While some would argue that the worst thing to have spawned from Marvel’s extended cinematic universe is an overreliance on the superhero genre in general, there’s been something arguably more damaging at play. The unprecedented commercial success of the interconnected, multi-branched nature of the MCEU caused other studios to crave similar long-term profits and so franchises suddenly grew exponentially, in every possible direction, whether they needed to or not. The most disastrous example of this came from Universal who saw the trend as a way of relaunching and combining their many monster movies as part of the newly coined Dark Universe. A logo was released along with a promotional image of cast members from films that hadn’t yet started production, an ambitious yet ultimately foolish gamble given that the first of these, 2017’s The Mummy, was then rejected by audiences and critics.
The Dark Universe went dark and instead it became snarky shorthand for what happens when a studio puts too many eggs in one precariously constructed basket. But in what feels like the smartest franchise-reviver since Ryan Coogler’s Creed, at least on paper, Blumhouse and Saw creator Leigh Whannell have transformed The Invisible Man from an expensive, Johnny Depp-starring adventure into a $7m R-rated horror with a female focus. It’s an ingenious way to utilise a widely known character while keeping risk at a minimum (the film will make its budget back and then some in its opening weekend alone) and also to give an old property a fresh feel, showcased quite perfectly in arguably the most effective trailer for the last six months.
For the first 15 minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a remake of Sleeping with the Enemy (something that’s in the works because of course) as Cecilia (Moss) enacts a daring escape from the ultra-modern house she shares with her controlling and abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She makes it out, just, and hides herself away with cop friend James (Clemency’s underrated Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Cecilia fears for her safety but when she finds out Adrian has killed himself, she fears something far worse: that he’s not dead and has found a way to make himself invisible.
Existing under the same Blumhouse banner that’s housed everything from Happy Death Day to Sinister to Truth or Dare, The Invisible Man is pitched as a classier alternative, shot and structured more like a glossy early 90s thriller complete with a handsome San Francisco setting and a heavily stringed Hitchcockian score. It’s the familiar tale of a hero trying to convince those around that something dastardly yet unexplainable is afoot and while formulaic, there’s a timeliness to its portrait of an abused woman fighting for the right to be believed. Gaslighting has been a practice in film since well, 1940’s Gaslight, but it’s a word that’s only become more commonly used in the wider world in the last three years, following on from a compulsive gaslight-er moving into the White House. Whannell’s reinvention of HG Wells’s text uses this heightened awareness of how toxic men try to control and emotionally manipulate women in a similar, if less effective, way to Ari Aster’s Midsommar did last year. While Whannell wants to say something, what he actually has to say doesn’t amount to all that much. There’s a potentially potent metaphor here for the invisible man representing the shadow of an abusive relationship clinging to the abuser even after it’s finished but human psychology quickly takes a backseat to funhouse scares, with mixed results.
There are some successfully creepy sequences as Cecilia starts to realise what she’s up against but given the conceit, there’s not nearly enough inventiveness on display. Bar a handful of sneaky, crowd-pleasing effects, the film’s in need of some craftier suspense set pieces with Whannell pulling back at times when he should be pushing further. It doesn’t help that despite Adrian’s hi-tech job in “optics”, those around Cecilia jump straight to assuming she’s lost her mind despite no reference to any prior mental illness, and so the by-the-numbers back-and-forth (something scary happens, she tells people, they don’t believe her, etc) gets tiring fast. It’s kept alive though by an on-form Moss, in her first studio lead, something of a trauma professional at this stage of her career after three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale as well as punishing roles in last year’s big and small dramas The Kitchen and Her Smell.
While I do crave the opportunity to see her in more films that don’t require quite so much sexual, physical and emotional abuse, she’s compelling as ever here, slickly transferring her skills to a far broader canvas, pushing herself through yet another gruelling obstacle course with gusto. It’s a fiery performance but even she struggles with an uneven final act that goes deep into genre excess with some outsized, and nonsensical, action as well as some ropey effects and a glaring plot-hole that’s left clumsily unresolved. Worst of all, Moss is denied the truly satisfying payoff she deserves. Like much of the film, the final scene opts for shock value over something more drawn out and it ends with a whimper rather than a roar.
There’s fun to be had here, thanks to Moss and an involving set-up, and given the state of multiplex horror, especially at this time of year, this is a striking diversion. But Whannell gives us just enough to make us want more and despite the stretched 125-minute runtime, he can’t quite deliver what he loosely promises. This Invisible Man needed a bit more flesh.