Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
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Leigh Whannell, Jason Blum and Elisabeth Moss turned The Invisible Man into a hit by crafting a distinctly small-scale, unapologetically topical and refreshingly discomforting horror thrill ride that was an event by virtue of its limited commercial ambitions.
With a $28.2 million domestic debut, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man has become Universal’s first unmitigated “classic monsters” hit since The Mummy Returns ($433 million on a $98 million budget) in May of 2001. That Stephen Summers adventure was a sequel to Summers’ blockbuster (and frankly excellent) The Mummy, which earned $416 million on an $80 million budget two years earlier. Since then, Universal has struggled with big-budget spectaculars like Van Helsing ($300 million on a $160 million budget in 2004), The Wolfman ($131 million/$150 million in 2010), Dracula Untold ($210 million/$70 million in 2014) and The Mummy ($409 million/$120 million in 2017). That The Invisible Man, a $7 million, R-rated horror movie, is going to be more wholly successful than the last 16 years’ worth of false starts is indicative of what The Mummy was in 1999 and what Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man is today.
Luke Evans’ “Dracula is a superhero now!” period piece tripled its budget, but poor reviews and just $56 million domestic put the kibosh on Dracula in Need of Clarification. Ditto Tom Cruise’s franchise-launcher for the Dark Universe, which was intended to be an MCU-style cinematic universe potentially featuring Javier Bardem as Dr. Frankenstein, Angelina Jolie as the Bride of Frankenstein, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. It was staked through the heart after one poorly-received “cart before the horse” installment. The Invisible Man earned around $49 million worldwide this weekend, or seven times its production budget, in just its global opening weekend. It is a modern event movie in an era when an event movie can come from anywhere if it stands out from the pack in a positive way. Thanks to Whannell, Jason Blum and Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man did just that.
The Mummy was a smash in 1999 because it was a big-budget action spectacular, a pretty damn good one no less, when such things were still rare enough to be considered automatic event movies. The Brendan Fraser/Rachel Weisz adventure was the first of its kind in terms of taking a property that wasn’t necessarily grounded in fantastical action-adventure and making it into a successful big-budget action blockbuster. Call it “epic-ifcation,” and it’s now par for the course with the likes of Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer and Dolittle. It was released in the summer of 1999, back when (by default) it was one of the “biggest” movie of the summer (in terms of scale) alongside Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, Tarzan and Wild Wild West. It was also R-rated content distilled into a PG-13 adventure, just after Anaconda and Rush Hour.
The Mummy stumbled in 2017 because it was a big-budget action spectacular, a pretty lousy one no less, when such things were par for the course. Universal and friends tried to turn their classic monster movie characters (Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy, etc.) into glorified superheroes/anti-heroes. Fair or not, The Mummy came off as “generic blockbuster: the movie,” the kind of thing where you’re supposed to excuse its relatively indifferent quality because “Hey, it’ll be big in China.” Regular readers can tell you that such a boast A) rarely transpires and B) rarely covers for indifferent receptions elsewhere in the world. The Mummy in 1999 was a big deal because it was unique unto itself. The Mummy in 2017 was a big miss because it was painfully attempting to mimic what was popular at the time, right as that kind of global action fantasy was losing steam by virtue of its omnipresence.
In 2017, we saw a new kind of event movie emerging. Yes, the superhero movie was still ruling the roost, but films like Get Out and Girls Trip, or (the next year) Crazy Rich Asians and Bohemian Rhapsody, were outperforming (especially in North America) the generic likes of The Dark Tower, King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword and Skyscraper. Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy failed both because of its relatively poor quality (it’s probably Tom Cruise’s worst star-vehicle, by default) and its existence as a painfully generic attempt by Universal to do what Disney was doing. Of course, not even Disney could make the formula work with Solo: A Star Wars Story. Conversely, The Invisible Man became an event by virtue of its smaller scope. It was also a Universal release that felt like a Universal release. It was cheap, cinematic, R-rated, topical and arguably a demographically-specific event movie.
At just $7 million (plus marketing), The Invisible Man could afford to be openly topical (although its of-the-moment subject matter is unfortunately timeless), graphically violent, scary to the point of discomfort and refreshingly stand-alone. It was an update/reboot done right, not by taking a horror movie monster and turning them into an action hero but by taking a horror movie monster from the 1930’s and making a distinctly modern horror movie (from a guy somewhat well-known for helping reinvent the horror genre alongside periodic collaborator James Wan). By refusing to be a conventional would-be blockbuster, it stood out from the crowd in a way that The Mummy or Dracula Untold could not. The film may have revived the “classic monsters” brand by letting its scary monster be a scary monster. Universal may have revived its “classic monsters” brand by plopping one into a distinctly Universal/Blumhouse horror movie.