The new version of The Invisible Man - produced by Blumhouse for Universal Pictures, which isn't really re-adapting H.G. Wells's 1897 novel nor re-making its own 1933 picture, but relying on brand recognition for a brand-new thing, and would that all brand recognition was handled with this much care and thoughtfulness - is rather damn good in a rather large number of ways, but if I had to pick one single thing to praise about it, I know exactly where I'd start. This film has the best opening sequence of any horror-thriller in at least the last few years: a ruthless plunge in medias res, where it's entirely clear what's going on without a word needing to be spoken, the stakes seem horrifyingly real, and the likelihood for failure is off the charts. By the end of the film's second minute, I was already holding my breath and cringing at every slight misstep the protagonist made; it's a special and good genre film that can get us into that kind of state at any point during its running time, but one that can start us there is doing some miracle shit.

The sequence in question kicks off with a hell of a good credit sequence, in which ocean waves crashing against a rock splash against invisible lettering and and leave the words visible just barely long enough to read them, exacerbated by the very gloomy blue of the pre-dawn lighting. It's a tonally heavy, visually demanding way to start things off, and it immediately kicks off a feeling of weary exhaustion that leads directly into its first proper story sequence. Here, a woman we'll later learn is named Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is lying in bed, not at all asleep, next to wunderkind optics scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), whom she has drugged. For several excruciatingly tense minutes, we see her slide out of bed, gingerly crisscross a ludicrously splashy modernist mansion to assemble little bits and pieces of what appears to be a very carefully worked-out-escape plan, and do it all in the presence of an oppressively fuzzy silence to go with the oppressively murky lighting. It's breathtakingly economical cinematic storytelling: thanks to very little other than the strained expression on Moss's face, the exhausting use of real-time to show every damn little thing Cecilia is doing, and the regular snaps back to Adrian's zonked-out form, the movie, under the guiding hand of director Leigh Whannell, gives us only exactly what we need to know that whoever the sleeping dude is, he must be terrifying for the tired-looking lady to be putting this much stressed-out effort into sneaking away from him.

And this is basically the movie. Every incarnation of The Invisible Man I know, including the unofficial ones, has posited that invisibility is a superpower only desired by people who are untrustworthy bastards at best, outright psychopaths at worst, but this is the first one I can name to shift its focus over to the cost of the invisible man's villainy. This is a story entirely about Cecilia's profound emotional exhaustion over having been manipulated and abused by Adrian, with Moss doing simply phenomenal work of wearing that exhaustion in the shuffling, sagging way she moves through spaces. And the hair and make-up artists, leaving her looking properly sallow and haggard, are contributing something to it as well. Over the course of the too-indulgent 124-minute running time, the film watches Cecilia die of a thousand cuts: the curdled nightmare that her relationship with Adrian has become; the way that her closest emotional supporters can only muster up a kind of vague, patronising level of appreciation for how she's feeling; the paranoia that, justified though it is, is sapping what little stamina she has left; the fact that Adrian has faked his own death and found a way to make himself invisible, for the solitary reason of harassing her and making the rest of the world think she's losing her mind.

This last bit is, of course, where the film lives most of the time - it knows we saw the title on the way in, and doesn't dilly-dally. Indeed, it counts on this. Long before there's any actual plot reasons to suspect that Adrian has gone transparent and is delighting in tormenting Cecilia, Whannell has taken to staging scenes with conspicuous empty spots and letting scenes hang for several uncomfortable seconds after the visible humans have walked off-camera. Knowing that we're watching The Invisible Man and knowing what, exactly, that means (especially if we have enough familiarity with the other versions of the story to understand why a scientist with the surname "Griffin" is some seriously bad news), the film doesn't try to play dumb: it openly invites us to speculate. Is Adrian present right now? Is that why the camera is holding on that seemingly boring empty frame? Is he going to do something, or are we just going to wait? And this is, in a subtle and smart way, an analogue for the wiry tension that Cecilia herself is always feeling to some extent, though she gets to feeling it far more often once the apparent violations of physics start to happen. I confess to a lingering distrust of Whannell, dating from my extreme dislike of some screenplays he wrote back in the 2000s; with this, his third film as director, I finally admit that I've been wrong. He's figured out a terrific way to stage the first invisible man movie I can think of that's actually tense and suffused with a real sense of terror and dread, relying less on jump-and-say-boo horror (though there is one extremely good jump scare) than on a deep sense of despair and draining wariness. The film uses some surprising variations in its pacing (including a long take of an empty kitchen that is, quietly, one of the boldest bits of filmmaking in any Blumhouse production to date) and judicious use of explicit scares as punctuation marks in stillness to accentuate its obvious and successful foregrounding of Moss's performance. It's tightly made, far better and smarter than it needed to be, and when it's working, it's a deeply satisfying genre picture.

When it's working. For a long time, I only had nitpicks; by the end of the first hour, my only actual complaint was that the otherwise airtight exposition is telling rather than showing in one crucial respect. We're never given any hint of the charisma that Adrian supposedly possesses that thus allows him to manipulate and abuse the people in his life; it's posited by multiple characters but never demonstrated. But whatever, it's not his movie. The problems start to creep in pretty vigorously in the second hour, though, beginning with the fact that this has a second hour; the 1933 The Invisible Man is but 71 minutes long, the 1940 adaptation of the play Gaslight is 89, and I see no reason for this hybrid of those two plots to be so much longer than either of them. Particularly given that the main reason for that length is an entirely spurious final act that's tonally out of whack, doesn't follow naturally from what we know of Cecilia or her good friend, San Francisco cop James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), and obliges the film to pass by a perfectly fine climax that it has arranged for itself.

Even before that, though, Whannell's screenplay was starting to lose me: there's a restaurant scene that kicks off the penultimate act, and it straddles the line between nervily uncanny and frankly silly. Plus, the plot points that develop from it strike me as a bit contrived and needlessly busy. The film's strengths lie in the quiet violation of domestic security; I don't think it needed to expand its setting the way it does in the back half. It's not that the film falls apart; it certainly grows less interesting, but it still has some persistently effective and unnerving scenes. And Moss is always giving it her all, even when the final scene can't decide what to do with it. Besides, the first hour is so sturdy that it would take a lot more than a somewhat clumsy and overdone climax to do anything to distract from the potency of those early scenes. But the clumsiness is present, nonetheless.