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July/August 2020
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by David J. Skal

Darkness Visible


For nearly sixty years—um, did I really just type that?—I've been an up-close and personal observer of Universal Studios's many attempts—at first promising, then faltering, then staggering, and ultimately abandoned—to revive and strategically exploit its classic horror franchises. Universal's most recent stumble was the studio's heavily promoted "Dark Universe" effort to recast the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and their hulking ilk as a Marvel-like band of super-antiheroes. The inaugural installment was a big-budget version of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise that tanked at the American box office (undeservedly, in my outlier opinion—see my 2017 column for a full analysis). The next slated project, writer/director Bill Condon's highly anticipated remake of Bride of Frankenstein, was unceremoniously rolled into cold storage. Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man was likewise scuttled.

Universal has always been right to assume there was gold in them thar chills, but woefully less certain how to accomplish the unholy task. A major part of the problem is that sprawling corporate behemoths are simply ill-suited to making calibrated creative decisions. In the 1930s, Universal was operated almost like a mom and pop store, and the various monster characters were conceived as standalone entities within discrete universes. The films were programs no one ever expected to be revived, much less revered and remade.

The first, exuberant round of monster mania in the late 1950s and 1960s was driven less by the studio (which released a package of old movies to television—I was six, if you're doing the math—and licensed some model kits) than by the grassroots energy and efforts of highly self-motivated fans and entrepreneurs. No one asked permission, much less licensed rights, to produce magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, or to launch fan clubs, swap memorabilia, or produce their own monstrous magnum opuses in 8mm, shot in suburban basements and back yards.

Therefore, it's highly appropriate that an independent upstart, Jason Blum's dedicated fright factory Blumhouse Productions, has bubbled up to save the day. Blumhouse was founded two decades ago, and, with films and franchises like the Paranomal Activity, quickly assumed a role analogous to the dependable, cost effective Universal monster unit of the golden age. Blumhouse signed a first-look deal with the studio in 2014, resulting in things like The Purge series and the indie triumph of Jordan Peele's Get Out. When the studio no longer wanted to risk megabucks on another dicey horror remake, Blumhouse got a shot at The Invisible Man, helmed by actor/director Leigh Whannell, best known for his work on the Saw and Insidious.

By most metrics, Universal got what they wanted. Whannell's film cost Universal seven million dollars, whereas The Mummy (depending on which sources you consult) had an estimated budget of $155 million, not including advertising, and lost $95 million domestically and only began to recoup its costs overseas. The Invisible Man, by contrast, started making money everywhere on its first weekend, earning more than $250 million worldwide in just three weeks, before the coronavirus pandemic drove it prematurely from theaters to VOD.

In 1897, H. G. Wells's novel found a receptive audience at the end of a century trapped between the demands of faith and the lessons of science. Showy marvels like the demonstrations of Nikola Tesla or the uncanny, invisibility-adjacent power of X-rays seemed miraculous enough to bridge the gap. The newest iteration of The Invisible Man resonates with a very different zeitgeist: not the clash between technology and religion, but instead the escalating modern battle between women and abusive men.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is an architect trapped in an abusive relationship with Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a legendary tech wizard who keeps her virtually captive in his secluded oceanfront fortress. The film opens with her successful physical escape, but we already know that's not the end of the story. While using a friend's home as a safehouse, she is informed of Adrian's suicide, and receives an unexpected and very comfortable bequest from his estate. And if that sounds too good to be true…well, just wait.

Cecilia, still traumatized and emotionally fragile, begins experiencing odd little daily anomalies: missing objects, or things that move around when she turns her back. She begins to doubt her own mental state, and so do the people around her. We, of course, witness her being gaslighted by something that doesn't throw shadows in any kind of light. The audience sees things that she doesn't. Stepping outside on a chilly night, her breath condenses in the air. Behind her, so does another exhalation, untethered to anything visible.

