Plan A was for The Invisible Man to have emerged as part of - cough - the Universal Dark Universe, a MCU-rivalling superstructure by which the studio could mesh together those intellectual properties it had held onto since the first-wave horror boom of the early 1930s. That plan was scuppered when just shy of six intrepid souls showed up for the Tom Cruise reboot of The Mummy three years ago, so Universal have started the process of farming out those IPs for interested creatives to do more or less whatever they want with, freed from the obligation to link their handiwork to a preplanned roster of films coming up over the next twelve-to-eighteen months. In this particular instance, the raw material has been handed over to Leigh Whannell, the Aussie genre specialist who helped initiate the Saw series back in 2004 before writing and directing 2018's seriously underseen action-thriller Upgrade. Whannell shifts this material from fantasyland - from an IP that might easily tessellate with Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man - to something closer to our real world: his Invisible Man is the story of an abusive relationship, and charts the struggles of a bruised but resilient young woman to get out from under the thumb of a controlling boyfriend. Rather than the second or third in a series of films with doing essentially the same, Universe-sustaining thing - as we could have witnessed if Cruise's Mummy had been a hit - we're faced with a vastly more surprising proposition: a stand-alone, high-end update (upgrade, if you like) of Julia Roberts' 1991 vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy.
Trashing the Dark Universe rubric has allowed Whannell to make interesting choices at every stage, not least in casting. Among the anomalous results The Invisible Man has generated this past weekend, it would seem that audiences have turned out en masse for a film starring Elizabeth Moss, best known for such challenging prestige-TV fare as The Handmaid's Tale and Top of the Lake. Moss is no Roberts; if there is a Nineties star she's close to, both physically and spiritually, it'd be Jodie Foster: intuitive and thoughtful, capable of adding layers and nuance to bare-bones damsel-in-distress roles (as Foster did in The Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room). One surprise here is the attention this much-trumpeted suspenser pays to the small matter of its heroine Cecilia's body language. From her very first gesture - removing a hand from her midriff as dawn nears so as to effectuate a one-woman prison break from her tech whizz other half's modernist clifftop retreat - Moss has down pat the fearful mien of someone who's wiped themselves out looking over their own shoulders. Cecilia's emotional dishevelment only increases after other half fakes suicide to gaslight the hell out of her: Moss shows us how it takes all Cecilia's remaining resources to flash a smile at an Uber driver after she's been attacked by her now-invisible assailant (blokey in state-of-the-art cloaking garb), before she pieces together her last remnants of strength - binding these with her one unfrayed nerve - in order to fight back. It's as sturdy a character arc as the unlucky Logan Marshall-Green traversed in Upgrade, and another demonstration of what's to be gained from putting leftfield, possibly counterintuitive performers front and centre in genre fare: Moss puts perishable flesh on material that might otherwise have made for a nuts-and-bolts technical exercise.
Technical this Man remains, although I don't necessarily intend that as a criticism. Whannell knows there are certain generic pleasures that movies about invisible men should deliver, be those invisible men friendly (Chevy Chase in Memoirs of an Invisible Man) or otherwise (Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man, Oliver Jackson-Cohen here): the doors opening by themselves in the backs or sides of shot, the spectre's footsteps becoming visible in scattered coffee granules, snow or carpet tread. Equally discernible, though, are signs of an evolution in the American horror-thriller: for one thing, the success of John Krasinski's A Quiet Place (sequel arriving next month) seems to have reassured execs that audiences will sit still during setpieces that build their suspense through silence, and that avoid the increasingly hackneyed quiet-quiet-loud dynamics of so much commercial horror. Upgrade, magpieing moves from some of the most imaginative minds on the midnight-movie circuit, was gleefully, irresistibly OTT, the better to suggest the suddenly overstimulated system of its put-upon protagonist; though it runs just over two hours, The Invisible Man is comparatively stripped back, setting its camera rolling on empty frames - eminently cuttable dead air and blank space - in the (correct) belief this will set viewers to worrying that something or someone is about to materialise. (A choice blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment: a knife being swiped from a kitchen counter, for later, bloody use.)
Much is suggested rather than shown, though Whannell ensures matters get visceral indeed when the narrative demands it. This version benefits from the most bastardly villain in recent multiplex-movie memory, which leads to a marked raising of stakes going into the second hour, as the silent-but-deadly antagonist cuts Cecilia's ties to her nearest-and-dearest and asserts his control in ever more invasive ways. Jackson-Cohen, the Hollyoaks graduate previously best understood as a vaguely hunky plank, doesn't have to do anything very much in his few cloakless scenes: his Invisible Man functions as a malevolent idea, a shifting, relentless, apparently unstoppable cloud of toxicity. (Did the filmmakers get lucky releasing around the time the Coronavirus came to town? There's certainly something in the air, onscreen as off; audiences have been primed to hold their breath.) The curlicued developments of the second half reminded me of Whannell's first Saw movie - like it or not, a phenomenon - and how that film was at least as fiendish in its plotting as the psychopath pulling all the onscreen levers. This filmmaker has come in from whatever lunatic fringe that movie represented - his latest arrives with a 15 rating, opening it up to a wider demographic than its 18-rated predecessor (and, who knows, perhaps even those old enough to remember Claude Rains) - but he's brought with him some of that malice our thrillers need to properly grab us. This Invisible Man understands that even our mainstream entertainments would do well to reflect what lurks hidden amid the human psyche's dark and twisted bowels, as well as our eternal desire to see our better selves win out.
The Invisible Man is now playing in cinemas nationwide.