Movies

All Hail Leigh Whannell, Our New King Of Elevated Schlock

I read nothing about The Invisible Man going in, and long before the credits rolled and revealed his name, I knew it had been directed by Leigh Whannell. Keep in mind, I’ve seen a total of one other Whanell movie (Upgrade). Yet Whannell’s creative stamp is that unique, and that obvious even in just his third feature directing credit (he worked with James Wan on the original Saw short and wrote some of the sequels).

That his latest movie is so unmistakably Whannell is especially a triumph considering how The Invisible Man is so unmistakably 2020. Back in 2017 when Universal released The Mummy, the rival studios were all chasing Disney and Disney’s massive profit margins. Disney rivals would still love to make that much money, but a few years ago, competing with Disney meant trying to be Disney — ie, nurturing a series of interconnected, massive-budget blockbusters based on your existing IP (that is, intellectual property that you already own). For Universal, the studio behind The Invisible Man, that IP was “The Dark Universe” — Wolfman, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Dracula, The Mummy. That’s how we got 2017’s The Mummy, a mind-blowingly bad Tom Cruise action whatsit that ended up costing Universal an estimated $95 million. Pour one out for Russell Crowe, who showed up in The Mummy as Dr. Jekyll and probably assumed he’d be cashing a spinoff paycheck by now.

While I’m very proud to have been quoted in the critical reaction section of The Mummy‘s Wikipedia page (“If you like incomprehensible collections of things that vaguely resemble other things you might’ve enjoyed in the past, The Mummy is the movie for you.”) perhaps we owe The Mummy (2017) a debt of gratitude. Without such a high profile cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to kickstart your own Marvel Universe, studios might not have stopped trying to copy Disney. Universal’s new model for success is Blumhouse (Get Out, Us, Insidious, Split, and the aforementioned Upgrade, among others), a scruffy upstart that earns solid returns on modest investments, not by making theme park entertainment, but with something like the opposite: competently made genre movies. Universal partnered with Blumhouse on this stand-alone take on The Invisible Man.

To put it mildly, this Invisible Man is miles better than The Mummy. Unlike The Invisible Man (1975) and Chevy Chase’s Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992), the latter of which I saw in theaters as a kid, both featuring sympathetic main characters, Whannell’s title character is a psycho ex. It’s much closer to Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000). But whereas Verhoeven’s take was so male gaze-y that the very first scene showed Kevin Bacon spying on his voluptuous neighbor in a sheer bra (played by Rhona Mitra, the original model for Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft — the subject of her own awful IP maintenance reboot attempt, in 2018), Whannell’s version is essentially a horror-thriller about gaslighting. Where a few years ago we probably would’ve gotten a goofy, kid-friendly version of the Invisible Man with lots of CG — something big — (Johnny Depp was attached at one point), Whannell’s version is R-rated, real to a fault, and claustrophobic.

If Verhoeven’s version (when it was coherent) asked “what would you do if you didn’t have to look yourself in the mirror every morning,” Whannell’s, which stars a well-cast and committed Elisabeth Moss, takes the feeling of a controlling, stalker ex trying to isolate you from your friends and family and trick you into thinking you’re crazy, and multiplies it by “now imagine that guy also has powers of invisibility.”

Whannell takes a goofy premise and makes it feel real, almost too real. My fiancée doesn’t do well with horror movies and finds few things creepier than the idea of a predator camping out in her house (see: The Golden State killer, etc) and never have I been so glad she backed out of a screening at the last minute (if I’d watched the trailers I never would’ve asked).

What is it about The Invisible Man that makes it so distinctly Whannell? Aside from extras and stunt guys with an ineffable but unmistakable whiff of the Australian about them (Australians have a look, let’s be honest), no other filmmaker working is so committed to nailing the suspense, splatter, and action choreography that most other directors yadda yadda through. It’s hard to even come up with comparisons for Whannell.

Paul Verhoeven is a good one, especially in their use of vivid gore for maximum effect, but Verhoeven is shinier. Whannell is more grounded, and less cheeky (his movies so far have lacked the wit of Verhoeven at his best). The way Whannell’s action scenes always feel like a crowbar to the face is reminiscent of vintage Michael Mann. He’s Tony Scott-esque in his charming lack of introspection, all while turning dusty IP into fresh spectacle on budgets a fraction of what any of the aforementioned filmmakers had. Is Whannell horror’s Lord and Miller? A backyard Michael Mann? A young Sam Raimi? The Blumhouse Niall Blomkamp?

Movies that make you think are great, but most of our finest filmmakers attempt that (even sometimes when they shouldn’t). With Leigh Whannell, we have a hyper-competent craftsman who seems like he’d rather make us shit our pants. It’s nice.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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