Written by: Leigh Whannell (story, screenplay), H.G. Wells (novel)
Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Aldis Hodge
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn't be able to see him."
Like any devoted fan base, the horror crowd is quick to imagine how they’d do things if they were put in charge. More often than not, we—and I can definitely say we here, as I’ve done my share of fantasizing—come up with some pretty outlandish stuff that probably wouldn’t fly in reality. However, I can say we’ve all had it right for years concerning Universal’s various attempts at resurrecting its stable of legendary monsters. Poke around any horror community online and you’ll see a familiar refrain: “these things shouldn’t be big action movies—they’re supposed to be horror!” or something to that effect. To be fair, the approach has seen its share of box office hits (1999’s The Mummy, Dracula Untold) and misses (The Wolfman, 2017’s The Mummy), but it’s even more fair to say that Stephen Sommers’s effort is the only one that had any sort of lingering impact. Ever since, we’ve been patiently waiting for someone to restore these monsters to their horror roots.
If Leigh Whannell didn’t already feel like one of us, then he definitely should after The Invisible Man because he’s done exactly what we’ve been craving—and with the last Universal Monster you’d expect to boot. Perhaps fittingly, The Invisible Man always lurked in the shadows of his more famous contemporaries, but where the Dracula and Wolf Man reboots failed to leave much of mark, this take on H.G. Wells’s iconic premise is gripping as hell and feels like a true rebirth of an icon. What’s more, it’s almost doubly ironic considering The Invisible Man was rarely an avenue for straightforward horror pictures, as the sequels especially made room for various genres, including screwball comedies and WWII propaganda/spy thrillers. But make no mistake: Whannell’s movie reimagines this premise as a distressing, horrifying descent into domestic abuse and gaslighting, making it ingenious and timely on top of just being downright intense.
It’s gripping from the opening sequence, which finds Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) doing her best to quietly slip out of the bed she shares with her boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Without resorting to any conventional exposition, Whannell makes it clear that this no ordinary fit of restlessness: instead, he quickly compels viewers to hold their breath as they watch this obviously frightened woman orchestrates a harrowing escape from the house. He craftily blocks the scene, occasionally letting Cecilia slip behind objects in the frame, obscuring her route and any obstacles—like an ill-placed dogfood bowl—that might produce a jolt. It’s a masterclass in immediately building suspense and establishing character dynamics: within minutes, we know we’re dealing with a frantic but resourceful woman doing her best to escape the clutches of an abusive lover.
The climax to the sequence confirms as much: Cecilia narrowly escapes to a rendezvous point with her sister (Harriet Dryer) but not before Adrian pounds his fist right through the car’s window. Some weeks later, Cecilia is still reeling from her escape: while she’s found refuge with her friend James (Aldis Hodge), she can’t even walk to the mailbox without evoking the lingering specter of the abusive relationship she’s fled. An unexpected salvation arrives with the news that Adrian has committed suicide, effectively freeing Cecilia from her fear that he’ll hunt her down and take revenge. Even more unexpected is the $5 million he wills to her, a gesture she suspects is another one of Adrian’s twisted mind games from beyond the grave. She’s only a little bit off: in reality, it’s only a prelude to his even more fucked-up plot to fake his death, turn himself invisible, and completely destroy her life.
The Invisible Man unfolds like any effective should, as Whannell initially winds all of the nervous, unsettling energy into an excruciatingly tight coil of physical and psychological torment. Every camera movement—or even a decision to simply to let the lens linger—is an ominous invitation to scan the frame to see if any the slightest hair is out of place. Once it’s clear that Adrian has infiltrated Cecilia’s home, each scene becomes a demented guessing game of how his presence will manifest. Sometimes, it’s just the sight of his breath in the cold air; sometimes, it’s much more physically invasive stuff like taking pictures of Cecilia while she sleeps.
I cannot recall the last time I held my breath during a movie as much as I did during The Invisible Man because Whannell harnesses the inherent, primal terror of a monster that can’t be seen. He earns each and every jolt he orchestrates, be it simply a cell phone vibrating or even Adrian smacking someone out of nowhere. This movie starts the audience on a precipice and continually nudges them towards the edge with each new scene, with the few breathers only serving to emphasize the psychological toll it’s taking on Cecelia.
Lingering on the psychological dimension is arguably the most crucial aspect at play here. It’s not enough for Adrian to physically threaten Cecilia’s space: he wants to completely invade her mind to dominate all aspects of her life. Watching her futile attempts to convince everyone of the truth becomes harrowing and frustrating in its own right—it’s not just that she’s powerless to stop Adrian, but she’s also powerless to even convince anyone to help her. Allowing the audience to share that frustration is critical in Whannell’s aim to capture the utter helplessness of abuse victims, even when others would consider them “free” from their abusers. There’s rightfully no ambiguity to The Invisible Man: Cecilia is not crazy and is indeed a victim of an intricate gaslighting scheme that makes an already unnerving film even more so. Before an effective thriller can, well, thrill, it has to bundle up the audience’s anxiety, fear, and frustration to the point where they can hardly bear it any longer.
