It’s been tough going for the Universal Monsters in the 21st century.
Universal Pictures has constantly shown interest in reviving these horror icons, typically by way of revamping these figures to fit the molds of then-popular movies. While 2010’s “The Wolfman” was a horror movie, that was the exception rather than the rule. “Van Helsing,” “Dracula Untold” and “The Mummy” (2017) all were pastiches on action blockbusters and came up short. Who would have thought, then, that the Universal Monsters, who got famous through small-scale horror movies, might work best in the modern era by having them star in small-scale horror movies like Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man”?
A major overhaul of both the original 1933 Universal horror movie of the same name, as well as the original H.G. Wells “Invisible Man” novel, this new take on the source material brilliantly makes the titular foe a vessel to explore the perspective of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. That woman is Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who’s finally managed to escape her toxic boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Now she’s living with her friend, James, (Aldis Hodge - great to see him here after he delivered a knockout supporting performance in “Clemency”) and trying to get back on her feet. Sequences depicting her attempting to go about a normal life while dealing with the trauma of her relationship with Adrian immediately make it clear that “The Invisible Man” is going to be razor-sharp in terms of where it generates terror.
Due to her worries that Adrian could be lurking around every corner, the very act of walking outside is an enormously intimidating one for Cecilia. As we follow her engaging in an early attempt to retrieve her mail, Whannell’s immersive camerawork and Moss’ equally compelling lead performance plant viewers right into the midset of Cecilia. In the process, they make a character engaging in a slow walk across a person’s front yard utterly terrifying. There isn’t a place where Cecilia feels fully secure, and the filmmaking of “The Invisible Man” captures that psychological experience with gripping levels of success.
Like so many high-quality horror films, “The Invisible Man” already works at being chilling before any of its more heightened plot elements kick in. Just following the authentically realized, everyday behavior of Cecilia is enough to create an anxiety-inducing pit in your stomach. Of course, the title makes it clear that eventually, a man you cannot see will factor into the plot, and that comes into play once its made apparent Adrian has committed suicide. That should mean Cecilia is finally free from this man’s grasp, except some strange occurrences begin to indicate that maybe Adrian isn’t as dead as one might think. In fact, all signs point to Adrian now being invisible and using all means possible to torment Cecilia.
While “The Invisible Man” creates tension from a number of places, one place it smartly avoids generating scares from entertaining the notion that Cecilia is incorrect in assuming Adrian is invisible. This is a movie that’s very much about validating the experiences and perspectives of people in abusive relationships, creating ambiguity over whether or not Adrian is really invisible would undercut that approach. Thus, “The Invisible Man” goes the way-more interesting route of creating horror from having nobody around Cecilia believe her. They all think she’s just making up stories - an experience all too common for people in abusive relationships in the real world trying to make their voices heard.
Just as unnerving as that element of the plot is Whannell’s directing. This filmmaker is uncannily good at letting the camera linger on an empty frame for just enough time to make you worried something you can’t see is about to scare the bejesus out of you. When just a vacant space is enough to get you unnerved, you know a horror movie is doing something right.
Just as successful as the visual stylings of “The Invisible Man” is Moss’ powerhouse lead performance. Moss is a performer known for throwing herself headfirst into her roles. That level of commitment is what makes her turns in films, like “Her Smell,” so memorable. That trait of hers is put to top-notch work here, as Moss viscerally conveys the weariness, the anxiety and the pent-up rage Cecilia has for the person who was a monster before they became invisible.
The way “The Invisible Man,” like so many great horror movies, manifests thoughtful explorations of real-world experiences through utterly chilling means is encapsulated by this excellent performance from Moss. This kind of acting, as well as this kind of scary-good filmmaking, is how we should be tackling the Universal Monsters in 2020.