MOVIE BUFF-ET: Tension-filled ‘The Invisible Man’ a strong take on a classic tale

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man / Universal Pictures

How do you make an abusive, narcissistic sociopath even scarier? Make him invisible.

That’s exactly what writer-director Leigh Whannel did to great effect in reimagining “The Invisible Man” for Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions on just a $7 million budget.

The end result is a gripping suspense-thriller that has you looking over your shoulder while attempting to keep your eyes transfixed on the screen. It would be going too far to call the movie a masterpiece, but, man, does Whannel know how to build and sustain tension even when you know exactly what is going on.

The plot of the film isn’t all that original, but it doesn’t steal for H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel or Universal’s fine 1933 adaption of that novel. It’s more reminiscent of the 2002 Jennifer Lopez picture “Enough,” in which Lopez sneaks away from her abusive husband.

That’s exactly what Elisabeth Moss’ character Cecilla does when she escapes from her “lover” Dr. Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy and brilliant scientist who pioneers advanced optical equipment and is holding her in a violent, controlling relationship.

Her escape scene is a white-knuckler, that perfectly sets the intense and chaotic tone for the rest of the film. The first and second acts are excellent with tension mounting scene after scene as Cecilla attempts to settle into her new life while living with old friend Det. James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), who take her into their home as she recuperates from her escape.

However, Cecilla can’t get over her nerves because she believes Adrian is pulling off a parade of crazy stunts against her, her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Det. Lanier, and Sydney. They don’t believe that it is Adrian because he reportedly committed suicide and left Cecilla $5 million in his will.

But she knows she’s not crazy, or is she?

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what’s up, and the film never really tries to hide it from the viewers, even in the trailers. That fact alone makes the tension that Whannel constructs in this film through leading camera work and immaculate pacing even more fun and impressive.

The film loses a bit of verisimilitude with the third escape scene from a mental institution, but by that point you’re either on for the ride or not.

The movie had me pleasantly thrilled even with the high expectations I brought into the theater from positive buzz. This isn’t the type of movie that’s going to make many “best of the year” lists come next December, but it is a fun and sturdy genre movie with a good many twists and turns.

Moss sells the heck out of all the bumps she takes and the fear she feels in a frantic and unsettling performance. She truly carries the movie with the aplomb that was necessary to make the film work.

Over the last decade, Universal has attempted to reignite their classic horror engine with big-budget extravaganzas like “The Wolfman (2010), “Dracula Untold” (2014), and “The Mummy” (2017) to no avail. Each of those movies were spotty to bad, and all of them underperformed at the box office for the kind of money spent to make them.

I’m no box-office prognosticator, but I think the modestly budgeted “The Invisible Man” is going to be a hit for Universal and Blumhouse, and it might just light the way for Universal’s monsters to rise once again.

“The Invisible Man” won’t be for everyone, and it’s extremely early, but I’d rate it a notch above “Bad Boys for Life,” “The Call of the Wild,” and “The Criminal” as the best movie I’ve seen released in 2020.

(R) 2 hr. 4 min.
Grade: B+

New In Local Movie Theaters

  • The Invisible Man(R) 2 hr. 4 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Rogers Towne, Malco Pinnacle Hills, Bentonville Skylight
  • Impractical Jokers: The Movie(PG-13) 1 hr. 33 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square
  • My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising(PG-13) 1 hr. 40 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle Hills

Classic Corner – The Invisible Man (1933)

Claude Rains in The Invisible Man / Universal Pictures

“The Invisible Man” might not be the most popular of Universal Pictures’ classic horror films, but for discerning viewers it’s one of the the most entertaining..

Directed by James Whale, the mastermind behind 1931’s’ Frankenstein,’ 1932’s “The Old Dark House” and 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” the 1933 film adapts H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi/horror novel and introduced Claude Rains to American film audiences as the title character.
Rains eventually became one of Hollywood’s greatest and most versatile character actors of the classic era. He was nominated for four Best Supporting Actor Oscars, but never won.

Rains played memorable roles in some of the best-loved movies ever committed to film, including “Casablanca,” “Now, Voyager” and “Kings Row” all in 1942, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), “The Wolf-Man” (1941), “Notorious” (1946), and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1957). He was equally adept at playing villains, father figures, lovers, and best friends.

It’s hard to definitively say which performance was his best although he is probably best known as Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” but my favorite of his roles is his turn as the corrupt senator Joe Paine in director Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

That said his outlandishly mad performance as Dr. Griffin, aka the Invisible Man, is pretty unforgettable. Most of the film, Rains is either wrapped up in bandages with sun glasses and fake nose or he is just voicing the invisible character who is off his rocker in a deliciously wicked way.

Within Rains’ portrayal of Griffin, you can see how the performance has informed and inspired future actors in their work as villains, particularly Caesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s “Batman” TV series and later in Mark Hamill’s voice work as The Crown Prince of Crime in the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series.”

For the time period, the movie featured outstanding special effects. The film’s key scene is when Rains begins to take off his bandages in front of a group of villagers and police who have broken into his rented room. Technically, it’s rivaled by his death scene in which Griffin returns to visibility in front of our very eyes.

Such effects may sound or even look quaint today compared to the magic of CGI, but in 1933, those scenes amazed audience, and I’d argue they are still entertaining and effective to this day.

Of course 1933 was a watershed year for Hollywood special effects with “King Kong” being released that year featuring the astounding stop-motion animation work of the great Willis O’Brien.

Like most of his films, Whale used humor along with wickedly fun eye for horror in “The Invisible Man.” The movie remains a campy treat for classic film fans almost 90 years later.