What Universal didn't understand with their wildly miscalculated Dark Universe, an attempt to ape the MCU by adapting the 1930s Universal Monster movies into big budget tentpoles, is that the originals, as grand and fantastical as they may be, thrived on small scale and intimate terror. Expanding the budget a hundred times and cranking up the action strips the chill factor from these tales, as evidenced by 2017's "inaugural" Dark Universe disaster, The Mummy, which shut down the whole cinematic universe shebang before it barely started. Desperate to squeeze any last drop from this franchise for some reason, Universal decided to start from scratch once again with a lower-budget, cerebral slow-burn horror approach, wisely bringing in producer Jason Blum's unique talents for serving b-horror with a prestige finish.
Their first entry is a metoo-era modernized adaptation of The Invisible Man, a near-perfect blend of patient, suspense-based, spooky horror and pulse-pounding action that masterfully rides the thin line between schlock and legit thrills. By hiring writer/director Leigh Whannell, who created one of the most gripping hyper-violent b-action flicks of recent years with Upgrade, and who wrote for the Saw and Insidious franchises, Universal all but guarantees a fun genre ride that doesn't cheap out or condescend when it comes to delivering the intimate scares. After the film's opening weekend box-office success, I can't help but look forward to other smaller scale Universal Monster adaptations that draw inspiration from contemporary themes. Frankenstein, but about cloning or artificial intelligence? The Wolfman, but about toxic masculinity? The possibilities are endless.
The Invisible Man settles its pedigree as a genuine deliverer of intense tension with a cold open that doesn't contain any of the film's core sci-fi premise. It's a fairly grounded, and therefore thoroughly terrifying sequence that shows abused wife Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) trying to sneak away from her sleeping husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) without waking him up. Even though we haven't yet witnessed Adrian's wrath over Cecilia, the scene is full of terror because the situation is one that women can immediately identify with, and Moss' intense performance immediately communicates that things won't be pretty if any noise awakens Adrian.
Even after the news that Adrian took his own life, Cecilia spends the next couple of weeks coming to terms with her trauma, barely able to walk a couple of steps outside of the house that her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) set up for her. But even in this safe space, Cecilia begins to feel a presence forming around her. Is it the product of her overworked and battered mind, or did her tech genius husband actually found a way to fake his death and build a device that makes him invisible? Judging by the expectations of the title and the IP, we know what's going on, but it's of course hard for Cecilia to convince the other characters about this reality, especially considering her increased possibility of severe mental illness due to her years of trauma. As the spooky incidents escalate, Cecilia is confronted with either a ruined life, or a return to her "marital bliss".
Whannel splits the tonal approach of his film with surgical precision. The first half builds slow and patient scares that pay off tremendously because they know exactly when to reach their crescendos. The suspense-heavy approach resembles the spooky moments in the Paranormal Activity franchise, but with, you know, actual cinematography, acting, and screenwriting. As the sci-fi elements of Adrian's invisibility comes to the fore, the second half adopts a more action-heavy approach, with a killer third act hallway fight sequence that resembles one of the many show-stopping scenes from Upgrade, only with the antagonist being completely invisible.
Boosted by a great central performance from Moss, which always keeps the story grounded, no matter how over-the-top some of the film's tech can become, Whannell once again proves that he's a formidable writer/director when it comes to delivering mid-budget mainstream thrills. After a false start with Dark Universe, The Invisible Man finally puts Universal's struggles to modernize the Universal Monsters franchise on the right track. If at first you don't succeed, try, and try again, indeed.