Universal

The first cinematic adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man came in 1933, when the height of special effects involved props dangling from wires and a special velvet suit. Almost 90 years have passed, and many invisible men (and women) have come and gone, but it’s comforting to see that in Leigh Whannell’s latest take on the horror icon, the simplest bits of camera trickery are still the most effective. This newest iteration of The Invisible Man focuses mostly on a woman being victimized by someone she cannot see. On occasion, a stationary shot of her will pan over to a corner of the room that’s clearly empty—or is it?

Whannell’s film is a decidedly contemporary update, a version that owes very little to Wells’s original spooky tale. Though the power of invisibility is usually rendered in these stories as a curse of sorts that drives men to madness, here it’s deployed as an out-and-out weapon: a way for an ex-boyfriend to physically and emotionally torture Cecilia (played by Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to build a new life after leaving him. It’s a supernatural spin on an all-too-realistic scenario—what if the man you feared was stalking you, and yet nobody else could see the evidence? The brutal cleverness of that concept is enough to make The Invisible Man a worthwhile watch.

The movie begins with Cecilia fleeing the high-tech home of her boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has trapped her in an abusive relationship for years. Soon after, it’s reported that Adrian has died by suicide, leaving Cecilia the fortune he amassed as a leader in “the field of optics,” whatever that is. But quickly enough, things start to go bump in the night, and Cecilia realizes that her ex-boyfriend has faked his death and is tormenting her from behind a veil of invisibility. First he pulls spooky pranks in her house, then he starts framing her for acts of brutal violence. Through it all, not even her closest friends or family believe her.

The emotional weight of The Invisible Man is anchored in Elisabeth Moss's performance. (Universal)

Whannell has been steeped in cutting-edge Hollywood horror for two decades, starting with his innovative scripts for the Saw and Insidious franchises. He’s always had a penchant for plotting that is sensational, grisly, and a little glib, epitomized by the Rube Goldberg torture puzzles at the center of the Saw films. As a director, though, he’s demonstrated some genuine flair, beginning with the third Insidious film (a surprisingly thoughtful prequel), in 2015, and continuing with 2018’s fiendishly fun action-horror Upgrade. So it’s perfectly fitting that Universal has handed him the keys to one of its classic monsters, in a smart shift away from the disastrously ill-fated franchise model behind its expensive 2017 blockbuster The Mummy. The small scale of Whannell’s film makes its bloodiest flourishes and nastiest jumps hit harder.

Prior Invisible Man editions were mostly about the invisible men, from Claude Rains’s mad scientist to Kevin Bacon’s homicidal rapist. This film is really all about Cecilia, and that emotional weight is enough to balance some of Whannell’s sillier narrative instincts. The fundamental creepiness of Adrian’s campaign of gaslighting—slowly convincing everyone around Cecilia that she’s going mad—is grounded in Moss’s terrific performance. She’s an actor accustomed to portraying mental breakdowns (think of her splendid work in Queen of Earth and Her Smell) who uses facial tics and broad grimaces to communicate much deeper pain than any hackneyed horror-movie dialogue could.

Moss’s creativity in depicting fear is assisted by Whannell’s artful flourishes behind the camera. He wrings real terror from the simplest pans across the screen that suggest someone else might be in the room. As Upgrade showed, he also possesses a real gift for action-heavy set pieces. His favorite visual trick keeps the lens tightly focused on a person’s face even as they crumple to the floor, shuddering back and forth under attack. It’s well deployed in The Invisible Man, as Adrian uses his invisibility to take down whole rooms of people.

But within those bigger sequences also lies the bigger problem. The first half of The Invisible Man, dedicated to Adrian’s torment of Cecilia, is tight, grim, and effective. Unfortunately, the story drags on a little too long (a hefty two hours and four minutes) and meanders in confusing directions, including an unnecessarily convoluted last-act twist that can’t be justified without some serious timeline gymnastics. Though Whannell started out as a writer, it’s clear that stylish direction is where his strengths truly lie. Luckily, The Invisible Man has more than enough of that to hold the viewer’s attention.

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