The original, 1933 version of The Invisible Man was the fourth of Universal's classic monster movies. (It had been preceded by Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy.) Its star, mostly hidden behind bandages and black sun goggles, was Claude Rains; the director, still hot from helming the wildly successful Frankenstein, was James Whale. But forget all that. A new Invisible Man now moves among us, and he's much, much scarier.
Some years back, the present-day Universal Pictures decided to unite all of its old monsters in a fake franchise called the Dark Universe. This ill-conceived project was strangled in its dark cradle by a critically disastrous 2017 remake of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise. So resounding was this bomb that Uni execs decided to deep-six the Dark Universe concept and just turn its next monster reboot over to people who knew what they were doing. This turned out to be, quite wisely, producer Jason Blum and the Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell, who'd had a long involvement with the Saw and Insidious movies, and, more pertinently, had also scripted and directed an excellent 2018 sci-fi film called Upgrade.
As you'd expect, Whannell's take on The Invisible Man bears only a glancing resemblance to the long-ago James Whale version. Now the title entity is basically a supporting character in a story focused on his wife—a sort of Bride of Invisible Man, you might say. The wife, Cecilia, is played by Elisabeth Moss, and she's in every scene, borne along on a storm cloud of paranoia and raging fury. This is not a MeToo movie, exactly—it's a full-on horror flick—but it's thoughtful and clever and it resonates with the current ascendancy of female concerns.
Cecilia is a onetime architect who has relinquished her career to attend to the batty demands of her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who is ultra-controlling. They live in San Francisco, in an icily modern house with a basement laboratory where Adrian—a wealthy tech entrepreneur—pursues his experiments in the field of optics. After several years of marriage, Cecilia hates Adrian with a deep and unflagging passion, and as the movie opens we see her fleeing their home and being spirited away in a car by her sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer). This is a tense sequence, and it's punctuated by a really jolting, out-of-nowhere shock. Happily, things get much worse very quickly.
Two weeks later, we find Cecilia sheltering with an old friend named James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Then she learns that Adrian has committed suicide, and is informed by his creepy brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), that her late husband has left her $5-million, tax-free, to be dispensed in regular installments. Great. (Later, though, we learn there's a stipulation that the money spigot will be turned off if Cecilia ever loses her mind.)
Strange things start happening—small-scale at first: Cecilia leaves a frying pan on a burner when she walks out of the kitchen for a minute and we see that something is turning up the flame dangerously high in her absence. In the middle of the night, we see the blanket on the bed where she's sleeping being slowly pulled down. She hears a phone ringing—up in the attic. Cecilia tells James about these incidents and he tells her to stop acting weird.
The gaslighting continues, and Cecilia soon realizes that Adrian is responsible—he's somehow still alive. No one else believes this, of course, and the unseen husband proves devilishly clever at isolating her from everyone who might provide support.
I'll go no further into what transpires, apart from noting that the director's camera style—showing us widescreen views of spaces where nothing seems to be happening—has the effect of cranking up our anxiety as we wait for something awful to do so. There's also a great score, by Benjamin Wallfisch, which deploys steely, post-Hitchcock strings and what sounds like a host of metal locusts in an enveloping Dolby Atmos aural environment.
Best of all, there are no simpleminded jump scares in this movie—no cheap-thrill boo! effects. There are plenty of scares, and they'll likely make you jump (two of them are brilliantly horrific), but they arise naturally out of Whannell's story, which is constructed with a series of ingenious twists that keep coming at you right up to the end. For those who may have been waiting for a horror movie that really works you over, this is it.