Blumhouse’s ‘The Invisible Man’ Crafts Diabolical Tension out of Unseen Threats
For those still afraid of the dark, or who feel uneasy being alone in a room, here’s a thriller that will quicken your heart rate. “The Invisible Man” takes the basic premise of the classic story about a man who makes himself unseen and turns it into two hours of unrelenting suspense. It’s a Blumhouse production that basks in being a pure genre movie, with moments that would be silly with a lesser filmmaker at the helm. The trick is in making the impossible feel very plausible, and when the tension boils you don’t even care anymore about how realistic any of it is.
It begins with an escape as Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) runs away from the lavish seaside home she shares with a psychotic husband, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a tech billionaire. She makes it back to the city and finds refuge with her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), a cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Shocking news arrives that Adrian has killed himself and left Cecilia a trust of $5 million, as explained by Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman). Just as Cecilia feels her life is finally happy she begins to sense a strange presence in her bedroom at night. Then, a sheet moves, an invisible force punches someone, and beyond that Cecilia’s email account gets hacked and a brutal email is sent to Alice. Cecilia begins to suspect Adrian is somehow still exerting control over her life, and when the invisible force begins attacking her directly, she becomes convinced it must be him somehow.
“The Invisible Man” pretends to be an adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, which has inspired so many other versions, it mostly just keeps the name of Adrian Griffin for its disappearing namesake. The rest is an original cross between genre thriller and high-tension special effects. Director Leigh Whannell previously directed one of Blumhouse’s best B-movies, the highly entertaining, vintage-tinged “Upgrade,” which had a simple premise fueled by an 80’s-style score. “The Invisible Man” is more ambitious, telling a recognizable story fueled by the very craft of how the idea is pulled off. A heroine escaping from the clutches of a mad spouse may sound like territory explored before in thrillers like “Sleeping With the Enemy,” but Whannell’s script gives its female lead more agency and believability. It almost becomes a stylish grindhouse parable for this moment where society seriously debates gender roles and harassment. Cecilia begins to see strange happenings around her such as the sensation of someone being in the same room as her at night, or an entity grabbing at a blanket. Only he could also systematically begin to ruin her life by framing her, destroying her relationships and attacking others invisibly. She knows it must be Adrian, she’s been married to the maniac after all, but she’s immediately labeled as crazy. At one point Tom brings out the old accusation that Cecilia married his brother for the money. Is it too much to read a #MeToo allegory in “The Invisible Man”? Well, why not? Good horror, grindhouse and thriller movies have always tapped into the zeitgeist.
Let’s put aside any relevant social allusions in the script, what makes “The Invisible Man” effective above anything else is its ability to conjure sheer intensity. Whannell invites us to truly ponder what it would be like to face a threatening attacker we can’t see but know is there. Unlike previous modern takes on this story, like 2000’s “Hollow Man,” where Kevin Bacon played an invisible man turned rapist, Whannell doesn’t go for over the top special effects. Palpable dread is generated when Cecilia sees an empty corner but feels someone is there, or when she crawls into an attic following the buzz of Adrian’s cellphone. At times just the mere shot of an empty chair is done perfectly to make your skin crawl. Jump scares are fine-tuned to happen when we least expect them to the point where even a sudden punch to the face is more visceral than anything in “The Boy II.” One is so shocking we almost want to applaud Whannel for not holding back. The music score by Benjamin Wallfisch, who recently provided waves of unnerving sound in “It: Chapter Two,” gives a pounding edge to the material here. When the attacks do get wild and Cecilia finds herself in literal combat with her invisible pursuer it’s never hokey but full of a startling realism. Whannell and his team have truly thought out how to pull it off in a way that merits the term believable. A good director knows one kitchen knife, used effectively, is much more horrifying than any digital monster. There are also scenes where the cinematography by Stefan Duscio gets creative in very refined, particular ways. Cecilia will be sitting in an interrogation room and she will go out of focus, as if the camera were focusing on someone behind her. But of course there’s no one there.
Blumhouse revives “The Invisible Man” but makes it entirely fit into its high-grade B-thriller style as well. How the film’s villain manages to become invisible is explained with a great touch of paranoid, techno science fiction that is also an updated wink to the original Wells novel. And unlike many typical rehashed thrillers, this one doesn’t tone down its resolution. It goes for broke with a final scene that is quite merciless. Adding to the film’s edge is the performance by Elisabeth Moss which is a strong combination of her down to earth, relatable personality with the Kafkaesque desperation of a thriller persona feeling trapped. Like her work in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she does what many great actors do in adding just enough real drama to what amounts to a suspense ride.
With “The Invisible Man” we get one of the year’s first true popcorn entertainments. It’s a skillfully done combination of good genre writing and inventive special effects. You get caught up in the energy and technique, never doubting there is an invisible hand aiming that gun at a security guard’s helpless face or that something is hiding in plain sight in Cecilia’s living room. If you want suspense this one will deliver and it might just leave you with the double fear of sleeping with the lights off or on.
“The Invisible Man” opens Feb. 28 in theaters nationwide.