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More than a century after his literary debut, the Invisible Man is back on the big screen.

It has been nearly 70 years since Universal Pictures last dipped a toe into their ‘Invisible Man’ franchise. Launched as an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ late 19th-century novel, director James Whale’s original ‘The Invisible Man’ spawned four theatrical sequels, each offering a very different expansion of the story. Now, the studio is preparing to unleash an all new version with master of horror Leigh Whannell both writing and directing.

 

“I’m a big horror fan, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of horror films,” says Whannell, who scripted and starred in ‘Saw’ in 2004 and who went on to write genre fare like ‘Dead Silence,’ ‘Insidious,’ and ‘Cooties’. It was in 2015 that Whannell made his directorial debut with ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ and just three years later he left a major mark with the hardcore cyberpunk thriller ‘Upgrade’.

 

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“After I made ‘Upgrade,’ I was bitten by the action-movie bug. There’s something about being on a film set and orchestrating a car chase or a fight scene that’s very addictive. As soon as I finished the film, I thought ‘When do I get to do this again?’ In my mind, the next one I was going to make was going to be a visceral action movie.”

Even as ‘Upgrade’ was hitting theaters, Universal was at a crossroads when it came to their Universal Monsters. The plan had been to launch the ‘Dark Universe’ franchise with ‘The Mummy’ in 2017, setting up a world that was to feature Javier Bardem as Frankenstein and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. When ‘The Mummy’ failed to connect with audiences, Whannell became the perfect candidate for very a different approach to blockbuster horror.

“Universal has a huge history in horror through the Monster movies of the ʼ30s and ʼ40s,” says producer Jason Blum. “That lore looms large at the studio. I had a meeting with Chairman Donna Langley, and she wanted to reinvigorate the muscle that was exercised so often by the Monsters. Since we’ve been compared to that era of Universal because we’ve done so much horror with the studio, it seemed like a very natural fit… Those Monster movies are near and dear to my heart. That’s why I wanted to do this. Our concept was to make the stories relevant to today. And that’s just what Leigh has done with ‘The Invisible Man’.”

“It was this off-the-cuff pitch,” Whannell recalls about his early meetings on the project. “…Something that just came right out of me off the top of my head. I said, ‘If you were making an Invisible Man movie, you would make it from the point of view of his victim. Say, a woman who escapes from her abusive partner in the middle of the night and then finds out that he’s killed himself but doesn’t quite believe it, especially when mysterious things start happening.’”

“The look of [the film] is contemporary, clean—very different than all of the Monster movies in that there’s nothing creepy, and there are no cobwebs,” Blum continues.

“We didn’t want to lean into any aesthetic ‘horror’ tropes,” says production designer Alex Holmes. “We were treating it like a realistic thriller. That meant no exaggerated wallpapers, colors, contrived spooky spaces. Leigh also wanted to ‘turn the lights on.’ This was a horror film that was going to be full of ambient light. It’s not about something lurking in shadows. It’s about somebody that’s there, but not.”

Whannell soon found his star in Elisabeth Moss. Best known for her role as Peggy Olson on ‘Mad Men,’ Moss was also no stranger to horror. She starred last year in another Blumhouse thriller, the hugely successful ‘Us’ from writer and director Jordan Peele.

“It took me ten minutes to understand Leigh’s take and how modern and relevant this film could be,” says the star. “I love how he upended the idea of ‘The Invisible Man’. It was one of those scripts that you read and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ …It’s a great metaphor and completely relevant to our time… as well as to my time as a woman in this society.”

“In the modern world, you get a lot of credit for these achievements and no one is calling you out on how you got there,” Whannell continues. “What I wanted to tap into with him is the narcissism and sociopathy leading to success. It kills him that Cecilia would leave him… That someone would defy him in that way. He has this strong, pathological need to control her, and that’s definitely what’s driving him.”

Whannell found his title character in Oliver Jackson-Cohen who, himself, has been featured in some memorable horror-centric roles. He recently joined the ensemble cast of Mike Flangan’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and will be returning for the now-in-production follow-up, ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’. He has even had some experience with another classic monster, starring as Jonathan Harker on the short-lived ‘Dracula’ television series in 2013.

“It was just Lizzie, Leigh and me,” the star recalls. “We wanted to show the cycle of what these relationships are about—how people end up back in these relationships, even though they know better. It’s about the pull of what these people do—specifically what Adrian does to hold Cecilia back and get her back where he needs her. Adrian is getting exactly what he wants, which is to see Cecilia suffer and to see her descend into madness.”

“It was important to Leigh and me that we made the space for a relationship that was not only physically abusive, but was also emotionally and psychologically abusive,” adds Moss. “Those types of relationships can be just as damaging. I hope that this film gives some voice and strength to people who have been through that. As women, we feel like there’s a sense of empowerment, that we’re this generation that speaks up, but I think we sometimes still judge others for staying in relationships that they shouldn’t be in.”

Whannell’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is also backed by supporting performances from Aldis Hodge as James Lanier, a friend of Cecilia’s, and from Storm Reid as Sydney, James’ daughter.

“James and Sydney’s home is a safe space for my character,” Moss explains. “That is a place that she is able to recover from this abusive relationship. Unfortunately, it ends up becoming a nightmare in itself.”

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Explore the long, strange legacy of the literary monster turned cinematic icon.

Although Universal Pictures' new big screen take on 'The Invisible Man' is an entirely self-contained tale, it follows a storytelling legacy that stretches back more than a century. In its first iteration, H.G. Wells’ serialized novel, readers met Griffin, a scientist who discovered the secret of invisibility, but whose madness threatened to turn him into a monster.

