“The Invisible Man”: A potent feminist update

The idea was to bring back the Universal Classic Monsters. To be exact: reintroduce the landmark horror series to a contemporary audience by creating an updated cinematic universe. Think MCU or DCEU, but with spooks. And, why not? The original incarnation defined the horror genre in the 1930s and made legends out of Karloff, Lugosi, and the Chaneys. What could possibly go wrong? Well. A lot, apparently. Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy reboot, meant to set the ball rolling in 2017, was both a critical and commercial dud. It was even deemed a downgrade from the Stephen Sommer series with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. At least that one had camp. The new one was just a downer, despite being top-billed by A-Listers Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. For the Dark Universe, as the planned interconnected series of remakes is called, it seemed like the first nail on the coffin.

That considered, it’s surprising for an update of The Invisible Man to even exist. James Whale’s version, though frightening for 1933 standards, wasn’t a series highpoint in the same manner as both Dracula and Frankenstein were. However, it did catapult a then-unknown Claude Rains to the ranks of cinema folklore. He sent chills despite being obscured by bandages and dark goggles. Furthermore, he was the only monster actor to ever convincingly cross over to other genres, eventually appearing in classics such as Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia.

As for this remake, Johnny Depp was originally slated to play the titular role when talks began. That never came into fruition. In his stead, we have British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) as the unseen havoc-wreaker, who gains his invisibility powers through an engineered suit (no serums or bandages here). The classic, indeed, is a tough act to follow. But with Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) at the helm, the material is given fresh new twists.

Whannell’s script deviates substantially from both the classic movie and the 1897 H.G. Wells novel. It’s a bold risk, but it yields visceral returns. The bad guy’s still essentially a mad scientist, but here, he’s a reimagined as a filthy rich sociopath who feigns suicide after being abandoned by his girlfriend. And herein lies the spin. Focus now shifts to the abused. There’s no way life will turn idyllic after her escape. Now, she has to suffer. The anomalies begin while she lives in refuge with her detective friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). When her relationship with her sister (Harriet Dyer) gets strained, it doesn’t take her long to figure she’s being stalked.

This adaptation owes much of its gravity to Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale) who balances vulnerability and indomitable sass as the protagonist, Cecilia. She’s no damsel in distress and there’s no way she’ll play victim to brute force, whether seen or unseen. And with her assailant nowhere in sight, the scares mostly come from her reactions, and how the situation takes toll on her sanity.  It’s this very conveyance of abuse and betrayal as the real monsters – monsters that could very well lurk among us  – which steers this feminist update clear from B-movie territory. Moreover, it’s a potent allegory on how the most harmful things in life are those we don’t readily see, like hidden intentions, concealed truths, and false allies. Now, that‘s scary.

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