The Invisible Man opened strong this weekend, racking up nearly $30 million in just four days against a $7 million budget, making it the latest hit from Blumhouse and horror producer/kingmaker Jason Blum. Directed by Upgrade&aposs Leigh Whannell, who drastically improves as an auteur with every movie he makes, Invisible Man is a timely, genuinely frightening horror film that further cements Elisabeth Moss as a world-class genre actor, and opens up a whole new world of franchise potential.
But up until one year ago, The Invisible Man was supposed to be a Johnny Depp superhero movie.
So how did Universal and Blumhouse right the ship so quickly? Funnily enough, a Tom Cruise 2017 box office bomb was the catalyst that led to the latest great low-budget horror. The Mummy is first and foremost a film that very few people saw (and even fewer people enjoyed), which is still best known for the botched trailer Universal accidentally released with a hilarious, unfinished audio track featuring a screaming Tom Cruise aboard a silent crashing plane. The Mummy was meant to be Phase 1 of Universal&aposs Dark Universe, an interconnected series of films focused on public domain characters of horror folklore. Remember (of course you don’t) how Russell Crowe showed up in The Mummy as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde for no real reason? Dark Universe, my friend.
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The Invisible Man was slotted to be one of the flagship Dark Universe movies, a Johnny Depp vehicle written by David Goyer, who also penned such films as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ghost Rider 2, and Terminator: Dark Fate. Luckily, Invisible Man sidestepped an inevitable dark fate (sorry, couldn&apost resist) of its own when The Mummy&aposs lackluster performance ($410 million against a $200 million budget, 16% on RottenTomatoes, and eight Razzie nominations, to be exact) led Universal to put the Dark Universe on hold and move to a more traditional model of "planning and making movies one at a time." Universal teamed with low-budget horror hit machine Blumhouse (whose hits include, of late, Happy Death Day, Ma, and Halloween),and passed the reins to Leigh Whannell, and the rest is now box office history.
Whannell, despite being a big name in the genre for nearly 20 years now (he wrote Saw with James Wan, who directed the unlikely hit), has only recently come into his own as a director. 2015&aposs Insidious: Chapter 3 was the first time he stepped behind the camera; he followed up that hit with the underrated B-movie Upgrade, in which Logan Mashall-Green gets implanted with a sentient chip that turns him into a hyper-violent über-mensch.
Whannell’s third film is an upgrade in itself: The Invisible Man might be one of the best pure horror movies in years, and the director has suddenly catapulted himself to a position in which he’ll likely soon be offered a gauntlet of projects to helm (and feels like a safe pair of hands to handle just about all of them). The action sequences in Upgrade and The Invisible Man are exhilaratingly unique. The Invisible Man&aposs use of space and silence is masterful: In several sequences, the camera appears to come unmoored from its position, violating a major tenet of filmmaking, as we’re wheeled away from two characters conversing and instead being forced to stare at an empty corner (...or is it?). Whannell invites us to act as a paranoid sleuth in the same way it forces Moss to: Forever keeping an eye out for where the danger lies, and wondering if we&aposre simply imagining things when we spot an object (maybe) move, a couch cushion (perhaps) sag.
Moss’s involvement is no fluke, either. She’s shown she can lead a complicated, upsetting show like The Handmaid’s Tale, and veer further into mania like in last year’s criminally underseen Her Smell and her small but darkly funny turn in Jordan Peele’s Us.
There’s also something to be said about a dearth of viable box office options out there right now, historically a problem that’s plagued the first few months of every year. This weekend in particular, The Invisible Man opened against (the vile) Guns Akimbo, and came just two weeks after another Blumhouse drop, Fantasy Island (a dud smartly foisted to Universal to figure out how to market). Not only is Whannell’s triumph a great horror movie, it’s quite literally a gem in the rough. Horror has sometimes thrived in Q1, notably The Invitation and the aforementioned Us in recent years—it’s a lovely little counterplay to the dreck studios save to dump in the doldrums of winter. Even the bad ones (looking at you, Brahms: The Boy II. I will never forgive you for ruining a perfectly good camp classic.) rise above the rest. The Invisible Man, in pretty much every sense, had everything going for it.
There’s some twisted delight to be had in imagining what we would’ve gotten if Depp and Goyer had been allowed to proceed with their Invisible Man; I&aposm going to go ahead and bet the house on it being a silly PG-13 vanity project torn between delivering jump scares and making sure Depp&aposs diminishing star status kept on a-flickering. It feels worth mentioning this wouldn’t be the first time such a thing’s been tried either. Hollow Man, a 2000 reimagining of the classic H.G. Wells story hasn’t aged well (though it has something smart to say deep down about what can happen to a man when you strip him of identity and accountability). It feels almost miraculous that literally 12 months after announcing the Goyer/Depp project had been scrapped that we got such an assured, timely, polished entry into the ever-expanding canon.
It&aposs no secret there are a handful of studios currently attempting to Marvel-ize the properties they own. It&aposs been eight years since The Avengers changed the modern blockbuster, but there are still executives scrambling for their own MCU-esque success story to increasingly diminishing returns. They say we&aposre doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past but when it comes to cinematic universes, failure might sometimes be the best thing that can happen to a fledgling franchise trying to desperately to emulate the success one studio has actually managed so far.
So what of the future for The Invisible Man and other stories? Without spoiling anything, there&aposs certainly a nod to sequel potential in the film&aposs closing moments in which the titular Invisible Man’s means of invisibility finds a new owner. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks (who just helmed the rebooted Charlie’s Angels last year) is publicly working on an Invisible Woman film for Universal that, one must assume, will likely be nudged into Blumhouse&aposs continuity sooner rather than later. Whannell himself has just signed a new two-year deal with Universal and Blumhouse. Against all odds, we might just get a Dark Universe after all, and with any luck, it might actually be good. (Leigh, if you&aposre reading this, please reboot The She-Wolf of London.) Here’s to the new Dark Universe, and never, ever using the phrase “I’m building a team” in one of these movies again.
Originally Appeared on GQ