It’s hard to overstate the impact of Leigh Whannell’s contribution to horror over the last 16 years. The architect of the SAW and Insidious series, two of the most bankable and prolific franchises in the genre, has given us many hours of scares and thrills. Even between those films, Whannell has penned awesome one-offs, like 2007’s puppet horror (not to be confused with the puppet horror in SAW) Dead Silence and 2018’s criminally-underseen action-horror Upgrade. When I saw Whannell’s newest project would be an adaptation of H.G Wells’ The Invisible Man, my interest was more than piqued. I think I may have started salivating and blacked out for a few hours, but that lost time that I’ll never recover is surely worth it for this masterpiece.
The Invisible Man opens with Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) staging an elaborate escape from her abusive tech-bro husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)’s mansion, which looks like something Bong Joon-Ho designed. It’s clear from the beginning that Cecilia’s literally under her husband’s thumb (having to sneak his arm off of her as she crawls out of bed), and that this isn’t her first attempt since she expertly defeats this high-tech fortress’s redundant security systems. Two weeks later, Cecilia is staying with a cop friend named James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter, a high school senior named Sydney (Storm Reid). She’s traumatized to the core, and afraid to go outside. One might wonder, as my friend did at the screening, why therapy isn’t part of the equation for Cecilia at this (or any) point.
Cecilia gets news that Adrian has been found dead, apparently by suicide. Her next surprise is that he has left her a sizeable inheritance, which is administered by Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman). The money is subject to certain conditions like Cecilia not committing any felonies and remaining mentally competent. Of course, you know what movie you bought a ticket to so you know that Adrian isn’t actually dead, and has turned himself invisible, and he begins a relentless, terrifying campaign to make Cecilia’s life a living hell.
The language of abuse forms the undercurrent to Whannell’s Invisible Man. Moss’s Cecilia goes through what seems like an authentic process of dealing with the scars – physical and mental – from escaping a romantic relationship with a controlling sociopath that happens to possess both brilliance and seemingly unlimited resources. It was no surprise to me that Whannell sought input from his female stars, as well as the perspectives of abused women in tweaking the screenplay because both the screenplay and the performances drive home how scary – truly scary and not in a jump scare context – such a situation would be. The powerlessness that Cecilia feels is palpable as her life begins to crumble and, as in many abusive relationships, she becomes increasingly isolated. Ultimately, she has to convince the world that she’s not crazy and that the threat to her is real. It’s the ultimate form of gaslighting.
Whannell plays deftly with suspense and anticipation in The Invisible Man, and this has been a big strength in his scripts in the past. Even in the wake of a trailer that, in my opinion, revealed way too much of the film, there’s still a lot here that kept me guessing. Whannell does some interesting stuff with negative space in his shots, sometimes using it to show Cecelia’s isolation, sometimes to show a creepy thing moving by itself as it’s controlled by invisible forces, and sometimes both. The way Whannell blocks out his action sequences where one participant is visible and the other flickering in and out makes this one of the best renderings of invisibility I’ve seen (sorry Hollow Man!), and harkens back to the uniqueness of the action in Upgrade where the main character isn’t in control over his body. Why Whannell’s collaborator James Wan is making Fast and The Furious movies and he isn’t, will remain a mystery to me.
The score by Blade Runner 2049’s Benjamin Wallfisch is sparse but elevates every scene where it appears. Like in Blade Runner, you do more than hear it; you feel it, and it’s disarming in the way that the rumbling synths provoke a physical reaction even without looking at the action on the screen. I like that it’s used to punctuate the silence or near-silence that Whannell uses for most of the film’s scariest parts, instead of the other way around.
The way that Griffin becomes the titular Man and employs the power is interesting and mostly well-thought-out, even though it presents some tactical realism problems which I won’t describe here, both because they’re spoilers and because there’s nothing less interesting than someone complaining about realism in their invisible stalker film. Actually, that’s not true. It’s more interesting than talking about realism in your laser sword wizard and space bear soap opera.
But I digress. Elisabeth Moss is, as always, electric in this role. She’s played horror before, in films like Queen of Earth and roughly 80% of The Handmaid’s Tale, and she turns in a career performance as Cecilia. I can honestly say that large portions of this movie would be downright silly if not for Moss’s ability to convey so much without uttering a word and the seriousness she brings to the performance. Close-ups of her tormented face, the slight laugh to herself as she describes the hopelessness of her situation, they all help you, the viewer, buy into what is a kind of absurd premise. The supporting cast – Reid, Hodge, Dorman, and Jackson-Cohen – is also there, and are all at least serviceable if not very good. Cecilia’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) is given a little more to do and stands out more than most, but no one commands a screen more than Moss.
It’s pretty wild that two of the biggest horror releases of 2020 – The Invisible Man and The Lodge – got dropped into our laps within a week of one another. Unlike The Lodge, though, which left me feeling emotionally drained and almost delirious afterwards, I want to watch The Invisible Man again. It’s got a lot of subtext and beautiful but horrifying imagery and has a twist or two that will be interesting to revisit with the ending in mind. Moss and Whannell have modernized the classic HG Wells tale into something that will rightly be seen as one of the best adaptations of that work ever attempted.