The Universal Monsters have been floundering for years. No one has quite seemed to know what to do with the first horror icons or how to move them into the 21st century in a way that feels right and necessary. The last big attempt found Universal attempting to launch a shared movie universe in which those classic monsters—the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster—formed a kind of horror Avengers. That idea, which had moved well into development, crashed and burned on the release of the Tom Cruise anchored, The Mummy.
It was an ill-formed idea from the start, one that ignored what it was that still draw people to these 80 and 90 year old movies in the first place. The Universal Monsters are still scary, campy though they might be by today’s standards. The concepts behind them still work on a base level, which has ultimately been the problem. All previous attempts to reboot these nightmarish legends have begun with a conceptual reworking, robbing the monsters of all that we’ve loved about them for almost a century. What they’ve needed to do is rework the execution.
The disconnect between the classic movies and the modern age comes down to a generation gap. While the concepts of the monsters still works, the movies themselves and the themes they explored represent a bygone time. Horror, as a genre, works best when the horror reflects a fear of the age in which it exists. What they’ve needed to do, what they’ve so far failed to do, is find a way to utilize them in a way that speaks to modern problems.
The Invisible Man changes all of that.
Working in conjunction with horror imprint Blumhouse, Universal has finally found a way to bring these monsters (well, one of them at least) into the modern era without sacrificing what it was that made them appealing in the first place. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has conjured up a vision of terror that is deeply rooted in the zeitgeist, bringing one of the silliest of the Universal Monsters into the present with horrifying relevance.
Elizabeth Moss stars as Cecelia Kass, whom we meet on the night she finally escapes from her abusive, narcissistic boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in order to start a new life. Her world seemingly changes forever when the news that her ex, one of the top minds in the fields of fiber optics, has killed himself and left her a substantial sum of money. Her inheritance stipulates that she can never be charged with a crime or be legally deemed insane, both of which don’t seem to be a problem. Soon, however, strange happenings have her questioning her own sanity as she begins to suspect Adrian might still be taunting her.
Where the original film worked as a kind of fable about the dangers of absolute power, Whannell has crafted a film that explores how that power can affect another. This is a film about domestic abuse, plain and simple, and the horror stems from the film’s unflinching look into what abuse actually is. Whannell clearly did his research on what abuse looks like for both the abuser and the abused, and anyone familiar with the escalation of narcissism and domestic violence will recognize the slow build around which the terror of The Invisible Man is centered.
Moss gives a tremendous performance as Cecelia, or “Cee,” as her friends and family call her. Encapsulating perfectly the trauma of sustained abuse, she brings a specific nuance and perspective to the role that brings forth the terror of abusive situations perfectly. The gaslighting, the isolation, the flying monkeys, all of it. In her performance we’re forced to come face to face with what abuse looks like, and it’s horrific.
This is compounded by the fact that we cannot see her abuser, which is itself an apt metaphor. So many abusers hide behind facades of respectability and success to the point where their true selves become invisible to all except those closest to them. In those moments of horrendous abuse, both physical and emotional, the abused is, truly, alone. The decision to use an iconic role like The Invisible Man in this way represents just the kind of executional update to the premise these monsters need, allowing the film to play with modern themes and fears in a way that successfully updates the terror of the character.
Whannell has crafted a powerful and effective meditation on domestic abuse and trauma that updates the iconic character in ways we’ve never before seen. Previous adaptations have focused on the descent of the Invisible Man himself but moving the focus from him allows for a unique perspective that breathes new life into the premise. It also makes The Invisible Man one of the scarier, more effective horror reboots ever made.
The Invisible Man is now playing in theaters everywhere.