The last time Universal tried to reinvent its classic monster series, it came up with 2017’s The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, who probably wished his face was covered in bandages to disguise his participation. But hold off on the doomsaying regarding the studio’s “Dark Universe” reboot. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man is a chilling mind-bender that strikes at our deepest fears — the ones we can’t see. The Australian writer-director co-created the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan; proved he had real directing chops with 2018’s Upgrade, a futuristic action thriller that went beyond the call of genre duty. He doesn’t resort to torture porn to update the famous H.G. Wells tale of a power-mad scientist who invents an invisibility cloak. Whannell and Co. are after way-scarier shit — namely, toxic masculinity. In tandem with horror maestro Jason Blum of Blumhouse (Get Out, Split, Paranormal Activity), Whannell revamps the story by flipping its focus. He gives a woman in peril all the power.
The movie starts by reducing the title character — wealthy optics innovator Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) — to a supporting role. The spotlight shifts instead to Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), a San Francisco architect who has unwittingly become Adrian’s live-in prisoner and the subject of his perverse, controlling abuse. Adrian decides how she walks, talks, and dresses. Disobedience comes with death threats. No wonder Cecilia plans an escape from the pumpkin shell of Adrian’s seaside cliff house. With the help of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), the frightened Cecilia hides out in the modest digs of cop-friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Then the news comes: Adrian, presumably depressed over Cecilia’s desertion, has killed himself. He’s also left his former girlfriend-captive a $5 million chunk of his fortune.
Is he really dead? For a while, both Cecilia and the audience are left to twist in the wind on that question, though Adrian’s creepy lawyer brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), has an urn of the scientist’s ashes in his possession. The residual effects of sleeping with the enemy take a toll as Cecilia begins to see things that may not be there. Is it all in her mind? Or has Adrian found a way to torment Cecilia with his cleverest invention: an optics machine that allows him to hide in plain sight? For a movie to send out a blast of bone-chilling, pulse-pounding terror peppered with psychological insights, it needs virtuosity in every department. And that’s what Whannell gets from cinematographer Stefan Duscio (Upgrade), production designer Alex Holmes (The Babadook), and composer Benjamin Wallfisch (Blade Runner 2049).
But The Invisible Man owes its power to the uncommon talent and ingenuity of Moss. She’s dynamite, suggesting the emotional buffeting that Cecelia has endured and the strength of will it takes to fight back against forces she can’t control. Indelible on Mad Men, an Emmy winner for The Handmaid’s Tale, and superb in films as diverse as The Square and Her Smell, Moss is up to every challenge, delivering an electrifying performance as a woman pushed to the edge. Like Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Toni Collette (Hereditary), and Florence Pugh (Midsommar), the actor digs so deeply into the human condition that her raw-nerved portrayal bursts the bounds of the horror genre. She refuses to reduce Cecilia to clichés of either female hysteria or avenging angel.
No fair spoiling the surprises that Moss and Whannell have in store, except to say that this story of a woman who needs to be heard and believed is as timely as Harvey Weinstein in handcuffs. Whannell has hit on a powerfully resonant theme: that the invisible scars an abused woman carries in her mind remain long after physical wounds have healed. The subtextual baggage makes the film, running just over two hours, heavy-going at times, especially when it drifts into formula jolts. But when the violence comes suddenly, often bloody and slashing, witnesses point to what they can see, not what they can’t. Just as 1954’s horror landmark Invasion of the Body Snatchers saw unfeeling duplicates of humans as symbols of conformity to anti-communist paranoia, The Invisible Man 2020 sees the scourge of turning a blind eye to domestic violence and the need for female empowerment. The dark universe of The Invisible Man doesn’t need monsters to keep us up nights. The terror comes from a world that looks exactly like our own.