EARLY ON in Universal Pictures’ new remake of The Invisible Man, the movie’s protagonist Cecilia Kass, played by Elisabeth Moss, learns that her ex-boyfriend, an abusive technology executive, has committed suicide and left her $5 million. There’s one catch: If she’s ruled mentally incompetent, she’ll lose the money.
Pretty soon, weird things start to happen around her house. She begins to suspect that her ex-boyfriend is still alive and stalking her with the aid of some stealthy, high-tech wearables that render him invisible. Her friends think she has gone crazy.
The suspenseful film, which opened in US theaters on Feb. 28, is based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells. But it feels freshly drawn from the particular anxieties of 2020, channeling everything from the unnerving entitlement of tech bros, to the stubborn tendency of the criminal justice system to look blindly past the abusive behavior of powerful men, to the technology-assisted destruction of privacy. “That’s a different approach to a monster movie,” said Jason Blum, the film’s producer.
Thanks to a sharp script by director Leigh Whannell and a strong performance from Moss, the film has a 91% rating on movie aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and is on track to be the first horror breakout of 2020.
“It’s looking very promising,” said Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment, who describes the movie as a throwback to 1990s films about women in jeopardy who ultimately find their own power and strength. “The marketing is resonating with women as well as men.”
Including rebates, the movie cost just $7 million to produce, a pittance compared with most action-packed theatrical releases from major studios. Credit Blum’s company, Blumhouse Productions. “He can make films at a low price point, but at a level of execution that is worthy of a theatrical release,” Langley said.
Universal has a lot more riding on the film than a few million dollars. If The Invisible Man succeeds, it will go a long way toward validating the studio’s revamped strategy for developing new entertainment franchises from aging monsters.
In May 2017, Universal announced a plan to revive classic monsters Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, and The Mummy in a new series of movies called the Dark Universe. The name was a nod to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, a web of interconnected superhero tales that have dominated the box office in recent years.
But Universal’s first attempt at establishing the franchise, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, was a bomb, losing a reported $95 million. Goodbye, Dark Universe.
Universal Pictures president Peter Cramer gathered his deputies to discuss a new strategy. Rather than build a slate of films around one central storyline, they would ask their best filmmakers to pitch distinct ideas to revive any monster character in the portfolio, using whatever approach they felt would do the job most effectively.
In a meeting with Blumhouse Productions, Universal asked Whannell about The Invisible Man. Whannell hadn’t thought much about the character, but he had just finished the movie Upgrade and was eager to dive into a new project. “They Jedi mind-tricked me into doing it,” he said. “I walked out of that room like, ‘Yes, I must do this.’”
Whannell has made seven movies with Blum, starting in 2010 with Insidious, which he wrote. Blum later gave Whannell his first shot as a director on Insidious 3. “Leigh is one of the most important filmmakers to our company, and under-appreciated as a director,” Blum said. “That’s about to change.”
If the forecasts hold, the movie should erase any lingering concerns about Universal’s ability to resuscitate old monster movies and help usher in a fresh slate of remakes. So far, the studio has commissioned a movie about Dracula’s assistant, as well as a film called Invisible Woman to be directed by Elizabeth Banks, and an undisclosed project from Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids. None are in production yet.
“There is a certain mode of thinking in Hollywood that to make a movie that succeeds on a global level and packs theaters, you need movie stars to be pampered, effects need to be huge,” Whannell said. “Jason just sidesteps all of that.” — Bloomberg