monster from the man on the edge being pushed over into madness to it simply being a very evil man to begin with, who simply manipulates the people and the world around him, including the light.
It is probably as fresh a story as “Get Out,” and far more tension filled. However I cannot express enough the level of trigger warnings for anyone who has dealt with abuse and especially gaslighting. Things do get very violent and bloody.
“The Invisible Man” is rated R and opens in theaters everywhere on February 28th, 2020.