The Invisible Man (2020)

Leigh Whannell

Elisabeth Moss - Cecilia Kass
Oliver Jackson-Cohen - Adrian Griffin
Aldis Hodge - James Lanier
Storm Reid - Sydney Lanier
Harriet Dyer - Emily Kass
Michael Dorman - Tom Griffin

Genre - Horror/Thriller

Running Time - 124 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
When Cecilia’s (Elisabeth Moss) abusive ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Despite classic films like 1920’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, 1922’s NOSFERATU and 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the horror genre didn’t really become popular for the mainstream until Universal Studios started adapting horror novels beginning in 1931 with DRACULA. FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN and THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON would soon join DRACULA as immortal horror films that popularized the title characters into the pop culture lexicon to this very day. These characters are still beloved today by multiple generations, getting marathons during Halloween season, as well as being a huge monetary success in terms of the home video market. Universal still makes a lot of money with these characters, which is why the studio has been doing multiple attempts to retell their stories for the last 20 or so years.

Out of all the characters, it seems The Mummy has been the most successful in terms of box office and franchise building. In 1999, the story was changed from horror to a more action-adventure film starring Brandon Fraser that was a huge box office success during that year’s summer season. This success would lead to an even more popular sequel that created its own spin-off franchise with THE SCORPION KING, as well as a third film that didn’t do as well but still made money. Ever since this, however, Universal has been struggling with their monster franchises.

The studio attempted a remake of THE WOLF MAN in 2010. Despite an A-list cast and good special effects, audiences didn’t care too much about it. In 2014, Universal released DRACULA UNTOLD - a horror-action film that invented a different origin story for the character rather than follow the novel the character is based on. It was a surprise box office success for the studio, yet they didn’t really do much with a potential franchise afterwards. Seeing how successful Marvel Studios and Disney had become with their MCU films crafting multiple franchises that tied in together in one large world for major crossovers that destroyed box office records all over the world, Universal wanted in some of that action. Plans for Luke Evans’s Dracula from DRACULA UNTOLD started to slowly form to be part of Universal’s “Dark Universe” - an attempt to reimagine all of the Universal horror characters in their own films before putting them all in a single film as a huge event. Instead of doing a sequel to a successful film that people seemed to have enjoyed, the studio instead decided to remake THE MUMMY again in 2017 with Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. Despite the star power, the film pretty much bombed both commercially and critically, destroying any plans for a Dark Universe - at least for now.

So it was pretty surprising when 2020’s THE INVISIBLE MAN went forward after plans for a shared universe fell through. Realizing they couldn’t force a movie universe, Universal stepped back and decided to just focus on modernizing the character for a newer generation through individualized storytelling that wouldn’t force audiences to watch multiple films to understand what they were watching. Hiring screenwriter and director Leigh Whannell [mainly of SAW, INSIDIOUS and UPGRADE fame] to helm the film and casting Emmy Award winning actress Elisabeth Moss as the main character who would be subjected to the terror of the title character, this remake had a lot going for it. The trailers, while they looked good, had me worried a bit as they gave off a Lifetime movie-of-the-week vibe, just with a bigger budget. You’d think they gave away the entire film by watching those trailers, causing me to wait a bit to watch the film rather than rush out so I could write a review for it. But color me surprised - this new INVISIBLE MAN turned out way better than I had expected, with the trailers only showing a portion of what the film is about. In fact, this may be one of the smartest horror films I’ve seen in a theater in a long time, giving you an important social commentary that doesn’t feel forced but a natural progression of the story the film is trying to tell. Take that, BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019)!

There’s so much good about THE INVISIBLE MAN that I’m not sure where to exactly start with its praise. I guess if there’s anything that makes the film worth anyone’s while, it’s Leigh Whannell’s masterful eye behind the lens. While the film does have a few jump scares, especially during the last half of the film, Whannell is more focused on building tension and suspenseful throughout to put us in the position of Moss’ Cecilia from beginning to end. And Whannell wastes no time in building mood and atmosphere, as it’s evident right from the start as Cecilia tries to escape the clutches of her abusive boyfriend [last name Griffin, one of the few references to the 1933 film] during a dark, quiet night while he sleeps. Just the way Whannell slowly pans and tilts the camera to capture every moment, even frame space that doesn’t seem important, slowly starts to unnerve you. The use of security camera footage to see if he’s still sleeping and the lack of a musical score make you tense, wondering what’s about to go wrong to set up the rest of this film. Cinematographer Steven Duscio helps Whannell visualize this beautifully polished look for the film that’s just a shell for the ugliness of Cecilia’s situation. Shots are skillfully framed throughout to have her in a certain part of the frame with so much open space next to her, making you wonder if someone is actually there but we can’t see him. When the first loud noise is made, I actually jumped a bit because you don’t expect it. There are great moments like that in the entire film, not just in the awesome opening act. The direction starts to make you paranoid a bit, even though you know Cecilia is right about her ex-boyfriend haunting her as some sort of invisible man. Sometimes nothing happens in the frame. Then once in a while, an object would move on its own. Or a noise is made. Or the ex-boyfriend just attacks Cecilia or the people she’s close to, making them see her as a liability. Throughout the film, the title character is trying to drive Ceclia insane and punish her in the worst ways possible mentally and emotionally. I’ll get to the abuse commentary in a bit, but it’s so well done visually that you sympathize heavily with Cecilia and you want her to get rid of this prick. 

