Everything old gets renewed again.
In the last two weeks, we’ve had three new movies based on published fiction from more than a century ago.
Harrison Ford and a giant CGI/motion capture dog starred in “The Call of the Wild,” based on the Jack London short novel from 1903. Director Autumn de Wilde’s take on “Emma” is the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel from the winter of 1815.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” strays so far from the H.G. Wells science fiction novel from 1897 (as well as the 1933 Claude Rains-starring Universal Classic Monsters horror masterpiece) there are times when one can scarcely see fingerprints of the original material. (Still, without that “Invisible Man,” we don’t get this “Invisible Man.”) The focus of the story shifts from the largely unseen sociopath to the target of his torment — and the result is a fresh, original, heart-stopping and bloody good tale.
Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) plays Cecilia, a San Francisco architect trapped in an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy optics innovator/entrepreneur who has told Cecilia more than once she’ll never be free of him.
In a tightly constructed, hold-your-breath opening sequence, Cecilia executes an elaborate escape plan from Adrian’s massive, walled-in, seaside compound, barely escaping the maniacal Adrian’s clutches, with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer).
Cut to a couple of weeks later. Cecilia has been staying with her police officer/single father friend James (Aldis Hodge) and James’ teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid).
Emily arrives with news: Apparently despondent over Cecilia leaving him, Adrian has killed himself. In a subsequent meeting with Adrian’s fidgety, suspicious-looking, weirdo lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman), Cecilia learns Adrian has left her $5 million.
Cecilia should be relieved — but despite the photos of Adrian’s blood-soaked corpse and the urn in Tom’s office with Adrian’s name on it, she can’t shake the feeling he’s still alive and silently stalking her.
Silently, INVISIBLY stalking her.
After all, Adrian had been working on an optics machine that would allow him to skulk about in a high-tech, grown-up’s version of a Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak. After some hair-raising moments in the dead of night and a series of inexplicable events that make it appear Cecilia is losing her grip on reality, Cecilia is convinced Adrian is alive and invisible and intent on harming her and those she loves.
That’s a tough story to sell when no one else sees, so to speak, what Cecilia sees. Little wonder we eventually get an extended segment in a maximum security/treatment facility with strong echoes of “Terminator 2.” Cecilia’s claims about an invisible menace sound as crazy as Sarah Connor’s story of a cyborg killer from the future.
The camerawork and the shot framing selections in “The Invisible Man” contribute to a masterful slow build of tension. On a couple of occasions, a simple pan left from an occupied room in a house to an empty hallway pushes us to the edge of our seats. At one point, we’re looking up from the bottom of a ladder and we see only Cecilia’s face emerging from the darkness of an attic — and it’s mesmerizing and chilling all at once, as we’re not sure if the danger is behind her, below her, or maybe just in her head.
For all the stylish visuals, this is also a gory and sometimes brutally violent film, with a number of genuinely effective GOTCHA moments — including one of the best instant-shock scares I’ve seen in a long time. (I’m tempted to attend a public screening of “The Invisible Man” just to stand in the back of theater and see the audience reacting to this particular scene.)
As is the case with nearly every horror film ever made, there are a couple of gaping plot holes, and a few times when certain key characters make truly bad decisions. These relatively minor glitches occur in the service of keeping everyone but Cecilia in the dark about what’s really happening for as long as possible.
And, like many a movie monster, Adrian is much more terrifying as an unseen, unstable, murderous entity than in the scenes when we can see him. (Fortunately, we don’t see him all that much.)
“The Invisible Man” is mostly about delivering the fright, but it’s also an impactful, #MeToo-relevant story of a woman who does everything she can to escape an abusive relationship, only to be trapped in a nightmare nobody believes is really happening to her.
Elisabeth Moss delivers the best performance of her film career, carrying the story every step of the way. Of all the jolts and surprises in “The Invisible Man,” the most stunning of all is the moment we realize Cecilia is not only a resilient and resourceful horror movie badass who refuses to become a victim, she’s a heroine in a rain-soaked film noir.