When you think scary movies, most people think Halloween, but Hollywood has recently rolled out a welcome trend of horror surprises this time of year.
In 2017, “Get Out” delivered the most symbolic social satire of the decade.
In 2018, “A Quiet Place” made audiences terrified to make a sound in the theater.
And last year, “Us” featured a chilling double performance by Lupita Nyong’o, though the half-baked script could have used another rewrite to give the premise more punch.
This week brings a gripping remake of H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man,” which originally starred Claude Rains in 1933 alongside Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein,” Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” and Lon Chaney Jr.’s “Wolf Man” in Universal’s monster-movie stable.
You have to see it to believe it, but it’s a rare remake that actually works, chilling in all the right ways and infusing enough modern sensibility for our current social climate.
The film follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who leaves her wealthy but abusive scientist boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). When Adrian suddenly takes his own life, Cecilia inherits his fortune as she goes to live with her sister (Harriet Dyer), their childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid).
However, a series of freaky occurrences causes Cecilia to believe her ex is somehow back from the dead, stalking her as an invisible man. Is she losing her own sanity? Is she struggling to cope with her new life? Or is something far more sinister at play?
Such a film only works on the strength of its casting, and Moss is the perfect choice. After iconic roles in TV’s “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she has gradually hit the big screen in the indie gem “The One I Loved” (2014), a standout performance in the lackluster “The Kitchen” (2019) and a small part as the neighbor in “Us” (2019).
In “The Invisible Man,” she’s a tour de force, eyes darting with a thousand-yard-stare of PTSD. Even under duress, she fights back with physical and mental strength, often ahead of the men on the police force, as she matches wits with the Invisible Man.
To put it another way, she has more lines than all the female roles in “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” combined. Granted, most of the dialogue involves her ex, but the script passes the Bechdel Test in a touching college tuition discussion with “Wrinkle in Time” alum Reid, offering her a “ladder” to success.
It’s a lighter moment from filmmaker Leigh Whannell, who wrote and starred in the original “Saw” (2004). You can cynically blame him for launching the “torture porn” subgenre as a poor man’s “Se7en” (1995), but he did introduce the iconic villain Jigsaw (still going nine films later) while inspiring a cultural phenomenon of escape rooms.
After moving behind the camera to direct the horror flicks “Insidious: Chapter 3” (2015) and “Upgrade” (2018), Whannell’s “Invisible Man” makes him a force to be reckoned with, thanks to the blessing of producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions.
Right from the opening sequence, Whannell shows a keen eye for the slow disclosure of key images. A woman’s eye opens on a bedroom pillow. A blanket pulls back to reveal a man’s hand on her belly. A pill bottle sits at the ready under the mattress.
As Moss tiptoes out of bed, we hold our breath in the audience, just like we did in “A Quiet Place,” only this time with a swanky mansion similar to “Big Little Lies,” creating a foreboding backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
As the film unfolds, the pacing provides slow-burn suspense amid expertly-timed jump scares. The camera pans around empty rooms, lurches down hallways and peers through doorways, making our eyes scan the entire frame for a potential Invisible Man.
Sure, the premise requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but it’s presented in a way that feels logical to the characters, allowing us to go along for the ride. The gimmick borders on becoming over the top as a floating gun decimates an entire police force during the climax, but it still packs plenty of twists and a deliciously nasty resolution.
It also thankfully scraps the salacious voyeurism of Kevin Bacon in Paul Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man” (2000). Instead, we get a 21st century examination of gaslighting, domestic abuse and stalker exes that captures the zeitgeist of the #MeToo era. It’s a more realistic “Fifty Shades of Grey,” with Adrian an equally perverse Christian Grey.
The end result is a welcome departure from Universal’s original plan of a “Dark Universe” franchise with Johnny Depp in “The Invisible Man,” Russell Crowe in “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” Javier Bardem in “Frankenstein” and Tom Cruise in “The Mummy.”
When the terrible “Mummy” flopped, Universal canned creators Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan and decided to make stand-alone films rather than an interconnected universe. This is always a much better approach for quality filmmaking, as even the most successful examples (i.e. Marvel) can’t help but inherently lower the stakes.
The jury is still out on where Universal will go from here with its modern monster movie slate, but for now, this “Invisible Man” is a gripping one-off that no one saw coming — perhaps because we can’t see it at all.