When it comes to the special effects, Whannell and his team did an awesome job updating the invisibility aspect. Using a more technological storyline to explain how someone could become invisible, it updates the story in a modern way and makes her some cool visuals when the title character is made visible through liquid, smoke and other means. The final half of the film focuses on these visuals, making things tense when the villain pops in and out visually, never in a predictable pattern. It looks so accomplished and flawless that you totally buy into the concept. The best special effect is when you don’t see The Invisible Man at all, making you look around the screen to see if something moves around that shouldn’t be. And when Cecilia tries to talk to him and he doesn’t answer to unnerve her, it sort of unnerves us too. I’m completely amazed how well Whannell and his team accomplished the visual presentation of THE INVISIBLE MAN because it’s one of the better directed horror films I’ve seen in a long time. Whannell has come a long way and he’s doing more-than-good for the genre.

And honestly, the visuals would be nothing if it wasn’t for the immaculate performance by Elisabeth Moss in the lead role of Cecilia. Moss has so many emotional and physical layers to play throughout the film, you’d really think she was being put through the ringer in real life. Moss plays the role of an abused woman so believably, you start to think that it had to come from a place of reality for the actress in some aspect. Most of the time, Moss has to be inside of an empty room having dialogue with someone who you can’t even see or hear - but you know he’s there watching her crack under the pressure to punish Cecilia for leaving him. Most actresses would look silly doing this, either overdoing their portrayals to the point of slapstick and silliness. It’d come off so melodramatic, you’d probably end up laughing at the actress rather than feeling sorry for her. Moss is so fantastic that you buy every emotional beat she plays to a tee. Watching Moss play out Cecilia’s story in such an enduring, harrowing way is masterful stuff, especially since you connect with her right away and wish her to be free of this “ghost”. With the help of a fantastic supporting cast, Moss is able to elevate the material that could have been silly for a lesser actress. She won’t get any major award nominations for this, but I would seriously consider the thought at least. Moss is wonderful.

The commentary of abuse and how it affects the victims is strongly at play here, but the film never really pushes the agenda in a way to be “woke”. I kept seeing people who hadn’t watched the film complain about another film dealing with “women being wronged by men”, believing THE INVISIBLE MAN is hammering this message of feminism to a mainstream audience that threatens toxic masculinity, I guess. Have these people watched films or television? The subject of abuse - either physical, mental, emotional, and/or sexual - has been in media for decades. Soap operas deal with this topic. Cop shows, like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has had 21 seasons of dealing with this subject. Hell, Lifetime has become a household name for many TV movies dealing with people trying to escape an abusive relationship by any means necessary. THE INVISIBLE MAN is not a film that’s telling its audience that “men are evil”. There are male characters in the film who are actually good guys who want to help Cecilia deal with her emotional suffering so she can get back to a normal life. This is a story about an abused woman who struggles escaping and being haunted by a terrible person, who just happened to be a man, hoping someone will believe her cries for help. When this terrible person messes with her to the point that he’s framing her for things and doing things that make her look like an awful, crazy person because he wants power over her, she has to take it upon herself to make a change and stop this person from haunting her ever again. It’s a tale that’s been told for generations, using the issue of abuse to drive its story forward into a horror-thriller direction that people of all genders will be able to relate to and hopefully enjoy enough to see this abused victim get some satisfying justice. I thought it was handled extremely well and as realistic as you can get with an invisible man running around.

If I were to nitpick anything, I thought the conclusion happened way too quick for me. Don’t get me wrong, it was completely satisfying. But I expected more of a physical confrontation than what we were given. Then again, this entire film is pretty much a cat-and-mouse chase, so it feels kind of silly wanting more of that in the last few moments of the film. I also felt there were some narrative inconsistencies that I honestly can’t discuss due to spoiler territory. But small things happened for the convenience of shaping later events, although they shouldn’t have existed logically in this world. Plus, the title character is just a supporting character rather than the lead. I’m sure it’ll upset some people, even though I enjoyed the change of perspective when it came to THE INVISIBLE MAN. 

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) will definitely be a highlight for cinema, especially in the horror genre, this year. It’s suspenseful, tense, and bleak - creating this distressing world of domestic abuse through the eyes of the victim as she struggles to escape the abuser that continues to haunt her, even though no one else can sense him but her. The social commentary is very timely, yet it never pushes this agenda. Rather, writer and director Leigh Whannell lets the commentary drive the story and make us sympathetic with the lead character as she tries to regain her freedom from the ghost of her past. Through the use of fantastic direction and cinematography by Scott Duscio, the visual presentation heightens the narrative by framing scenes in such a way that we’re looking for things that aren’t there - or maybe they are. The film is greatly elevated by an incredible strong performance by Elisabeth Moss, who plays every emotional beat perfectly. You totally buy her journey from scared and fragile abuse victim who is afraid to leave her own house, to a desperate woman who just wants out of this toxic relationship. It’s nice to see a film that isn’t focused on creating a franchise or trying to be part of some shared universe for a studio to milk these brands dry for a quick buck. THE INVISIBLE MAN is able to breathe as its own thing, telling a story a lot of people can relate to while giving familiar fans a new perspective to the usual story. This is a remake done right.

3.5 Howls Outta 4

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