The latest version of “The Invisible Man” poses an interesting question: What if the Invisible Man were your boyfriend? And not the good kind of boyfriend but a master manipulator and all-around creep?
H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel, it turns out, is ready-made for an era of gaslighting men and the women who see through them, in this case quite literally. Directed by Leigh Whannell, whose screenplays jump-started the ”Saw” and “Insidious” horror series, it’s a sly, twisty little chiller, not ashamed of its B-movie bona fides and better for it.
If nothing else, we get to spend a lot of time watching Elisabeth Moss freak out in supposedly empty rooms and pummel/get pummeled by someone who doesn’t appear to be there. She plays Cecilia, who in the opening scenes of “The Invisible Man” escapes her uber-controlling mad scientist lover, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and tries to establish a new life. Trouble is, Adrian doesn’t take rejection at all well. In fact, he subsequently commits suicide.
Or does he? If he’s really dead, why does the camera keep panning away from Cecilia to quiet corners and hallways? Who turned up the stove burner and almost set the kitchen on fire? Why is that knife floating in midair?
I’d like to credit Jackson-Cohen with a performance, but he barely gets to give one. Claude Rains launched his career in the first film version of “The Invisible Man,” directed by James Whale (“Frankenstein”), in 1933, and Kevin Bacon starred in Paul Verhoeven’s nasty “Hollow Man” (2000), but it has always seemed a little perverse casting a name actor in a part no one can see. The new “Invisible Man” doesn‘t bother; it focuses instead on the title character’s chief victim as she’s slowly and sadistically isolated from friends and family by a series of mind games — games that only convince the others that Cecilia is losing her marbles.
Her no-nonsense sister (Harriet Dyer), cop best friend (Aldis Hodge), and the cop’s teenage daughter (Storm Reid) all want the best for Cecilia but find it impossible to believe her claims that Adrian’s not dead even when he’s standing right there next to them. “The Invisible Man” keeps the gore quotient low — at first — and concentrates instead on suspense and silence, gradually raising the stakes until the heroine is in a mental facility lockdown where no one believes her until they’re forced to in mostly painful ways.
Instead of the usual mysterious “serum,” the villain here is an entrepreneurial “optics developer” — think Elon Musk with lenses — who has come up with a novel way to go invisible. I won’t spoil his breakthrough, but it’s something the Sharper Image might sell if its catalog had an S&M section.
Along with a title character who’s not there, a fair amount of holes have been left in the story line, and anyone who wants to pick apart the film’s wobbly plot-logic — besides, you know, the whole invisibility thing — will find it easy to do so. But Whannell and horror studio Blumhouse Productions (“Paranormal Activity,” “The Purge”) are better at low-budget high-concept scares and are happy to leave the nitpicking to the pedants. Universal Pictures, after failing miserably at turning their legendary monsters into modern special-effects-driven showstoppers (“The Mummy,” “The Wolfman,” “Van Helsing”) has wisely opted to hand the reins to filmmakers who know that less can be much more.
Above all, the movie’s a showcase for Moss, who more than any special effect convinces us Cecilia is being stalked and attacked by someone who can’t be seen. It’s another in the actress’s canny career moves: When your leading man is invisible, you get to be the whole show.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 124 minutes. R (some strong bloody violence and language)