In 2018, director Leigh Whannell met with Universal Pictures executives, thinking that they wanted to talk about another project. Instead, they brought up a surprising idea, to reinvent H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” as a stand-alone thriller targeted to a new generation.
The studio had just endured a dismal start to the reboot of its monster movies with 2017’s “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise in a box office flop that cost $350 million to make and market. Now executives were looking to partner with the multimedia company Blumhouse Prods., headed by prolific producer Jason Blum, to make monster movies more economically.
“I refer to it as an inception,” says Whannell on a recent afternoon, recalling when he first heard the idea of a new Invisible Man. “Those three words kind of burrowed their little hooks into my head. And I think within a matter of weeks, I pitched a loose version of what I would do.”
“The Invisible Man,” which cost only $7 million and opens in theaters on Feb. 28, is definitely not your father’s monster movie. For one, this updated version is laced with gore and violence, and it departs considerably from Wells’ character, with a plot set in the present day. The story, which Whannell wrote, centers on an enigmatic woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), trying to escape from an abusive techno-rich boyfriend (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who continues to stalk her when he devises a method to make himself invisible.
As a filmmaker, Whannell isn’t afraid to push the envelope. He previously directed the third movie in the “Insidious” franchise and co-wrote the script for the cult horror phenomenon “Saw” fresh out of film school. “To put it bluntly, you have to take it out of kiddie land,” Whannell says. “I have to make this an adult thriller. And I’m not saying that violence is a way of making it an adult film, but this is horror, man. This is a horrific, scary character. I want to see what a violent psychopath who has the power to be invisible is capable of.”
At the same time, “Invisible Man” represents a big leap forward for the 43-year-old director. For story cues, he turned to another master of horror. “I watched a lot of Hitchcock,” Whannell admits. “I love ‘Vertigo’s’ sense of madness. It kind of has this dream logic. I watched ‘Psycho.’ I watched ‘Rear Window.’ And it was such an education going back there, because a lot of the stuff he did back then, it’s still so effective.”
But Hitchcock wasn’t working with CGI on a shoestring budget. “The Invisible Man” doesn’t look like an inexpensive film, which Whannell credits to Blumhouse. “They know exactly what they’re doing, and so they essentially know how to milk every dollar out of the budget you have,” he says. The movie was shot in Australia, where it was able to take advantage of the country’s generous tax incentives.
“I don’t want to write myself into this hole, because in Hollywood, if you do one thing, they’re like, ‘Do that again!’” Whannell says. “I think if you have the right story, a lot of times the thing that pushes budgets up in Hollywood is just all the perks. It’s like, ‘So-and-so needs a two-story trailer, full-time masseuse, full-time chef.’ It’s all the window dressing of filmmaking. Jason Blum gets A-list stars to forgo things like trailers altogether. On a Blumhouse set, they’re just hanging out in a chair with everybody else.”
“The Invisible Man” is tracking strongly for Universal, which means the studio’s strategy could be the right one in the current box office environment, where A-list movie stars don’t matter as much as a clever conceit. “And actually,” Whannell says, “I think horror is one of the last genres left where people want to experience the community. People want to actually be surrounded by other people who are screaming and gasping.”