When it finally dawns on her that Adrian might not be dead after all, but has somehow found a way to invisibly stalk her ("I don't know how he did it, but I know that he could do it!"), the film shifts into high thriller gear. Some of it's predictable, and some of it's not—Whannell throws in a couple of extremely effective, never-saw-it-coming plot twists—but overall the film works admirably as a well-constructed piece of entertainment, shrewdly adapting and updating a familiar trope for the age of #MeToo.

Moss, of course, has become the entertainment world's emblematic Resourceful Woman Taking On Piggish Men, a mantle she began training for as Peggy Olson on Mad Men, and pretty much cinched as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale. (Look for her later this year as a fictional Shirley Jackson in the psychological horror film Shirley, well received at the Sundance Film Festival in January and already generating major award buzz.) Moss is uncommonly good acting with her eyes—something Vincent Price once called the key to effective screen acting—and there couldn't be a better quality for a story like this one, predicated completely on the theme of what's seen and what isn't.

I was especially looking forward to Jackson-Cohen, whose performance as the doomed, drug-haunted brother in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House truly anchored the series (he also made a commendable Jonathan Harker in the otherwise problematic NBC Dracula several years back). Unfortunately, here the part is so underwritten (and so underseen) he barely has time to make an impression. We're told that he's a genius in the world of high-tech optics…but what is that world like? All we see of his life are shorthand signifiers of his success: a stunning modernist compound overlooking the Pacific (lensed in Whannell's native Australia, the film takes place in an acceptable approximation of the San Francisco Bay area). But clearly, Adrian's reputation must rest on something other than inventing invisibility, since that's still a top secret, finally revealed to be known by only three individuals.

I would have liked the film to have had some hint of a theoretical framework for invisibility, even a hokey one—maybe something connected to Adrian's maddeningly invisible optics empire? In Wells, as in the 1933 James Whale film, it's an elixir; here it's a kind of wearable tech-based magic, a close cousin to the helmets, caps, and cloaks of invisibility found in ancient myths and fairy tales. And, while I wouldn't have liked to see it, I did wonder why Adrian, once established as a sadistic sex predator, does everything except attempt to assault Cecilia sexually once he's invisible. Story-wise, what else is a sex predator good for?

The film's unexpected move to VOD makes one wonder if a better format for The Invisible Man might have been as one of the ubiquitous limited series that have colonized cable and streaming services in recent years, often with ambitious, outstanding fare like The Haunting of Hill House and The Man in the High Castle. A three-hour structure would have given The Invisible Man a good deal more breathing room than the two-hour theatrical film, allowing us to participate in the story's build, not enter it abruptly at a crisis point.

The story is handsomely served by the cinematography of Stefan Duscio, but far less so by some clumsy continuity (or careless editing) in a couple of scenes that should have proceeded swiftly and seamlessly. A quick cut just before Cecilia's final retribution leaves out at least a half minute of necessary preparation, leaving the viewer to assume that she is in another room while an unnamed and unseen accomplice can carry out the act of comeuppance. It pulled me right out of the moment until I finally puzzled it out. In another scene, involving one of the film's most memorable effects, an open bucket of white paint (you can imagine what it's for, and you've likely already seen it in the television trailer) seems to suddenly materialize in a space where, trust me, nobody's redecorating. It's like that ubiquitous loose brick that is somehow always just within reach when somebody in a movie needs to break a window. Little gaffes like these never fail to follow me home, where I tend to brood over them endlessly.

Next to Wells, the best literary treatment of invisibility I have ever read is Christopher Priest's extraordinary 1984 novel The Glamour, which anticipates and parallels the new film in some interesting, and maybe even problematic ways. First, it concerns a woman who may or may not be stalked by an invisible, abusive boyfriend, the same concept being widely praised as bracingly original in the new Invisible Man. Sorry, but Priest got there first. Next, The Glamour was reportedly optioned by Universal for a time back in the '80s. I assume the similarity is purely a coincidence, and I still want to see Priest's twisty psychological tour de force adapted to the screen, but I imagine that the unfortunate similarity will inevitably be given as a reason that that never happens.


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