Having stumbled multiple times with the likes of Van Helsing, Dracula Untold, The Wolfman and The Mummy – and seen Guillermo del Toro file the serial numbers off a Creature From the Black Lagoon reboot and win an Oscar – Universal Pictures have had a rethink about the ‘Dark Universe’ platform for their longstanding monsters franchise. A few years ago, Johnny Depp was talked up for an invisible man project, but that presumably drifted into the desert along with Tom Cruise’s mummy sequel prospects.
Given Universal’s first-look deal with mid-budget genre label Blumhouse, it wasn’t even that much of a stretch to hand over one of the lesser arcana in the monster deck – the Invisible Man keys into the Universal Monsters Expanded Cinematic Universe on the strength of an unbilled cameo by unseen Vincent Price at the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – to Blumhouse and Leigh Whannell, who has had a hand as writer-actor in James Wan-related franchises (Saw, Insidious) and turned out a smart cyber-thriller in Upgrade. Notably without a credit for H.G. Wells – though it uses the character name Griffin, tying in not only with the novel and James Whale’s film but Universal’s straggle of disconnected 1940s sequels – Whannell’s take offers the most invisible invisible man in the movies. Briefly, in a hospital scene, the heroine is spooked by someone’s bandaged face, but that just establishes that seeing someone who reminds her of the Claude Rains invisible man ramps up her paranoia as she’s come to believe a real invisible man is stalking her.
Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), trophy girlfriend of ‘optics’ genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), drugs her coercive/controlling partner and escapes from his high-tech concrete bunker mansion overlooking San Francisco. We get the impression their backstory is more or less that controversial storyline The Archers did a while back. Cecilia is relieved to be helped by her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), who stashes her with her boyfriend, ‘six foot cop’ James (Aldis Hodge), and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). So traumatised she can’t set foot out of the safe house, Cecilia begins to recover when news comes through that Adrian has committed suicide, though a legacy he leaves her comes with ominous legal strings about losing the money if she’s declared insane or convicted of a crime. Of course, her newfound balance takes a series of hits as creepy stuff happens – and, given Adrian’s particular set of skills, she doesn’t leap to the conclusion that she’s being haunted but that he’s faked his death and is coming after her while wearing a stealth suit that renders him see-through.
There are feints and twists – mostly revolving around Tom (Michael Dorman), Adrian’s twitchy brother – but this is essentially a sustained exercise in menace and fighting back, as Cecilia seems crazier to outsiders while she struggles against her unseen persecutor. Given that Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Hollow Man are still knocking around, and the 1933 film holds up remarkably well, Whannell doesn’t feel a need to redo all their see-through effects and gets some of the creepiest moments simply from framing empty space in a room and trusting us to become as scared as the heroine. A few rules of the invisible sub-genre are played with – a key moment in the fight-back comes when Cecilia notices a weather report that promises rain, which limits the villain’s advantage. Mostly, and remarkably, this is a film built around Moss playing against nothing – an apt metaphor for the way a coercive partner keeps a victim under their thumb even after their escape, but also an exercise in the sort of leading lady hysteria that used to work for Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry Wrong Number) or Doris Day (Midnight Lace).
Shot mostly in Australia, it shares an urban, bland, slightly futurist look with Upgrade. It’s also a demonstration that revisiting an idea, stripped of everything that has accrued to it over the years, is a far better approach to a classic than stunt casting and merchandising tie-ins.