Does everyone remember the Dark Universe, the attempted relaunch of classic Universal monsters that were going to be played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp? It’s okay if you do not, though the stars got paid regardless. It was all going to be kicked off with Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, and one under-performing movie later the entire cinematic universe was discarded by spooked studio bosses. But IP will only stay dormant for so long, and so we have a new attempt to relaunch the same horror figures that first terrified audiences almost 90 years ago. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has a long career in genre filmmaking, having started the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, but it was 2018’s bloody action indie Upgrade that really showed what he could do as a director. He was tapped by powerhouse studio Blumhouse to breathe life into those dusty old monsters, going the route of lower budget genre horror rather than blockbuster action spectacles. The Invisible Man is an immediately gripping movie, excellent in its craft, and proof Whannell should be given the remaining monsters to shepherd.
Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has recently run away from her long-time abusive boyfriend, Adrian (House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Just as she’s taking comfort in friends and her sister, Adrian takes his own life and lists Cecilia as the sole beneficiary, but there’s a catch. She must undergo a psych evaluation and be cleared. Cecilia is ready to move on with her life and start over but she can’t shake the feeling that Adrian might not be dead after all and is still watching her.
Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The shots that Whannell chooses to communicate geography and distance so effectively allow the audience to simmer in the tension of the moment. Whannell’s visual compositions are clean and smart. Another sign how well he builds an atmosphere of unease is that I began to dread the empty space in the camera frame. Could there be an invisible man hiding somewhere? Could some small visual movement tip off the presence of the attacker? Much like A Quiet Place taught an audience to fear the faintest of noise, The Invisible Man teaches its audience to fear open space. It places the viewer in the same anxious, paranoid headspace as Cecilia. It’s also a very economical decision for a horror filmmaker, training your audience to fear what they don’t see. And there is a lot more in a movie that is not seen. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. It’s reminiscent of the finer points of another old school horror homage, The Conjuring franchise. At its most elemental, horror is the dread of what will happen next to characters we care about, and The Invisible Man succeeds wildly by placing an engaging character in shrewdly designed traps.
I jumped even during its jump scares and that happens so rarely for me. The jump scares don’t feel cheap either, which is even more impressive. They’re clever little visual bursts of sudden spooks, and they feel just as well developed as the other scary set pieces, complimenting the nervous tension and compounding it rather than detracting. There is one moment that happens so fast, that is so unexpected, that I was literally blinking for several seconds trying to determine if what I was watching was actually transpiring. It was so shocking that I was trying to keep up, and yet, like the other decisions, it didn’t feel cheap. I’m convinced this one “ohmygod” buzz-worthy moment will go down in modern horror history, being discussed in the same vein as the speeding bus in the first Final Destination film. I have this level of praise even for the jump scares.
The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Cecilia is a character that has suffered trauma that she cannot fully even process, so that even when she’s on her own, she’s still discovering the depth of how exactly this very bad man has reshaped her perception and fears. We don’t need to see Adrian explicitly abuse Cecilia to understand the impact of his toxic relationship. Within minutes, Whannell has already told us enough with how terrified and cautious she is when making her late-night escape from the bed of her sleeping monster. Her all-consuming fear is enough to fill us in. This is a woman who is taking a big risk because she feels her life depends upon it. Later, nobody believes her fantastic claims about her ex still haunting her and posing a threat, convincing her it’s all in her head, and some of them questioning whether the abuse was made up as well. The correlations with domestic violence and gaslighting are obvious, yes, but this dramatic territory is given knowing sympathy and consideration from Whannell. It’s not something tacked on simply to feel bad for our heroine, or to feel relevant with headlines of monstrous man accounting for years of monstrous actions preying upon women. It’s a complete reinvention of a classic to suit our times as well as taking advantage of what that classic source offers. This is how you can adapt stories we’ve seen dozens of times to feel fresh.
Much of the film rests upon Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is truly fantastic. We’re living in an exciting new era where horror movies have reclaimed their social relevance, and they are providing talented actresses to unleash Oscar-caliber performances (Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ana Taylor-Joy in The Witch). The role requires Moss to demonstrate much through a series of emotional breakdowns. It’s not just getting glassy-eyed and looking scared. Cecilia is a survivor struggling to regain her security while also being heard, and her breaking points of sanity and desperation cannot be one-note. Moss is no stranger to enduring the indignity of condescending men from her TV roles, and she was beautifully unhinged in a memorable moment from Us. She’s the perfect actress to take Whannell’s character and give credence to her vulnerability, uncertainty, and inner strength.
The movie isn’t perfect but it accomplishes a clear majority of its artistic aims with confidence and style. It’s too long at over two hours. I’m glad Whannell doesn’t waste too much time whether or not Cecilia believes her bad man has gone invisible. The supporting characters are a bit underwritten and utilized primarily as Sympathetic Figures Turning to Concerned Figures and then as Potential Targets. This extends to the relationship between Adrian and his brother (Michael Dorman). There has to be more that could have been explored there, especially as it relates to Cecilia. The musical score is heavy on loud, ominous tones and rumbling interference. The special effects are sparingly used, and the invisible suit was initially a design that made me shake my head. In practice, it actually looks pretty interesting and threatening. There is one misstep that feels glaring. Before the end of the movie, there have been a few “hey what about… ?” instances, but they were easy to put out of mind. Whannell drops one major announcement late in the movie but seems to gloss over the extra leverage it provides Cecilia, and her inability to capitalize on this turn of events seems odd considering her antipathy for her attacker as well as the weakness that she can exploit.
