From Cheesy to Classy

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Blumhouse has become one of my favorite production companies. Founded in 2009 by Jason Blum, its original formula was to produce low-budge horror films such as Paranormal Activity and the Purge series, and then release them quickly through the studio system, relying on the public’s lust for cheap thrills to create profits. These films didn’t appeal to me personally, but the formula worked: Paranormal Activity, which cost $15,000 to produce, grossed $93 million worldwide.

Blum has a knack for recognizing directorial talent and then trusting his directors to bring their vision to the screen. Before long he began attracting directors with strong storytelling and filmmaking skills, while managing to stay within the low-budget formula, making seven-figure films that gross nine- and ten-figure profits.

Who would have thought a producer of low-budget horror films would be seeing “Oscar nominated” in front of his film titles?

One of my students had the opportunity to work with him two summers ago, and her internship project (an homage to Hitchcock) was so good that I invited her to screen it at the annual Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in Las Vegas. Blum has partnered with several top-quality writer-directors, including Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), M. Night Shyamalan (Split, Glass), and Christopher B. Landon, a prolific screenwriter whose Happy Death Day series is as funny as it is scary, using wit and tension instead of gore and horror to produce a hand-grabbing thrill ride that’s perfect for date night.

Another relative newcomer, Damien Chazelle, directed the excellent Oscar-nominated drama Whiplash for Blumhouse. His next stop? Another Oscar favorite, La La Land. And Jordan Peele knocked it out of the park with Get Out, a scary movie that is also a masterpiece of literary and historical allusion. Who would have thought a producer of low-budget horror films would be seeing “Oscar nominated” in front of his film titles? Yet that’s what happened to Blum with Get Out, Whiplash, and BlacKkKlansman.

So when Blumhouse produces, I pay attention.The Invisible Man is the latest in its stable of high-class scary movies, and it’s a winner. Based on H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel and containing numerous homages to the 1933 cinematic classic starring Claude Rains, it manages to maintain Blum’s formula of low-budget, high-quality filmmaking: just $7 million to produce, despite all the high-tech special effects, yet it grossed four times that amount in its first weekend alone.

Beyond the walls, a storm is brewing over the sea to match the storm that is brewing in the bedroom.

The film is classy, atmospheric, and intense. It opens on a sleeping Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) slowly pulling back her silky coverlet to reveal a seemingly disembodied hand resting on her waist. The effect is reminiscent of Jack Woltz pulling back the covers to reveal the horse’s head in The Godfather. The camera dollies back, revealing the man attached to the hand, as Cecilia cautiously and tremblingly detaches it from her waist — inch by inch, and holding her breath. Clearly, someone has made an offer someone else should have refused, and now she is making her escape.

The camera pulls back further to reveal a room with invisible walls (because they are floor-to-ceiling windows). Beyond the walls, a storm is brewing over the sea to match the storm that is brewing in the bedroom. The deep, sonorous sound of a tuba playing a single note in its lowest register vibrates through the scene and the camera’s point of view creates a predatory sensation as we watch Cecelia fumble with her clothes and then tiptoe frantically out of the house. Both create exquisite tension. We don’t know what has happened in that house, but we know it isn’t good.

Cecilia hides out at the home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge), but she is soon convinced that her husband (for that’s who the sleeping man was), Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), has managed to make himself invisible and is trying either to kill her or to drive her mad. (Fans of H.G. Wells will recognize the significance of Adrian’s last name.) The fact that she has a prescription for Diazepam causes us to think it might all be in her head. And yet . . . watch the flame that slowly brightens under the skillet where she is cooking breakfast. Is she crazy? Or is she being gaslit?

We don’t know what has happened in that house, but we know it isn’t good.

I don’t want to give too much away, so just trust me — The Invisible Man is a scary movie in the grandest sense of the genre, full of tension, atmosphere, comic relief, and more tension. It’s as much psychological thriller as it is murder mystery, without the gore of last season’s Joker (although there is some blood), and just as engaging.

And trust me about Blumhouse too — Jason Blum has the magic touch for finding great writer-directors and guiding them to become masters of suspense. Yes, he still does the blood-and-gore stuff too, so I don’t watch everything he produces. But I’m very excited about his new Monster Movies series for Universal Studios based on such classics as The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and Dracula. If you like to be scared but not petrified, I think you’ll enjoy them too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Invisible Man," directed by Leigh Whannell. Blumhouse, 2020, 124 minutes.



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