In the early days of cinema, just after the introduction of sound, many of the cinematic genres we’re familiar with today were crystallized by particular studios who focused their efforts on certain niches. Universal Pictures had the horror market cornered with their adaptations of late 19th century literature, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and HG Wells’ The Invisible Man. The monster movie became the modus operandi for the genre, a perfect way to utilize the titular creatures as a metaphor for the current ills of society without ever feeling overly blunt about it. Those films and their monsters are the stuff of Hollywood legends now, well-established in the cultural pantheon. These titans defined the genre and paved the way for its future success as it branched out into other sub-genres. But for some reason, we don’t get any monster movies anymore (or at least not any good ones). What gives?
In some ways, the monster movie genre thrives on a sense of reinvention rather than straight innovation. Even those original Universal Monsters were the products of adaptation from literary sources. Most of the more recent, modern examples of monster movies are remakes of older films, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988). When there was a random resurgence of zombie fiction in the 2000s, remakes of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies proved to be more financial lucrative than Romero’s own continuation of his zombie series, Land of the Dead. It’s hard to completely understand this trend, although maybe it has something to do with the monsters themselves.
Monsters provide filmmakers with a template of sorts. Audiences are familiar with these creatures, understand the rules that govern them, and probably have been subtly influenced by a sense of nostalgia or mythology that surrounds them. In some ways, it’s much easier to take a preexisting monster and simply provide a facelift that catapults the creature into a much more modern sensibility (read: more violent and more disturbing, a cinematic “one up” in some ways). John Carpenter’s The Thing transformed the titular alien from an overgrown vegetable-man into a writhing mass of tentacles that gorily assimilates its prey; Cronenberg’s The Fly saw Seth Brundle’s bodily transformation into an insect as something slow, steady, and putrefying; Chuck Russell’s The Blob not only devoured its victims, but let us watch as they evaporated into nothing but flesh, muscle, and bone. But beyond their more graphic aesthetics, each of these films updated their sci-fi horror stories to mirror the anxieties deeply felt by audiences in the 1980s – The Thing and The Blob were coded stories that drew comparisons to the Cold War, while The Fly could be seen as a metaphor for victims of the AIDS crisis.
In some ways, these monsters only worked when they were made to be more relevant. But at the same time, it also seems like these monster movies only worked if the monsters were allowed to be just that… monsters. In the era of intellectual properties, Universal Studios knew they were sitting on a goldmine with their Universal Monsters pantheon. The trouble they had was figuring out a way to take a horror-centric property, make it interconnected like the Marvel films, and somehow sell it with a blockbuster’s four-quadrant appeal. Their answer was The Dark Universe, which only had one actual entry to its namesake, 2017’s The Mummy with Tom Cruise, and another that was a non-starter for the brand, 2014’s drab Dracula Untold. Those both failed, miserably. Universal’s Dark Universe was dead upon arrival. Despite all their announcements about forthcoming adaptations of classic monster movies, it seemed that nobody took the bait. These weren’t working.
Enter Leigh Whannell’s remake of The Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man is the first adaptation of a Universal Monster film since 2017’s The Mummy, although it bears no ties to The Dark Universe. At one time, there was an adaptation of the same property that was meant to star Johnny Depp in the titular role, and it was supposed to be a gothic tragedy, with the Invisible Man as an antihero of sorts. Whannell’s remake is a stark contrast to that approach, reverting back to the concept that the titular character is a monster, and as such, is very clearly a villain. This isn’t a blockbuster film with four-quadrant appeal, it’s a nuts and bolts horror film that uses the Blumhouse model of low budget filmmaking to its advantage. And its success at the box office (unfortunately cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic) makes one thing very clear – The Dark Universe failed because it tried to make its monsters into antiheroes or misunderstood loners instead of just letting their monsters be monstrous.
You don’t have that problem with Whannell’s take on the material. In the new version, set in modern times, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) makes a daring escape from the household of her abusive boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Choen). Now safe, and staying with her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia receives some disturbing news – Adrian has committed suicide, and has left her a large inheritance in his will. But soon after, Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian might not actually be gone, as unexplained events happen around the house. As these series of coincidences prove lethal, Cecilia finds herself trying to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Whannell knows genre. Before he took to the director’s chair, he worked on the Saw and Insidious franchises as both a creator and a screenwriter. His other feature as a director, Upgrade, was a stylish, playful, and grimy throwback to the kind of low-budget but immensely satisfying exploitation thrillers of the 1980s. With The Invisible Man, he leverages both a sense of unpretentious throwback horror with a very contemporary sense of theme. From the offset, Whannell knows the audience won’t ever buy that Adrian is truly dead or that Cecilia is crazy – he knows that we’re in on the premise, that you can’t call a movie The Invisible Man without actually having an invisible man.
So he frames every shot with extra negative space, and holds camera angles longer than you’d expect or even moves the camera for a brief moment, teasing you with the possibility that something might happen due to some unseen force. He milks the audience’s frustration expertly with a first half that refuses to play its hand too soon. In the process, Elisabeth Moss is allowed to make Cecilia a genuinely empathetic force, the rare modern horror protagonist who is easy to root for without ever sacrificing their rough edges. The second half is less taut, as it becomes a more straightforward game of cat and mouse. The ending also feels protracted and pulled out for way too long. But there’s still some really strong filmmaking on display. A sequence within a hospital utilizes a camera that manages to stay perfectly focused as it swings about with the security guards who are thrown around by an invisible assailant. Another great set-piece involves a trip into the attic and some leftover paint.
What really makes The Invisible Man feel like a much more satisfying, substantial film despite the low budget roots is its strong sense of theme. Here, once again, the monster is a metaphor, and one that’s sadly relevant. By framing Cecilia’s relationship to Adrian as one that’s abusive, Whannell perfectly allows his film to be an exploration of domestic abuse, particularly the lingering effects that come in the aftermath. It’s an obvious allegory, but never a blunt one. Part of that is because it’s so emotionally adroit. Another reason is because Moss absolutely sells the anxiety, terror, and uncertainty her character feels. Moss is an incredibly talented actress whose appeal has been slightly niche, but between this and The Handmaid’s Tale, one has to hope she’s finally won her way into the mainstream. It’s a shame the film’s theatrical run was cut short due to the pandemic, but The Invisible Man is available to rent at home right now. While the gorgeous cinematography and sharp sound design are absolutely suited for the big screen, letting a film like this, all about breaking boundaries and disallowing for any sense of safe space, into your household might actually be a fantastic way to experience this story.
Let’s hope there are more monster movies like this on the way.