Movie Reviews Rants

The Invisible Man, and How to Revive the Universal Monsters

When we think of monsters, what comes to mind? Odds are, if you’re like me, then countless Halloweens and years of exposure to pop culture have conditioned your mind to go to some very specific places. Images of vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monsters have become synonymous with the very idea of what a monster is, to the point where they’ve become almost generic iconography. But despite how sanitized and corny as they seem to us now, we forget that these monsters were once the pinnacle of horror.

Starting in the 1920s, Universal Pictures dominated the landscape, not only within the horror genre alone, but the film industry as a whole with what we now call the Universal Monsters. These films were often adaptations of classic literature, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and were, for the most part, the first of their kind in popular culture. The popularity of these films cannot be overstated, cementing their portrayals of these already-established characters as the definitive versions for nearly a century to come. When we think of Frankenstein’s monster, it is an almost complete certainty that we’re picturing Boris Karloff’s green, flat-topped, bolt-necked portrayal, rather than the much more subdued description offered in Shelley’s novel. Likewise, our perceptions of characters like Dracula and the Invisible Man are all firmly rooted in these early depictions. Universal even launched a few of its own original creations into the zeitgeist, including the Mummy and the Gillman from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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Starting in the 1920s and thriving all the way into the mid-50s, these films eventually, as is often the case, began to ultimately wane in popularity, dying out before the dawn of the 1960s. But their legacy is undeniable. Which is why I find it odd that, with a few scattered exceptions here and there, these characters have never really seen a resurgence. These are such simple, iconic concepts that it frankly boggles my mind that we haven’t yet seen a successful revival of the genre. These creatures are staples of horror mythology, of which much of the modern horror and science-fiction landscape is either directly or indirectly derived from. Not to mention that, for the most part, these characters are in the public domain, so there would be no legal roadblocks stopping modern adaptions.

In fairness, I shouldn’t say that it hasn’t been tried. Universal has made several attempts to kick-start what they’ve dubbed as their “Dark Universe:” A shared cinematic universe, in the vein of that which Marvel has spent the better part of a decade perfecting, that incorporates all of their classic monsters and allows them to crossover and interact with one another. Think The Monster Squad meets The Avengers. In theory, it wasn’t a completely terrible idea. After all, crossover films, which we tend to think of as a fairly recent phenomenon, actually originate with Universal’s monsters. The characters were constantly popping up in each other’s films, most often to battle one another, with films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and The House of Frankenstein.

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In attempting to revive this franchise, however Universal failed to realize two very important factors which made the originals so successful: One, the majority of these films were actually good. I challenge any of you to go and watch the 1931 Frankenstein or 1925 Phantom of the Opera, if you haven’t already seen them. It’s simply incredible how well they still hold up today, in both writing and in atmosphere. These films have lasting staying power because they weren’t necessarily trying to be monster movies per se: They were trying to be tragedies, dramatic stories of near-Shakespearean grandeur, which just happened to have monsters as their central characters. There’s a reverence for the concepts and characters that simply don’t exist in Universal’s recent outings. Universal’s new entrees lacked any sort of narrative or thematic attempt to be anything other than cheap popcorn entertainment. Frankly, that’s putting it politely: They were downright terrible.

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Universal’s second failure, and perhaps their most critical one at that, is their approach to the “shared universe” design. Certain franchises and source materials lend themselves to this kind of storytelling, most obvious of which are comic book films. This is material that is already designed to be viewed in an interweaving, episodic format, simply by the nature of how comics are written. There’s shared characters, shared plot points, and an overall cohesive world in which everything operates in. The Avengers works because of the precedent set by the comics on which it is based, where everything feels like it should exist together. Universal’s monsters, on a storytelling level, don’t necessarily have the same conceptual glue that binds them together. That isn’t to say that they can’t belong in the same world, as the films of the 30s and 40s prove that they absolutely can. It just means that it takes careful and patient work to build the world in which they can all inhabit, something which Universal’s Dark Universe decided to eschew entirely, opting to forsake telling a successful, self-contained story in The Mummy and instead using it to try and set up as many properties as possible. As a result, the film was a scattered, incoherent mess of ideas, and the Dark Universe was as dead on arrival as most of their featured monsters.

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But by some miracle, Hollywood seems to have actually learned from these failures, something which rarely, if ever, seems to happen with well-known franchises. The “shared universe” concept seems to have been abandoned altogether, in favor of telling small-scale, self-contained stories which return these characters to their horror roots. Spearheading this movement is Blumhouse, the go-to production company for horror in the modern era. The studio seems to take a broad-strokes approach to the projects it produces, throwing virtually everything at the wall in the hopes that something sticks. And while a lot ends up being utterly forgettable, even downright terrible, they occasionally churn out some genuine gems, the most recent of which being Leigh Whannell’s new adaption of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man.

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The Invisible Man, one of Universal’s classic monster line-up, is a character which, like so many others, has become rather played out over the years, with attempts to adapt the concept usually resulting in B-movie shlock like the Kevin Bacon vehicle Hollow Man (which is, admittedly, one of my guilty pleasure movies). The problem is that no adaption seems to want to take the concept beyond just its surface-level implications of a man turning himself invisible. While that is in itself an interesting concept, there’s not much to really be done with it outside of the usual “unseen entity terrorizes people.” At that point, it essentially serves the exact same purpose as a ghost story. No, in order to really differentiate itself, a film with an invisible antagonist needs to adopt a unique angle to really make its premise shine. And this new Invisible Man does just that.

