Dir: Leigh Whannell. Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Oliver Jackson-Cohen. 15 cert, 124 mins
Universal’s Dark Universe is officially dead – it’s The Invisible Man that dispatched the silver bullet. Back in 2017, the studio assembled a panoply of male A-listers (and one woman) for a photoshoot to unveil a new, interconnected franchise based on the classic Universal monsters. Russell Crowe is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde! Javier Bardem is Frankenstein’s Monster! Johnny Depp is The Invisible Man! A few weeks later, the first of these films, The Mummy, with Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, flopped hard at the box office. The Dark Universe had taken its first step out into the world and fallen flat on its face.
Universal quietly changed tack, hiring writer-director Leigh Whannell (who co-created both the Saw and Insidious franchises) to make his own standalone remake of 1933’s The Invisible Man, itself adapted from the HG Wells novel. The final product wouldn’t have been possible without a clear personal vision and some level of creative freedom: although the briefest of references to the original remain (look out for those trademark bandages), this is a smart, highly original piece of horror. It’s light years away from Cruise bouncing around in zero-gravity during some heavily CGI-ed plane crash.
Whannell is smart to sideline the Invisible Man of the title. Only then can he truly fulfil his role as the unseeable, unknowable threat. His victim is Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who we first see making a daring escape from the fortress-like modernist home of her abusive partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). This man has dictated what Cecilia wears, how she talks, and how she thinks. He’s hit her – “amongst other things”, she tearfully confesses to her sister (Harriet Dyer). While hiding out in the home of her cop-friend James (Aldis Hodge) and teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia learns that Adrian has died by suicide, leaving her $5m. But then why do her belongings keep moving around? Why does she have the strange sensation that she’s being watched at all hours of the day? Why does the chair in the corner of her room have such distinct depressions in the upholstery, as if a man were sitting right there?
Horror has always been a means to communicate social issues through potent metaphors – whether its 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby aligning satanists as patriarchal overlords, or 2014’s The Babadook revealing depression to be the creature that goes bump in the night. Yet the genre has recently started to move past subtext: trauma was front and centre of 2018’s Halloween, while domestic violence is the real terror of The Invisible Man. What’s torturing Cecilia follows the exact patterns of an abusive relationship: it gaslights her, blackmails her, and isolates her from friends and family. Whannell invites the audiences to share in her paranoia: many of the scares involve near-imperceptible changes in the scenery, so that much of the film is spent obsessively scanning each frame for signs of a potential threat.
Blending painful realities with genre thrills is always a risk, but the film works because its star makes sure each beat stays sincere and grounded. As her work with Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth and Her Smell has shown, Moss is a master of the emotional breakdown. She understands that it’s about more than just the wailing and the weeping, but in how hands might nervously dance around each other – restless and spiked with nerves. In The Invisible Man, the horror hits close to home.