Anyone remember the Dark Universe? That ambitious shared cinematic universe idea based off the old Universal monster properties? The franchise that was knee capped after one terrible film? You don’t? Can’t say I blame you.
Well, this is the attempt to subtly bring that idea back, a co-production between Universal and prolific horror producers Blumhouse, who are perhaps best known for launching Jordan Peele’s films into the public consciousness.
One of the many, many problems with The Mummy, Universal’s last monster film attempt, was it had no identity and nothing to set it apart, it was painfully generic as well as crushingly dull, with Tom Cruise thrown in there as an almost insulting hook to draw in the casual viewers.
Now, I’ve never seen the original Invisible Man films (not many people see him, he’s invisible after all), just like I’ve never seen many (if any) classic Universal monsters films, it’s a genre that’s never held any particular appeal to me, but I’m willing to bet domestic abuse wasn’t involved in the classic tale’s.
Yes, in a stark left-turn into serious territory, The Invisible Man details an abusive relationship, and the lengths someone will go to for control, a premise that instantly sets it apart from the original, and gives it reason to exist, a new spin on a classic tale, great start.
Some may argue the ethics of portraying domestic abuse on film; and while it is a very difficult thing to watch, film is at its best when it is holding a mirror up to society, showing us the very worst of human nature, along with the best. As a narrative device, it can be problematic or even exploitative, but used in the right way, like all things, it can be very effectiveIt is important that such things are visible in media, after all, you never know who it might help, in a roundabout way.
So lets get the negative out of the way first, starting with a recurring issue I seem to have quite a lot, and that’s one of lighting.
I’ll be the first one to say that your setting and presentation are a crucial part of your films atmosphere, especially in horror films, but it is also crucial that we can see what’s going on. Go for the dark, grim aesthetic if you want, but don’t put it above an audience’s ability to be able to see your film.
Secondly, as an atmospheric experience there are times when it excels, but there is very little contrast, or context. A film with such intense moments as this need the lighter, character-focused moments in between, otherwise the intensity becomes the new norm, we become desensitised, and all the lovely atmosphere you’ve built up becomes less effective.
This is apparent in the character developments too, take our supposed antagonist, the abusive boyfriend, we never actually see what he’s done, or why she is running away, the film opens on an (very effective, mind you) escape attempt by Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) and of you go into the film blind, you have no context for why she’s trying to run away, apart from the fact that she seems petrified.
All of these gripes about the film are subjective of course, there is a limit to which people’s attention span runs out, and sticking a few more scenes onto this already-two-hour film might have lost peoples attention; in another situation I might have praised it for getting to the point, but it does feel like we’re missing a certain amount of character development.
Other than these few points, the film is fairly solid. The use of the ‘invisible man’ gimmick could be corny and hackneyed if mishandled, but here it’s used to its fullest potential, letting us see very little and letting our mind do the rest, solid horror basis right there in my book.
One word I’ve used a few times already, and I’m about to use again, is: atmosphere. To me, a horror film lives or dies based on its atmosphere, a lack of understanding of pacing or subtlety can turn an alleged horror into a farce, see my many railings against the practice of jump scare in previous reviews, what we can’t see is scarier, so a horror experience where the main antagonist is invisible should be an easy sell; except you have to work extra hard to not just turn the character into another shorthand for ‘ghost’ eg: flickering lights, things moving on their own, all that stuff we’ve seen a million times.
The use of the invisibility factor here is devilishly clever, at the start, it’s a struggle to establish whether there actually IS an invisible character, or it’s merely the creation of Cecilia’s incredibly anxious mind. An invisible character is twice as difficult to establish, but twice as horrifying if done right. Potentially a threat that you know is there but can’t possibly prove is the thing if nightmares, but approach it like the invisible party has the powers of a cartoon character, and you have a problem.
The result of the use of its antagonist and the slow, creeping dread it builds around itself is an oppressive, nerve-wracking experience, hanging over the audience like a sword of Damocles, one which we know is going to drop anytime, we just don’t know when, or how.
I feel a special mention should also be given here to Elizabeth Moss, the leading actor, who treads a fine line between terrorised victim, and deluded lunatic, one that is intelligently manipulated by the films director and writer to be different from each angle. She’ll be conspired against and her character warped in one person’s perspective, with the audiences frustrations growing in parallel to her own, at being stalked and manipulated by someone only she knows is there; it’s a quite brilliant character dynamic helped by a committed and accomplished performance.
The direction and camerawork, the earlier lighting problem notwithstanding, is also excellent. Making full use of the settings it has at its disposal and using some really quite clever shots to establish the place where the narrative is unfolding really adds to the oppression of the atmosphere, creating a sense of familiarity with the surroundings, but alienation because we don’t know what lurks within it.
All in all then, I really enjoyed The Invisible Man. I don’t think it was anywhere near perfect, and it could have done with a bit more depth, but it does a hell of a lot better with an old property than The Mummy did, even managing to make the old property seem fresh again with a new perspective, fully utilising the potential of the titular character; all the while employing world-building and narrative techniques that will almost suffocate the audience with dread at what might happen next, creating a very effective psychological experience.