The launch of the Dark Universe in 2017 – complete with that infamous photo – has to go down as one of the biggest acts of movie studio hubris in history. One poorly-received version of The Mummy was all it took to scare off the monsters and mothball Universal’s ambitious plans. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the DU, though, comes Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man – a shining endorsement for the lean, mean Blumhouse formula.
Smartly, Whannell’s world shifts the titular menace (Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s optics innovator Adrian) to a supporting role – the abusive partner of Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), who escapes from his hyper-secure beachfront home in the nail-biting opening scene. Holed up with her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge), Cecilia learns that Adrian has killed himself and has left a huge portion of his estate to her, as long as she is not committed a crime or ruled to be mentally unstable. When strange things start to happen, she begins to believe that Adrian might not really be dead.
The Invisible Man is powered by a simple, effective idea. What if the invisible foe were an avatar for abusive men and the pervasive spectre of that abuse? Freed from the shackles of having to slot into the blueprint of a wider cinematic universe, Whannell combines his proven skill at making the most of a low budget chiller with a sharp, timely message about the exploitation and gaslighting of women by powerful men.
The MVP here is definitely Moss, who gives her all as a woman struggling in the aftermath of abuse, with much more subtlety than her darkly comedic performance as a domestic violence survivor in The Kitchen last year. She’s in almost every frame of the movie and holds the screen effortlessly, with her palpable terror making up for the fact that the supernatural threat is, obviously, hidden for most of the running time.
This is where Whannell’s flair for less-is-more horror direction comes into play. Often, he blocks and shoots scenes of empty rooms as if there’s someone there, with every empty chair and quiet corner quickly feeling like it could hide any number of horrifying things. Meanwhile, Benjamin Wallfisch’s bass-heavy, throbbing score ratchets up the tension at every possible opportunity. Whannell also shines when it comes to the action sequences, finding real flair and innovation in scenes of people scuffling with thin air. At least one moment of violence is so sudden, severe and unexpected that it kicks the movie into an entirely different gear.
If there’s a major issue that holds the film back, it’s the inconsistency of its scares. The majority of the drawn-out set pieces and precision-tooled jolts are front-loaded into the first half of the movie, which gives way to a more action-focused denouement. Whannell has a sleeve full of surprises in store for that finale, but the relative paucity of scares leaves the middle section of the rather hefty two-hour running time a little lacking in the suspense that makes the first and third acts so compelling.
But that’s a minor quibble in the face of a smart and slick reinvention of a classic horror character that foregrounds an important issue – even if it doesn’t explore it much beyond the surface message. Elisabeth Moss is simply terrific and delivers a performance that’s equal parts fear and fortitude as she battles the lingering remnants of the man who made her life hell. The Dark Universe may be dead, but it seems the Universal Monsters are on the verge of a whole new life on the big screen.
Dir: Leigh Whannell
Scr: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman
Prd: Jason Blum, Kylie Du Fresne
DOP: Stefan Duscio
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Run time: 124 mins
The Invisible Man is in UK cinemas from 28th February.