Whannell deftly plays on these strings, carefully orchestrating a suspenseful ordeal that escalates with each new development before redirecting this energy into those cathartic thrills. He knows you want to see the tables turn, but he’s going to make you earn it by watching Cecelia endure unspeakable horrors. Two pivotal moments are particularly striking in conveying wildly different types of terror. One involves an act of swift physical violence that brought my jaw to the floor in a way few scenes have ever done—it’s a “shit just got real” moment if there ever was one. The other features nothing more than a disturbing conversation between Cecelia and another character that reveals another depth to Adrian’s sick scheme, further burying any hope she may have and sending the audience teetering even closer to the brink.
Just when it looks like Cecilia will succumb to the void, she’s forced to pull herself back from the brink with nothing more than her own grit and resourcefulness. Her plight leaves her little recourse than to resort to a desperation heave that sends The Invisible Man spiraling off into a slightly more rousing story of survival and revenge. This is where the movie just rips, as Whannell leans on his genre movie chops, staging one inventive set piece after the next, with Benjamin Wallfisch's nerve-jangling score cranked to 11. Even this, though, doesn’t unfold in a straight line, as the script reserves a handful of crooked paths and surprising directions to keep the audience on edge. By the time you’ve seen what Adrian is capable of, you’re rightfully just as paranoid as Cecilia, so you’re never quite convinced she’ll able to truly escape unless she takes matters completely into her own hands. Whannell follows this notion to its logical conclusion and allows The Invisible Man to land in a spot that’s more sobering than it is rousing, a smart move that reminds audiences that nobody escapes abuse unscathed and completely triumphant.
In doing so, Whannell never strays from what’s most obviously important. The Invisible Man is a woman-in-peril movie that refuses to flinch at the horrors it inflicts on Cecilia; however, Whannell also refuses to allow those horrors (or even their retribution) to define his picture. Lesser filmmakers—or maybe just filmmakers with more base, exploitative aims—may have been content to indulge violence-as-spectacle, especially with the nifty effects in play here. And while Whannell does have a bit of clever fun here and there, the violence never feels like the film’s raison d'être. He’s much more concerned with the impact the violence has, especially on Cecilia’s increasingly fraught psyche.
Moss is obviously instrumental in this regard. With a performance that’s immediately captivating during that intense opening sequence, Moss commands the screen at all times. It’s a nuanced, delicately-pitched vision of a woman who’s constantly forced to wear her trauma on her sleeve. Her abusive relationship with Adrian hangs on her, shadowing her every move even before he returns to her life. You see it lingering on Moss’s face with each wayward glance and aroused suspicion Once Adrian’s insidious plot kicks in, Moss’s turn catches a glimmer of mania: it’s the look of a woman doing her best not to completely collapse, even though nobody could blame her if she did. Moss is so convincing that I felt exhausted for her: you can feel the commitment she’s invested not only in bringing this role on screen but in making sure it resonates. Cecelia descends into utter hell in this movie, and every aggression Adrian makes towards her is evident in her body language at the end, when she’s steeled herself against an ordeal that’s taken so much from her. Because that’s what abuse does: it takes something that can never be returned, even if the victim manages to escape the clutches of the relationship.
Reworking The Invisible Man as an allegory for abuse is a brilliant notion, mostly because Whannell understands the physical and psychological toll. Cecelia’s trial with an invisible abuser is a literalization of what so many victims face on a daily basis: the hidden micro and macro aggressions that nobody else sees (or doesn’t want to see). Despite the science-fiction angle driving its plot, the film reflects the all too common experience of women caught in the grips of controlling, narcissistic men whose meticulously crafted nice guy act wards off outside suspicion. (Strange compliments are in order for Jackson-Cohen’s utterly convincing turn as a skin-crawling creep.) With the increased awareness surrounding abusive relationships, it’s tempting to call The Invisible Man a movie of the moment; unfortunately, it’s probably more apt to say that it’s a movie that resonates across moments because it speaks to such a pervasive plague of male power. It’s existed before this movie and will exist afterwards, but Whannell has harnessed the urgency of recent movements with an ingenious take that resoundingly insists that we should believe women.
While it’s not the most important takeaway here, The Invisible Man provides a clear blueprint for the Universal Monsters going forward: tap a talented filmmaker who has a unique spin that doesn’t break the budget, and let them go wild. Don’t worry about sequels or shared universes—just do right by these monsters and the rest will take care of itself. Horror fans have been clamoring for as much for years now, and it’s obviously not even the wildest notion. Hell, Universal need to only look to its own history when it handed these characters off to the likes of Todd Browning, James Whale, and other filmmakers, many of whom fashioned great, idiosyncratic works of art out of preexisting properties. Whannell joins those ranks with The Invisible Man, proving once again that great filmmaking starts with something more than just a cynical desire to establish a new brand.
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