Until The Invisible Man, Universal had not had a great time revitalizing its classic horror icons. First there was 2014’s Dracula Untold, which lost money in the States (nearly $20 million, in fact), and soon forgotten by everybody. Only three years later, the studio attempted the launch of its own “Dark Universe” (think of it as Universal’s stab at an MCU) again with The Mummy, which was an even bigger critical and commercial failure—so big, in fact, any attempts to develop this Universe more were promptly halted.
Now, if that hadn’t been the case, The Invisible Man probably would’ve been a blandly mild PG-13 origin story starring Johnny Depp as the titular character (no, really), which nobody would’ve seen at all. Instead, it was handed over to the rising talent Lee Whhannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade), who worked with the successfully small-budget Blumhouse to produce a tense, proudly R-rated, and surprisingly effective (if flawed) film.
For one thing, the Invisible Man himself—a wealthy optics engineer and businessman named Adrian Griffin—isn’t some random “evil” dude, but actually a terrifyingly realistic threat to his abused girlfriend, Cecelia (Elizabeth Moss). The film opens after she drugs him with Diazepam, upon which she soon sneaks out of his bed, collects her personal things, and escapes from his towering mansion… only for a car alarm to get him instantly nipping at her heels. She still manages to get away, but this kind of aggression from him, combined with an invisible suit and a knack for convincingly faking suicides, only makes things worse for her later. Much, much worse.
Rather than falling back on corny jumpscares (there are a couple here and there, but that’s about it), the film builds a gripping, paranoid atmosphere by focusing on what is commonly ignored the most: empty space. When Cecelia leaves a pan of food on the stove to talk to somebody, the camera lingers on it from the distance, giving the scene a unexplainable, yet undeniable sense of dread.
Nothing may be going wrong yet, but everything about this moment is just “off” enough to make us realize that they’re really, really about to. Sure enough, the food soon completely bursts into flames, but the shot doesn’t change as they’re promptly put out with a handy fire extinguisher. It’s almost as if we’re looking through the eyes of the Invisible Man himself: menacing, unwavering, and scarily voyeuristic.
After Adrian destroys Cecelia’s friendships (he hacks into her email account and sends an aggressive message to her closest friend, then punches a young girl in a way that makes it seem like she did it), he comes after her sanity—and life—next. Hitting and kicking at an invisible enemy may be a slightly difficult task for some actors, but Moss is more than up to the task here, never missing a single beat—be that physical or emotional—in her performance. The dark blue cinematography is also quite good, giving the film a cool, yet eerie modern aesthetic that perfectly complements the building suspense and terror.
So despite a couple moments of cheese, I have to say, most of The Invisible Man genuinely thrilled and unnerved me. The fact that it was made for so little money (just $7 million, in fact) not only makes me even more proud to say that, but also gives me hope for more of Whannell’s smaller, less CGI-heavy studio films to be successful in the future.
Towards the end, however, The Invisible Man changes course and becomes more of an “action”-type flick, completely discarding its more subtle elements in the process. These more fast-paced sequences aren’t badly executed, but when stacked up against the rest of the movie, they admittedly can’t help feeling a bit silly—though in the case of one scene involving a bunch of police officers, it just becomes too over-the-top. (If you’ve seen any of the film’s trailers, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. If you haven’t, then don’t, because they give far too much away too quickly.)
Would this have worked better with a less serious tone, as YMS’s review claims? Considering the heavy subject matter it still grounds itself in (domestic violence and psychological manipulation, including repeated gaslighting), I’d have to say no, but that particular chunk of the film is still pretty awkward nevertheless. What a shame.
Even with that—as well as some frustratingly big plotholes towards the end*—slightly bogging it down, The Invisible Man is still a very solid little slice of psychological sci-fi horror. If this is the direction the Dark Universe is taking in the future (even though Wannell himself has specifically stated that the film was created as a standalone feature, not a part of something greater), then sign me right up.
*Here’s just a couple of them [HEAVY SPOILER WARNING]:
How did Adrian know that he would eventually get shot to death if he tried pursuing Cecelia at the mental institution? Why did he have his brother Tom attempt that instead with another invisible suit, and have himself be tied up in his own basement like a hostage victim? Was he actually having Tom gaslight Cecelia the entire time, and just giving him instructions on what to do?
Also, when the police found the tied-up Adrian after Tom’s death, why does nobody mention the excruciatingly obvious about that? Even if Tom gets all the blame for harassing Cecelia and murdering her best friend, the fact that Adrian elaborately faked his own suicide (particularly since he was as well-known as he was) should have spread around the nation—no, the entire world—like wildfire. You’d think the cops would have done more than just leave him at his nice, fancy mansion like nothing was wrong.