Leigh Whannell might not be a household name for the average movie-goer, but he has had a hand in some of the most iconic mainstream horror franchises of the 00’s. He wrote and helped create both the Saw and Insidious movies. In the last few years, Whannell has ventured into directing, showing great promise with 2018’s woefully underseen sci fi actioner Upgrade. With Upgrade, and now The Invisible Man, Whannell seems to be carving out a niche as a writer/director who makes thrillers that fall into Black Mirror territory, namely, stories involving slightly futuristic, yet feasible, technology that somehow goes wrong.
But, you are saying to yourself, isn’t this a remake of The Invisible Man, the classic, oft-retold Universal horror movie? Well, yes and no. Universal had originally planned to launch an expanded universe,à la the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the Tom Cruise led version of The Mummy was an epic failure, both critically and financially. So the plan was scrapped, leaving Whannell to reimagine a much leaner and meaner retelling of The Invisible Man.
Whannell’s vision of The Invisible Man holds only the most tenuous connection to the original horror classic. This movie does indeed have an evil genius scientist, but other than that, this movie is more similar to Gaslight and the Julia Roberts’ ‘90’s potboiler Sleeping With The Enemy.
The Invisible Man opens as Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is escaping from the futuristic, seaside compound of her abusive, genius boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). This sequence, where she drugs Adrian, then slowly sneaks from his house, avoiding all of his high-tech security measures, is a masterclass in tension, quickly establishing the strengths of this movie, Moss’ searing, grounded performance, and Whannell’s keen eye for ramping up visual suspense.
The remainder of the movie revolves around Cecilia’s attempts to return to a normal life without Adrian, first, living as a near agoraphobic with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter , Sydney (Storm Reid). She is reasonably afraid that Adrian will stalk her, so she is initially angry when her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer) comes to visit her, fearing that Adrian has followed Emily to Cecilia’s safe house. Emily is actually the bearer of good news since Adrian has apparently committed suicide. Even more fortunately, Adrian has left Cecilia three million dollars. Even the most casual moviegoer knows this is all too-good-to-be-true. And sure enough, as Cecilia begins to relax and let her guard down, strange things start to happen.
I would like to take a short detour to recognize the work of Michael Dorman as Adrian’s brother, Tom. Tom is also the estate lawyer, setting down the conditions of the three million dollars awarded to Cecilia. Michael Dorman, star of the woefully underseen Amazon series Patriot, nearly steals every scene he is in, simultaneously creepy and meek, while somehow keeping an underlying edge of menace.
The middle third of this movie, is the strongest, as it is nearly a tour-de-force of Moss acting in empty rooms, or are they?. Whannell lets the camera follow Moss’ gaze to a chair or a blanket on the ground, just giving us the slightest hints of Adrian’s invisible presence, letting us watch Cecilia discover and slowly believe that she is being terrorized by an invisible force. These scenes operate more in the realm of ghost stories than thrillers, but combine the second layer of Moss’ character looking increasingly paranoid and unhinged to all of the people in her life.
Another key strength of Whannell’s take on the story is that he combines the suspense and scares with an even more frightening underlying story; namely, the mission of Cecilia’s ex to completely unravel and destroy her life. He is not content to simply kill her or physically torture her, he wants to emotionally grind her down and alienate her from every person in her life. As an actress, Moss is more than up to the challenge.
Inevitably, things go from bad to worse for Cecilia, and by the final act, events get bigger and bloodier. I have to commend the studio and director for not shying away from a hard R rating here, to give the movie the visceral bite that it needed. Unfortunately, while the final third might be crowd-pleasing, the more action-oriented sequences are less satisfying for me than the earlier, quieter creepy moments. The final act also contains some huge plot-holes in what, up to that point, had remained a fairly internally logical film.
As the drew to a close and the music swelled, I couldn’t help but feel that this was nearly a great movie that somehow just missed the mark. Moss delivers an Oscar-level performance in what turns out to be an elevated Lifetime movie directed with the lurid bravado of ‘80’s era Brian De Palma. I have to take off a whole star for the heavy-handed, preposterous turns of the final act, leaving the final score at a slightly disappointing 3.5 out of 5 stars.