Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Invisible Man > The Mummy (2017), There, I Said It

It's been tough going for the Universal Monsters in the 21st-century. Universal Pictures has constantly shown interest in reviving these horror icons but typically by way of revamping these figures to fit the molds of then-popular movies. While the 2010 The Wolfman feature was a horror movie, that was the exception rather than the rule. Van Helsing, Dracula Untold and The Mummy (2017) all were pastiches on action blockbusters and came up short. Who would have thought, then, that the Universal Monsters, who got famous through small-scale horror movies, might work best in the modern era by having them star in small-scale horror movies like Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man?

A major overhaul of both the original 1933 Universal horror movie of the same name as well as the original H.G. Wells Invisible Man novel, this new take on the source material brilliantly makes the titular foe a vessel to explore the perspective of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. That woman is Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who's finally managed to escape her toxic boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Now she's living with her friend James (Aldis Hodge, great to see him here after delivering a knock-out supporting performance in Clemency) and trying to get back on her feet. Sequences depicting her attempting to go about a normal life while dealing with the trauma of her relationship with Adrian Griffin immediately make it clear that The Invisible Man is going to be razor-sharp in terms of where it generates terror.

Due to her worries that Adrian could be lurking around every corner, the very act of walking outside enormously intimidating one for Cecilia  As we follow her engaging in an early attempt to retrieve her mail, Whannell's immersive camerawork and Elisabeth Moss' equally compelling lead performance plant viewers right into the midset of Cecilia Kass. In the process, they make a character engaging in a slow walk across a person's front yard utterly terrifying. There isn't a place where Cecilia feels fully secure and the filmmaking of The Invisible Man captures that psychological experience with gripping levels of success.

Like so many high-quality horror films, The Invisible Man already works at being chilling before any of its more heightened plot elements kick in. Just following the authentically-realized everyday behavior of Cecilia Kass is enough to create an anxiety-inducing pit in your stomach. Of course, the title makes it clear that eventually a man you cannot see will factor into the plot and that comes into play one its made apparent Adrian Griffin has committed suicide. That should mean Cecilia Kass is finally free from this man's grasp except some strange occurrences begin to indicate that maybe Adrian isn't as dead as one might think. In fact, all signs point to Adrian now being invisible and using every mean possible to torment Cecilia.

While The Invisible Man creates tension from a number of places, one place it smartly avoids generating scares from entertaining the notion that Cecilia Kass is incorrect in assuming Adrian is invisible. This is a movie that's very much about validating the experiences and perspectives of people in abusive relationships, creating ambiguity over whether or not Adrian is really invisible would undercut that approach. Thus, The Invisible Man goes the way more interesting route of creating horror from having nobody around Cecilia believe her, they all think she's just making up stories, an experience all too common for people in abusive relationships in the real world trying to make their voices heard.

A key reason why The Invisible Man is so terrifying is that it doesn't forego its grounding in reality even when the stylized titular being becomes a central part of the plot. The success of such human-based elements is a welcome surprise, especially since Leigh Whannell's 2018 movie Upgrade, while a totally delightful action film, did see its weakest points emerge in early dialogue-heavy scenes establishing the relationship between the protagonist and his doomed wife. Given that Whannell struggled with some of the intimate character-heavy scenes in that motion picture, it's impressive to see how well he does with writing and directing the experiences of Cecilia Kass in The Invisible Man. Equally impressive is his visual chops as a filmmaker when it comes to visually accentuating terror in even the most mundane shots.

Whannell is uncannily good at letting the camera linger on an empty frame for just enough time to make you worried something you can't see is about to scare the bejesus out of you. When just a vacant space is enough to get you unnerved, you know a horror movie is doing something right! Just as successful as the visual stylings of The Invisible Man is Elisabeth Moss' powerhouse lead performance as Cecilia Kass. Moss is a performer known for throwing herself head-first into her roles, that level of commitment is what makes her turns in films like Her Smell so memorable. That trait of hers is put to top-notch work here as Moss viscerally conveys the weariness, the anxiety and the pent-up rage Kass has against the person who was a monster before they became invisible. The way The Invisible Man, like so many great horror movies, manifests thoughtful explorations of real-world experiences through utterly chilling means is encapsulated by this excellent performance from Elisabeth Moss. This kind of acting, as well as this kind of scary good filmmaking, is how we should be tackling the Universal Monsters in 2020, not through whatever was happening in The Mummy (2017).

Sidenote: One random sidenote, I was amused by all the heavy uses of second-unit footage of San Francisco establishing shots throughout the movie, there's a discernably large amount of them, as if Whannell was worried audiences wouldn't buy Australia standing in for this California city unless we constantly cut back to the Golden Gate Bridge. This isn't really a critique since this is a tactic employed all the time by movies shot in foreign countries standing in for America, just more of an observation.

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