Universal has returned to the story of ‘The Invisible Man’ several times over the last hundred years, developing a franchise that has not been afraid to cross genres over a half dozen theatrical releases. Let’s take a look back at the official entries in the ‘Invisible’ series.

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THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Two years after he brought life to Mary Shelley's modern Prometheus with his legendary take on 'Frankenstein,' director James Whale turned his attention to the work of H.G. Wells and the author's 1897 novel about a scientist who, through optical experiments, develops a formula that renders his body completely invisible.

The film version, which boasts astonishing special effect sequences that will make even modern viewers marvel, features some changes to the central story, mostly to help audiences relate to the title character. Referred to as just Griffin in the text, Wells' protagonist is a short-tempered and violent man, even before the invisibility formula further removes his societal inhibitions. In the film version, Griffin is given the first name Jack. We learn that it is a side effect of the formula that is driving him insane and threatening to turn him into an unseen killer.

The original film version also introduces a new character to the story in the form of Griffin's fiancé, Gloria Stuart's Flora Cranley. Not only does Flora's presence help to remind us that Griffin was once a good man, the relationship offers a perfect jumping off point for the modern film, which tells the story from the perspective of Elisabeth Moss' Cecilia Kass, the wife of Oliver Jackson-Cohen's Invisible Man, Adrian Griffin.

Although it's not specifically stated, it's quite possible that the Griffin character in the new film is meant to be a relative of the original Griffin.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)

After the original film became such a success for the studio, Universal was keen on developing a sequel. Because Jack Griffin did not survive Whales' film, the follow-up, helmed by German expat and Universal regular Joe May, focuses on the character's brother, John Sutton's Dr. Frank Griffin, as well as another man, Vincent Price's Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Hoping to prove Radcliffe's innocence, but needing a little more time, Frank Griffin injects the prisoner with his brother's formula, allowing Radcliffe to escape. Unfortunately, prolonged invisibility leads to insanity, so Frank must work with Radcliffe's finance, Nan Grey's Helen Manson, to both reverse the effects of the formula and to catch the real killer.

'The Invisible Man' ultimately reveals that there is a cure to Griffin's original invisibility formula. Unfortunately, it requires a total blood transfusion to work.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940)

In 1940, the same year that Universal released the first 'Invisible' franchise sequel, the studio also tried a very different approach with an A. Edward Sutherland helmed comedy entry, 'The Invisible Woman'.

Unlike the rest of the series, 'The Invisible Woman' doesn't connect back to Griffin's story. Instead, the film follows Virgina Bruce's Kitty Carroll, a model who, having just lost her job, volunteers to be a guinea pig for a scientific experiment being conducted by an eccentric professor, played by John Barrymore.

Naturally, Kitty winds up becoming invisible and hilarity ensues. Fortunately, this version of the invisibility process doesn't cause the affected to lose their sanity. What's more, the invisibility even wears off, but with a hitch: Exposure to alcohol causes Kitty disappear again, leading to some truly screwball invisibility antics.

'The Invisible Woman' ends with a little twist, too. Although Kitty's constant invisibility has been cured, her newborn son is now disappearing from sight!

INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

Both 'The Invisible Man Returns' and 'The Invisible Woman' were hits at the box office, but Universal opted for a more serious direction with the fourth feature. Directed by Edwin L. Marin, 'Invisible Agent' targeted the hearts of minds of audiences whose daily lives were preoccupied with a world at war.

Jon Hall headlines 'Invisible Agent' as Frank Raymond, a humble Manhattan resident with a secret. He's really the grandson of original Invisible Man Jack Griffin. When the Axis powers find out about that little secret, they approach him and demand his cooperation in weaponizing his grandfather's formula.

Fortunately for Frank, the US government intervenes and Griffin reluctantly decides to aid the Allies with one caveat: He and only he will have access to the formula.

Soon, Frank is headed to Germany as an ultimate spy, embarking on an adventure that will have him facing off against Nazis and falling for a beautiful fellow spy, Illona Massey's Maria Sorsenson.

'Invisible Agent' also features a great bad guy performance by Peter Lorre, appearing as Japanese Baron Ikito in the very same year as his unforgettable appearance opposite Humphrey Bogart in Michael Curtiz’s 'Casablanca'.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951)

In 1945, the classic Universal Monsters films came to a culmination of sorts with ‘House of Dracula,’ a story that brought together Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. If the Invisible Man was there, though, we certainly didn’t see him.

In the wake of ‘House of Dracula,’ Universal was more interested in developing comedies and provided their classic Monsters with a five-film swan song of sorts, crossing over their various entities with the comedy of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Released in 1948, ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ was the first such release and it even includes a very brief cameo from our visibly challenged hero, voiced (albeit uncredited) by ‘Invisible Man Returns’ star Vincent Price. The character (now Price-less) would play a much bigger role three years later for the third Monster crossover, ‘Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man’.

Directed by Charles Lamont (who, the previous year, had directed the comedy duo’s ‘Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion’), the 1951 release aims for laughs, but still manages to maintain a bit of continuity with previous ‘Invisible’ chapters, even offering a photographic cameo of Claude Rains’ original Jack Griffin as a story unfolds about his scientific formula finding its way into the wrong hands.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

It’s hard to believe, but nearly 70 years have passed since the last ‘Invisible’ movie. Of course, alternate versions of the tale have popped up at other studios, as have similarly themed films like John Carpenter’s ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’ in 1992 and Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Hollow Man’ in 2002. H.G. Wells’ original tome was even adapted into a Syfy television series that began airing in 2000.

For fans of the classic Universal Monsters version of the character, however, writer and director Leigh Whanell’s new take has been a very, very long time coming.