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The Invisible Man (15)

Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Elisabeth MossOliver Jackson-CohenHarriet Dyer

Review: David Stephens

Remember those far-off heady days of 2017, when it looked like we were going to get an all-new shared movie universe devoted to genre icons? The Tom Cruise-starring “The Mummy” was just hitting cinemas, and there was the surprising news that it would be the first instalment of a series of films set to star the classic Universal Monsters in a “Dark Universe”. Then “Mummy” flopped, directors ran, and the whole project kissed the concrete. If that original plan had worked and the Cruise film had made a healthy profit, we’d now be reviewing a version of “The Invisible Man” with Jonny Depp in the lead role as H.G. Well’s fictional scientist Griffin. But it didn’t, and we’re not. Instead, we have Elizabeth Moss in the lead (but not titular) role of an updated version of that classic story, written and directed by Leigh Whannell (of “Saw” and “Upgrade” fame) and produced by Jason Blum. Given a simultaneous release in the States and UK (yay!), we took the opportunity to rush to the cinema and (not) see him…

It starts with Cecilia Kass (Moss) barely escaping the property of her drugged partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen from Netflix’s “Hill House”). Unbeknownst to her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and long-time cop-friend James (Aldis Hodge), she has been trapped in an abusive and controlled relationship for some time with Griffin, and it has traumatised her. Two weeks later, Griffin apparently commits suicide in a fit of anger after losing her, and she is left a large amount of money in his will. Pretty quickly though, Cecilia is plagued by a series of unfortunate events and thinks she is being followed by someone. She’s pretty sure that it’s Griffin and that he’s not dead… but he is somehow “Invisible”. The problem is making anyone else believe her before her life is eradicated.

Apart from the original Universal film, we’ve had so many versions of this story now. From Kevin Bacon’s unhinged “The Hollow Man”, David McCallum’s tenure as a good-guy spy in the 70s series of the same name, John Carpenter’s/Chevy Chase’s “Memoirs”, and even soft-core “Misadventures”! And like Batman, it seems that each generation gets the “Invisible Man” that they deserve. Luckily the one we’ve got here is nicely scripted, brilliantly acted, and with a whip-smart treatment that “feels” like a warranted update of a Universal classic, which is far more than “The Mummy” was. There are several good reasons why this film really works. The first being that it tackles several horrors and social tropes that hit home hard in the current environment. There’s the is-something-there? paranoia that worked so well for (some of) the “Paranormal Activity” movies (remember “Toby”?) and most ghost stories. There’s the anxiety of being in an abusive relationship or being stalked continuously, and never being allowed to be free. And there’s the horrible pariah-like quality of being dismissed out of hand following an act of violence or terror, something that #MeToo and recent celebrity history have taught us to be wise not to do. That’s not to say that this is a “woke horror” or some other type of worthy social analogy. Those elements are there, but you’re not beaten over the head with them. First and foremost, it is a horror/thriller and a damned good one.

Another reason for a badge of quality is having Whannell behind the lens. This is a hugely visual film and relies on some brilliant camerawork. Sometimes the POV is that of a concerned (imaginary) ally looking back down a corridor, just behind Cecilia as she packs her bags. Other times, it takes on the POV of a voyeur (Griffin?) as it watches her dress or take a shower. All the time though, the camera moves, prowls, and makes the most of the corner angles. This continues into the final act, where things become more dynamic and action-orientated, and the camera is flung around with hapless victims, like some of the sequences in Whannel’s breathless “Upgrade”. The camerawork matches the script though, and whilst you may be expecting a plethora of cheap jump-scares (and there are some obviously), mostly it surprisingly errs towards the more intelligent areas of plot development. Whilst there are occasionally hammy lines, Cecilia’s gamut of emotions are believable, as are the disbelieving actions of her friends and family. This makes for an intriguing second half of the movie, where several plot developments make for a different tone and pace to the first half.

Which brings us to Moss, and her significant contribution to the project. Like several other actresses who have recently shown a real flair for horror (Allison Williams, Lupita Nyong'o, Samara Weaving, etc.), she really shines in the lead role. One of those actors who can do more with a blank stare, than many others can do with a page of dialogue, her Cecilia comes across as vulnerable and yet with an inner strength and intelligence that becomes vital as the plot progresses. It’s hard to see someone else do such an excellent job as the protagonist. Rarely has the statement “There you are!” felt so liberating and hopeful. She’s an easy heroine to root for. And whilst we don’t get a lot of (visible) time with Griffin, he’s built-up and personified nicely by Jackson-Cohen (at specific points) so that he genuinely feels like one of the most loathsome and manipulative screen villains of recent years. If you are searching for negatives, it is perhaps a little overlong, with the climax surprisingly low-key. Other than that, you can believe the excellent word-of-mouth that has accompanied most reviews. If there must be a “Dark Universe” or updates of classic Universal characters, then this is the sort of smart R-rated treatment that we would like to see, rather than PG-rated CGI shenanigans. Let’s hope that’s the message that gets across and this does some decent business at the box office. It will be interesting to see how Whannell’s “Escape from New York” remake will turn out now…

Smart and thrilling, well- written and superbly acted, TIM is the first great horror film of 2020. The combination of scary concepts, suspenseful sequences, and even full-on action scenes show Whannell’s increasingly assured ability to direct movies. Couple that with a barnstorming performance from Moss and ingenious plot developments and you’ve got a mainstream movie that should be seen.
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