Producers: Jason Blum and Kylie du Fresne Director: Leigh Whannell Screenplay: Leigh Whannell Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Benedict Hardie Distributor: Universal Pictures
Universal’s project to resuscitate its “classic monsters” for contemporary audiences got off on the wrong foot with Alex Kurtzman’s awful 2017 version of “The Mummy,” but recovers with Leigh Whannell’s cunning, timely reimagining of the premise of H.G. Wells’s novel, which was memorably brought to the screen by James Whale in 1933.
That picture, one of the best in the studio’s horror films of the time, did not inspire the wealth of sequels and remakes that its siblings like “The Mummy,” “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” did: there were two pallid follow-ups (along with the inevitable “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Ma superior to either of them) and a few dreary TV series using the title. In its monster series of the fifties and sixties, Hammer didn’t even bother reviving the concept.
There was, to be sure, one modern Hollywood reworking of the invisibility premise—Paul Verhoeven’s 2000 “The Hollow Man,” with Kevin Bacon as a scientist who becomes insane with power when others can’t see him.
It seem that in rethinking the title Whannell drew inspiration not just from Wells’s book and Whale’s film, but from Verhoeven’s picture, in which, after all, the title character took aim on his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. Whannell takes that idea and runs with it, turning his movie into a blend of “The Hollow Man” and Joseph Ruben’s 1991 thriller “Sleeping With the Enemy.” In this #metoo age, that makes for a compelling scenario, especially when realized as skillfully as here.
It also provides a demanding role for its lead actress, who really must carry the film, often playing against an unseen entity. Whannell made the right choice in selecting Elisabeth Moss. She might not be the most conventionally attractive young woman among today’s young stars, but she certainly has the chops to pull off a part that requires a wide range.
Moss plays Cecilia Kass, who’s introduced fleeing the fortress-like estate of her controlling, abusive boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a scientific genius in the field of optics, one night, helped by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer). She takes refuge at the home of her policeman friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), terrified that Adrian will come looking for her.
But news that Adrian has committed suicide relieves her paranoia, and a summons from his lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) brings her out of hiding with the revelation of a considerable legacy. Her relief, however, is short-lived Curious events soon convince her that Adrian is not only alive but somehow stalking her unseen. Whether her suspicions are justified, or merely represent symptoms of her irrational paranoia, is something that Whannell will toy with for awhile before letting us in on the truth.
From that point on, frankly, the writer-director strives to pull too many surprises out of his bag of tricks. He has Cecilia trundled off to a security facility, where the film indulges in a repetitious series of violent encounters. He stages a long sequence in the rain that, quite honestly, goes nowhere, and follows that up with a prolonged, obnoxiously nasty one involving child endangerment. Ultimately that’s capped off by a twist ending that might be satisfying but is presented in such shorthand terms that its implausibility level is astronomical. The prolongation of things gives one too much time to reflect on the plot holes.
Still, Moss carries things over the rough patches, and it’s refreshing to encounter the rare modern horror film that, apart from a few graphically violent moments, relies mostly on building suspense and tension through more suggestive means (like, for example, “The Quiet Place”). This “Invisible Man” may run on a bit, but it remains for the most part a chilling reinvention of the old chestnut, and one certainly in tune with the concerns of our time.