Every so often, a studio dusts off an old property in the hope of selling it anew, often to diminished ends. With the latest version of “The Invisible Man,” Universal has given one of its horror classics a creepy-scary overhaul with an unsettling #MeToo spin. James Whale’s elegant 1933 film focuses on a scientist whose experiments render him unseeable and murderously crazed. (“An invisible man can rule the world!”) Here, the emphasis isn’t on the title nut-job and the perils of science, but on his ex-girlfriend who learns that an abusive lover can be just as dangerous when he’s nowhere to be seen.
The full title of H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel is “The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance.” Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, this shrewd, cleverly updated version plays with the different meanings of “romance” by fusing the basic conceit from Wells’s uncanny tale with the fallout of an abusive romantic relationship. Whannell telegraphs the relationship, its power dynamics and ills, when he introduces Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) lying in bed in the middle of the night with a man’s arm curled around her waist. Even when he’s sleeping, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) keeps a tight hold on her.
Cecilia, though, soon slips out of his grasp and then out the front door, having secretly arranged an escape. Whannell nicely flexes his horror-movie muscles in this tense opener, setting the jumpy mood with genre golden oldies — squeaking and creaking and an abruptly deployed bang — as Cecilia, eyes brightly shining, creeps through the shadows. Working well with his limited budget, Whannell also makes expressive use of Adrian’s cold, self-flattering modernist lair with its walls of glass and sharp angles. Perched on a cliff over the Pacific’s crashing waves, the house is at once an emblem of male success and a female prison, much like ye olde Gothic mansions.
With the help of her sister (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia finds refuge at the house of a close friend, James (Aldis Hodge), who lives with his teenage daughter (Storm Reid). Cecilia tries to settle into her freedom, but — much like the audience — remains on high alert, body trembling and gaze nervously shuttling. Then word comes that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving Cecilia a small fortune administered by Adrian’s shifty, unctuous brother (Michael Dorman, giving good sleaze). She finds all this rather hard to take, having a rightly suspicious mind. But this twist allows her to let down her guard, creating a teasing calm that well-trained horror fans know is only temporary.
Whannell does a lot that’s smart here, including the way he uses bodies in rooms. He likes to isolate Cecilia in the shot, surrounding her with negative space that at first seems to be just visually expressing her feelings of isolation. This dovetails with how he deploys differing points of view, as he shifts from what Cecilia sees to seemingly unmotivated camera moves, like a pan to an empty corner. Even as Cecilia relaxes into her newfound liberation, Whannell keeps signaling that something is very much amiss. Minor mishaps — a kitchen fire, a falling knife — further flick your nerves and by the time the front door mysteriously swings open, you are primed for the worst.
Moss’s full-bore performance — anchored by her extraordinarily supple face — gives the movie its emotional stakes. The figure of the imperiled woman tends to be irresistible, but you need to care about the character, too, really share her worries and her terrors. With her high forehead, prominent jawline and eyes that can pop or menacingly narrow, Moss has an ideal big-screen canvas, one she fills with subtle fluctuations that let you follow Cecilia’s inner states even when she goes quiet. Directors like to over-pump Moss’s tears (she’s a real sob sister), but here the waterworks don’t gush, which complicates the idea of Cecilia as a hapless victim.
Whannell has fun with the story’s unseen menace, sometimes a touch too enthusiastically. He builds the scares scene by scene, ramping up the shocks from eeks to shrieks as Cecilia’s renewed isolation and abuse grow progressively worse. Certain moments drift into sadism (there’s some ugly knife work), though this is also part of the genre handbook. Cecilia needs to endure a punishing ordeal and fight for her life as she tries to convince a skeptical world that the threat isn’t in her head. (Never was!) She’s being gaslighted, and while her agony can be unnerving, it is even more shivery when her weeping stops and this horror-movie damsel in distress becomes a threat.
The Invisible Man
Rated R for knife and gun violence, and domestic abuse. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.