A few years ago, Universal Pictures got a big idea: Other studios had their superhero universes, so why couldn’t they build a blockbuster universe of their own with the classic movie monsters that are such a central part of their history? This led to something called “Dark Universe,” which launched with 2017’s “The Mummy” and was supposed to ultimately build to a new breed of monster team-up movie in the vein of classics like “House of Frankenstein” and “House of Dracula.”
It didn’t work. “The Mummy” was a critical and commercial failure, and so rather than trying to salvage their new shared universe model, Universal retreated and decided to go in the opposite direction. Their monsters would still get new movies, but now these films would be very focused on individual storytelling from exciting filmmakers. It’s a strategy that allows the studio to compartmentalize its successes and failures without the pressure of crossovers, but it also means the interconnectivity they so craved will be harder to achieve in the long run.
The first film to come out Universal’s new approach to revamping its monsters is “The Invisible Man,” and if the monster movies they’ve got planned for the future are anything like this one, the studio has nothing to worry about. Writer/director Leigh Whannell (“Upgrade”) has delivered a new horror classic, a lean and mean thrill-fest that also manages to really hammer home the existential terror of its central premise.
Instead of showing us the process by which a man becomes invisible and begins a reign of terror, Whannell’s version of the story unfolds from the point-of-view of his key victim. In this case, that’s Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), a once-promising architect locked (literally) in an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a brilliant inventor who’s basically turned his cliffside mansion into a prison for his beloved. Through a carefully orchestrated plan, Cecilia manages to escape Adrian’s grip, only to live in fear in the home of her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) until the day she discovers that Adrian is dead. After an apparent suicide, her terrorizing ex left her $5 million in his will, provided that she can maintain her sanity. That’s when things start going bump in the night, objects begin to go missing without explanation, and Cecilia starts to suspect that Adrian might not be dead after all.
This premise provides a delightful sandbox for Whannell to play in, and while you might expect a lot of CGI-driven violence to spew out right away, the director wisely pulls back on the reins, waiting for the right moment to unleash the full power of his monster. Whannell is less interested in playing with various ways in which an invisible man could hurt you physically – at least, at first – and more interested in playing with the ways in which he can hurt Cecilia psychologically. His camera drifts around the house where his heroine is staying, occasionally panning away to a stray corner or lingering in a darkened hallway, as if the lens itself senses a presence that it’s too afraid to cut away from. The real brilliance of these moments often comes when Whannell chooses not to pay them off with some kind of jump scare. He’d rather ratchet up the dread and keep you squirming in your seat.
This kind of quiet anticipation means that much of the drama in the film falls to Moss to carry on her own, as she reacts to nothing and slowly descends into increasingly desperate levels of paranoia. It’s not lost on her, as an actress and as a woman, that she’s living in a world where abuse and violence inflicted by powerful men is increasingly coming to light, and she sees the opportunity here to explore that sense of helpless terror through a grand sci-fi horror metaphor. As she does in her hit series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss seizes every moment in “The Invisible Man” to milk her character’s vulnerability for every ounce of emotional currency she can get. It’s a brilliant, even surprising performance from one of the best actresses working right now.
Perhaps the greatest strength “The Invisible Man” has working in its favor, though, even beyond Moss’ powerhouse performance, is Whannell’s tight sense of plotting. This is a film that could have just run with its central premise in more-or-less the same fashion for 90 minutes, then rolled credits, but the filmmaker isn’t interested in keeping it simple. Instead, with the central conceit as his white-hot core, Whannell weaves a Hitchcockian tale packed with twists that still manages to run like clockwork. You might think you know exactly where this movie’s headed based on the trailer alone. I’m here to assure you that you are wrong.
“The Invisible Man” is a triumph, a horror film that proves you don’t need the bells and whistles of a shared universe to revitalize a classic monster. You just need the right story, the right actress, and enough imagination to make what isn’t there feel as frightening as what is.
‘The Invisible Man’ is in theaters February 28.