THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) – Review – We Are Movie Geeks


THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) – Review

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Recalling the classic movie monsters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, visions of those hardworking actors (Karloff, Lugosi, the Chaneys, etc.) suffering through hours of cumbersome, often restrictive make-ups spring to mind. Ah, but one didn’t occupy “make-up marvel” Jack Pierce’s “barbershop” chair. Why? Because he wasn’t “there”, aside from a wig, bandages, dark sunglasses, and hard molded rubber nose. Springing from the imagination of celebrated science fiction/fantasy author H.G. Wells in 1897, “The Invisible Man” joined Universal’s “gallery of the ghoulish” (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy) in James Whale’s 1933 classic. And, as a twist on the old saying goes, you can’t keep a good “creep” down. The unseen fiend returned with four follow-ups (well, more like spin-offs) in the 1940s before Abbott and Costello met him in 1951, as TV beckoned. At least four action/adventure series began in 1958 (one was a secret agent code-named “Gemini Man” in 1976, no relation to the recent Will Smith feature flop). But the movies weren’t done with the “concept”. It was mined for laughs in 1983’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE and 1992’s MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN with Chevy Chase. The serious scares returned with 2000’s HOLLOW MAN and its 2006 home video sequel. Universal’s now teamed with “scare studio” Blumhouse on a modern take. So, will Twenty-First Century audiences still shudder at the transparent terror of THE INVISIBLE MAN?

As with many a “spook story”, this one begins on a “dark and stormy night”. The camera pans over the violent surf to the ultra-modern mansion overlooking the crashing waves. Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) awakens and slides away from her sleeping (we see that she “Micky-Finn-ed” his glass of water) spouse, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Near silently, she evades the many surveillance cameras, tiptoes past his high-tech home laboratory, and enters a lush closet to retrieve the “flight bag” she has stored inside a vent shaft. Cecilia climbs over a wall and runs into the night until spotting the most-welcome headlights of her sister Alice’s (Harriet Dyer) car. It’s then off to her boyfriend’s house, where Cecilia will “hide out” with police detective/single dad James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). A few weeks later, Alice makes a surprise visit with the news of Adrian’s death, a suicide. A letter soon arrives from his brother and attorney Tom (Michael Durman) about the reading of the will. It seems she has been quite financially rewarded. But Cecilia still feels his presence as the strange noises during the night increase. After a nocturnal “tug o’ war’ with her bed blanket, she comes to a startling conclusion. Adrain somehow faked his demise and found a way to become invisible. Can this really be true or has she given in to a grief-inspired paranoia? Sure he was a brilliant inventor, but it’s impossible, right? Right?

Though the film’s title reflects the masculine protagonist (really, a monster in all aspects), at its heart is the story of courage and survival of a woman, Cecily, portrayed by Moss is a “movie star”-making performance. Over the last couple of decades, she has riveted TV audiences with superb work in many series, from “The West Wing” to “Mad Men” and continues to garner acclaim and awards for “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The “big screen” hasn’t served as well despite supporting roles in several “indies” and studio films like GET HIM TO THE GREEK and last year’s disappointing THE KITCHEN. This role is a game-changer as we live the horrors of Cecilia through Moss’s expressive, haunted eyes. We’re rooting for her in the opening scene as she escapes the opulent but cold fortress that was once a home. She describes the trauma of that abusive life to her sister with a powerful delivery, though her inability to embrace what should be “good news” speaks volumes. Even as she realizes the new terror in her life, Moss shows us that Cecilia has a fierce intelligence, her sense of survival kicks into high gear as that “ghost’ force tightens around her throat. When she shares her concerns with her friends, her eyes dart about, looking for that unseen demon, but also fearing that anyone hearing her ideas will think she has “snapped”. Moss is a smart formidable, relatable warrior against this unknown evil, more action hero than “scream queen” (though she can heighten the tension with an ear-piercing wail). The flick works due to her considerable acting gifts. And her castmates are no “slouches”. Particularly Hodge as the amiable cop pop, quick to help Cecily, but gobsmacked by what he perceives as her plunge into madness. He’s also got a terrific screen rapport with Reid as his fiesty but still endearing “Daddy’s girl”. Dyer is tough but compassionate as Cecily’s no-nonsense sibling. Dorman is a skeevy white-collar weasel as the estate lawyer and brother to Griffin (nice tie-in to Welles’ literary creation and Claude Rains in the 1933 original), who is pure menace as he teeters the line between distraught apologetic beau and controlling brute ready to strike at the least offense.

That recent label that movie-marketers dreamt up a few years ago, “re-imagining” has gotten a bad rap of late because of the dismal, uninspired remakes (the original word that’s now shunned) and re-do’s (mostly rip-offs). Now writer/director Leigh Whannell has given that phrase legitimacy because this take on the nearly 125-year-old tale is truly imaginative and inspired, offering a fresh “spin” that hooks into current concerns. Rather than a hunched over scholar laboring over bubbling test tubes, a youthful tech guru (probably on the cover of “Wired”-style magazines or websites) has used computer-enhanced “nano-gizmos” for his discovery. But unlike the usual “mad scientists”, he’s not out to rob banks or conquer the world (as in James Whale’s flick), this Griffin creates it for his own warped personal agenda. It’s an SF-spin on recent stalker thrillers like ENOUGH and SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, but also a commentary on the use of new conveniences to enable the controlling of others (you’ve heard of young girls having to “check-in” digitally with their beau or suffer their wrath). Aside from his personal “cloak”, Griffin also masters the web to “suffocate” and isolate Cecily, sending hate-spewing emails in her name. This is not to get too much into the “message” aspects since it’s also a tense, edge-of-your-seat exhilarating thrill ride. Whannell frames much of the action “off-center” to have us, like Cecily, to wonder if something’s in that empty corner or vacant space. Plus there’s a restaurant sequence that will go down as a “classic” horror movie moment. And of course, the special effects are state of the art (as is the gore, hence the “R” rating) with no floating objects wobbling with their attached strings. This a rollicking entertainment with a not so subtle message about abusive relationships (and summoning the strength to go forward). Scuse’ the pun, but THE INVISIBLE MAN is really something to see.

3.5 Out of 4

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.