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The film follows Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), a young woman who escapes from an incredibly psychologically and physically abusive relationship with the sociopathic Adrian Griffin (who shares his surname with the titular character in the original Wells story). Griffin, a genius scientist in the field of optics, subsequently appears to kill himself, but not before swearing vengeance on Cecilia for leaving him. What follows is a harrowing, suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller, as Cecilia begins to suspect that not only is Adrian still alive, but he’s somehow found a way to turn himself invisible.

Right away, the film differentiates itself from all of its predecessors by adopting a much more cerebral, psychological approach to the premise. This is not a film about an invisible foe terrorizing a victim, in as much as it’s about the victim herself, and her weakening psychological state as the attacks persist. Elizabeth Moss’s performance is one akin to Toni Collette’s in Ari Aster’s Hereditary: Incredibly raw, emotional, and utterly convincing. This is a woman who has been beaten and broken even before the start of the film, who deals with the mental and emotional aftermath of being trapped in a torturous relationship with a controlling, violent, manipulative narcissist. By grounding her character in such a real, visceral position, it makes for a much more compelling, much more effective journey as she slowly is forced to take up arms and fight back against her unseen adversary.

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Whereas most adaptions of the story thus far have basically just been content to simply rely on the basic premise for the meat of their plot, The Invisible Man takes a much more intelligent approach by choosing to accompany it with very real, very contemporary issues. The film has heavy shades of the Me Too movement, with its central conflict being not the looming threat of the newly invisible and vengeful Adrian, but the fact that no one believes Cecilia is actually being harmed. The whole film is framed as a metaphor for abuse, and the fact that, so tragically often, women (or victims in general) simply aren’t believed. Cecilia must contend not only with the physical threat of an unobservable assailant, but also the psychological stress of having to also convince her friends and family that she’s telling the truth. Throw in some additional thematic commentary on surveillance culture and overreaching technological oversight, and you’ve got all the makings for a smart, poignant, and timely story which uses its gimmicks to their greatest potential.

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Not only does the film adapt its ideology to better suit the times and increase thematic relevancy, but it also modifies and modernizes its technical approach as well. This marks the first time I can remember where I was genuinely unnerved by the prospect of an invisible foe. Every previous attempt to use the concept has been marred with schlocky or undercutting visual effects, be it the giveaway “shimmer” that films like Predator often use to make an invisible character still visible to the audience (defeating the entire purpose), or by constantly giving away the position of the antagonist with obvious camera framing. The Invisible Man does neither of these things, and is all the more tense for it. Adrian is truly invisible. We see absolutely no sign of him, until he wants to be seen. The camerawork is intentionally done to put the audience in the same shoes as Cecilia, so that we never actually know if Adrian is there or not. It’s constantly panning, or focusing in random spots, while never outright giving away his presence. It’s used brilliantly to misdirect the audience, making the moments where he decides to strike all the more effective. And the most incredible aspect of this is the fact that the film does this largely without the use of jumpscares. Even without relying on that tired, but tried-and-true tactic, it still manages to have one of the most jaw-dropping and shocking scenes I’ve seen in a horror film in some time. Truly, The Invisible Man is a film that exists to innovate, from all levels of its assembly.

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This has all been an overly-verbose way of stating a very simple truth about the film: It works because it takes an already-established concept, and successfully modernizes it. We’re all familiar with the idea of an Invisible Man, regardless of whether we’ve actually seen any of the films or read any of the literature. That ubiquitous familiarity-by-pop-culture-osmosis requires a certain amount of repurposing in order for it to not seem trite and overdone. This isn’t exactly difficult, as even Dracula Untold and Tom Cruise’s Mummy brought at least some originality to these centurial concepts. The tricky part is actually managing to make a good film in the process.

The Invisible Man proves something that we’ve already seen established time and time again in recent years with films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out: The best way to elevate a horror film beyond simply being a popcorn flick or a creature-feature is by managing to weave contemporary social issues within the plot. It really shouldn’t seem like that far-fetched an idea to have a movies actually, you know, mean something, and yet it seems like so few films are willing to take the risk. That isn’t to say that social commentary guarantees a critically successful horror film, as The Purge demonstrates rather clumsily. But it goes a long way towards having a film making much more of an impact beyond simply the time spent viewing it in the theater.

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And I think this is really the way to go if Blumhouse, the studio behind The Invisible Man, really intends to continue adapting these classic monsters for modern audiences. Use these creatures, these premises which we’re all already intimately familiar with, and use them to deliver poignant commentary of some sort. There’s a reason that these stories have persisted long after their literary predecessors were put to page: They can be effortlessly adapted to fit the social consciousness of any era. It would be so easy to do. Just off the top of my head:

  • A straight-forward adaption of The Mummy that deals with the consequences of colonialism, or perhaps make it a metaphor for cultural appropriation.
  • A Wolf Man adaption using the werewolf curse/transformation as a stand-in for sexuality or non-standard gender identity. Think in the same vein that Teen Wolf (the Michael J. Fox vehicle, not the MTV melodrama) used it as a metaphor for puberty.
  • A Frankenstein retelling warning against the dangers of extreme body modification or genetic manipulation, a la Doctor Who and the Cybermen.
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a revenge fantasy in the wake of the destruction of the Amazon.

Seriously, I’m an idiot, and even I can see the potential here. So please, people, go out and support this amazing film. Send the message to the studios that audiences will pay to see these characters and these stories again, as long as there’s at least some effort in making them relevant beyond just their title premises. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even get a mummy movie without Tom Cruise next time.

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