As I walked out of my screening for The Invisible Man, I kept reviewing just how many different moments, elements, sequences, and choices added up to a thoroughly suspenseful, satisfying, and entertaining trip at the movies. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age. Even the jump scares work! This is already turning into a promising year for indie horror, and The Invisible Man is the first great film of the new year and the new decade.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Saw was pieced together by two first-time filmmakers, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell. They envisioned that old movie favorite, the imaginative serial killer. Their killer would put people in horrific life-or-death situations, testing our will to live even if it meant rummaging around the intestines of a live human being for our key to freedom. With a budget of a mere million dollars, Wan and Whannell have executed a dark, slick, sometimes thrilling, sometimes laughable fright flick. The only question is if audiences are hungry enough for the splashes of blood Saw can deliver, or if they’d rather watch Sara Michelle Gellar turning Japanese.
Adam (Whannell), a private photographer, and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), a workaholic surgeon, are in a very strange circumstance. They’ve both just awoken and find themselves chained by their feet at opposite ends of a bathroom with a dead body between them. Neither has any idea how they got there. Dr. Gordon theorizes that they’re the culprits of the Jigsaw Killer, a psycho that places his victims in elaborate death traps they must fight to get out of. In the pants pockets of Adam and Dr. Gordon are audio tapes from Jigsaw establishing the rules of this “game.” In eight hours, if Dr. Gordon does not kill Adam, his wife and daughter will be killed. Jigsaw has even left them clues to their escape, most notably a pair of rusty saws not strong enough to cut through their chains, but still plenty strong to slice through their feet if they so choose. Outside this game, Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is closing in on the identity of the Jigsaw Killer and may be the only hope Adam and Dr. Gordon have.
Saw is a grisly horror movie that hits the right macabre marks. Horror is such a tricky genre, and you can either build tension in an effective what’s-around-the-corner kind of way (The Ring, 28 Days Later), or, if that fails, and it often does (The Grudge anyone?), you can cut your losses by showing the gory goods (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any slasher film). This isn’t to say one version is inferior to the other; sometimes we just want to be grossed out. Saw is a horror film committed to horror, sometimes to a rather unpleasant and sadistic point. In a way, the fact that Saw goes for broke in its depiction of the grotesque makes it more enjoyable than recent horror fair that tried to hedge their bets on jump scares and nosy cats.
In some manner, Saw is like a dumber, trashier Seven. They both involve serial killers with agendas and they both give the killer the upper hand. While Seven is a masterpiece of the thriller genre, Saw is a mostly entertaining horror entry. Its premise is razor-sharp and really hooks an audience. We know only as much as the characters do, so their discoveries work two-fold. The pacing is tight, the cinematography is exceptional for its budget, and the end had me jump out of my seat. I will say this; Saw reluctantly seems to think that it needs to reveal the identity of the Jigsaw killer, as well as his motives, to satisfy an audience. I think no answer could ever be satisfying; however, the actual reveal of Saw‘s true killer had me wanting to give the filmmakers a standing ovation. There are fleeting moments of greatness here among the misery. Whannell knows when to show which cards, and it makes the story more enticing.
There are glaring issues with Saw. The acting is one of them. Elwes is usually a stable character actor, but chain him to a wall and say,”Go!” and the man will overact as if his real wife and child depended on it. Whannell, a first time actor and the co-writer, goes deliriously over the top in some battle of scenery chewers. Don’t feel too bad if you feel like laughing during certain moments of “emotional turmoil.”
Saw seems to exist in that magical place known as It Could Only Happen in Movies World. For example, a serial killer designing highly elaborate, and personally clever, death traps could only happen in a movie. I love the fact that the film even shows evidence that the Jigsaw Killer builds dioramas of his future death traps. If he entered them in the Third Grade Sadistic Science Fair, I’m fairly certain he?d at least earn a blue ribbon or a gift certificate.
Yes, only in a movie are we expected to believe one man can kidnap people, lug them around, set up his elaborate Rube Goldberg puzzles, and then kick back and elude police capture. The entire premise of Saw is whole-heartedly ludicrous, and the plot turns are heavily contrived, but, as an audience, you must yield such ordinary eye-rolling to enjoy the pleasures of Saw. If you can swallow plot holes and just go with the film’s skewed logic, there is some enjoyment to be had.
Wan can also be his worst enemy. Too often he punctuates chase scenes with pounding heavy metal, which does little more than numb an audience. Wan’s film loses some of its focus in the middle as the audience endures flashback after flashback. To goose up the viewing, Wan shoves in extraneous flashes of gore. Just like The Exorcist prequel, flashes of something horrific do little more than to cause an audience to yelp. They’re immediate. If you want true gut-churning reactions, you have to build, and in the end Saw remembers what it came to do and sprints to the finish line.
Saw also exists in the grimiest possible world. Whether it be parking garage, office, or even personal apartment, the characters of Saw exist in some netherworld of filth crying out for an army of scrubbing bubbles. I’m sure this was intentional, but can’t any place in horror movies afford a coat of paint nowadays?
Saw is a gruesome, twisted, sometimes sadistic horror movie with a knock-out premise, a moderately good ending twist (not the final end, though), and some lag time in between. Wan and Whannel really stretch their budget to impressive ends and imply more blood and guts than are shown. Fans of hardcore gore horror should be pleased with Saw, though they may find themselves giggling at it from time to time. I was hooked by its premise and found myself getting more intrigued as the revelations began to sift. Many will find Saw too ugly, gory, or stupid, but for fans of the genre, it should satisfy the itch recent PG-13 horror couldn’t efficiently scratch. Saw is violent, contrived, ridiculous, but also, in the end, gruesomely entertaining in parts.
Nate’s Grade: B-