As we all know, these days every half-decent movie studio is all but required to create a shared universe between films that are show even a modicum of success at the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the pinnacle of this modern blending of franchises, but the idea isn’t limited to superhero films. Warner Bros. Conjuring Universe spans seven films with an eighth on the way this year and now foreseeable end in sight. In 2014, Universal Studios attempted to reboot their classic 1930’s monster movies with Dracula Untold. It was to be the beginning of wha they termed their Dark Universe, but the film bombed. They went back to the drawing board and tried again with The Mummy (2017), only to be met with more disappointment. Like in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out with this kind of stuff, but with Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, it appears this game is still on.
Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is trapped an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a billionaire scientist specializing in optics. After executing a carefully plotted plan to escape his home, his grasp, and their marriage, Cecilia is free but traumatized. Living in hiding with cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), she’s always looking over her shoulder, waiting for Adrian to find her. The comes the news via Cecilia’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), that Adrian has committed suicide and that, per Adrian’s final wishes as explained by his brother/lawyer Tom (Michael Dorman), Cecilia is to inherit five million dollars on condition of her sanity. Slowly, Cecilia begins putting the pieces of her shattered life back together. But then strange things start happening around her, and Cecilia can’t shake the feeling that’s become so familiar to her over the last few years of her life: the feeling of being watched. It’s not long before Cecilia is convinced that Adrian isn’t gone, and that he’s closer to her now than ever before.
The Invisible Man, also written by Whannell (Saw, Insidious), is a tight, small-scale film that focuses on mood, tension, and atmosphere as opposed to the big budget foolery of The Mummy and Dracula Untold. Shifting the focus from the title character, as was the case in the original novel by H.G. Wells and the 1933 film, Whannell positions the viewer to experience the story from the point of view of the person being tormented. In this case, it is a timely commentary on patriarchal domination, abuse, and victim belief. The opening sequence, covering Cecilia’s masterful escape from Adrian, is a nail-biting introduction to this world, these characters, and this tense situation achieved with minimal dialogue and well-timed sound effects. This moment is a literal jailbreak for Cecilia–she’s disabling cameras, deactivating alarms, and scaling walls–and the audience every heart-pounding second of Cecilia’s desperate hope and escalating dread.
The timeliness of Whannell’s updated spin on the story makes The Invisible Man the perfect movie for our present culture, but what will make it stand firm amongst the upper tier of horror films is that it is, well, horrifying; it’s not just a movie ideally situated to remark upon the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, but a film that digs at the true horror of abusive relationships. Like many people, primarily women, who have been trapped in dangerous marriages, Cecilia struggles to get others to believe her plight. Having been so emotionally beat down by Adrian, her cries for help come off as exaggerated paranoia to those around her. Whannell even makes the brilliant choice to keep the audience dangling for a good while, refusing to confirm if Cecilia’s suspicions about Adrian are correct, forcing us to become doubters as well. After all, we see photos of the body. The police report. The news. How could Adrian still be alive?
Moss (Us, The Handmaid’s Tale) delivers one of her best performances, a battered and lonely woman with a burning will to survive. In her eyes alone, we can track Cecilia’s journey from primal fear to cautionary optimism to overwhelming joy to creeping doubt to sheer terror. It’s masterful work. The supporting cast also do an excellent job of crafting earnest, believable characters whose love for Cecilia feels genuine and wholesome, thus making it all the more devastating when Cecilia is blamed for the actions of the invisible being and starts to lose her circle of support. Like any abusive relationship, things start small–sheets tugged off the bed, food burnt on the stove–but then escalate, all with the goal of isolating the victim and making them feel crazy, alone, and dependent on the whims of another.
When the big hits do come, they come hard, and it’s impossible not to wrench at the unseen blows. Clever camerawork and dance-like choreography, combined with spine-crunching sounds, imbue these moments with a disgusting beauty impossible to turn away from. Several major touch points get spoiled in the trailer, but there are still enough hidden surprises to keep things spicy. There are a few plot points that require the audience to suspend their disbelief in a way that grazes incredulity, but it’s all in service of the story and it’s themes. With The Invisible Man, Whannell has updated the classic Universal monster to tell a frighteningly real tale that explores unseen trauma, twisted narrative, and the confrontation of past tragedies. It’s a reinvention worthy of establishing a cinematic universe, yet can easily stand alone as its own masterwork. In short, Chatterers, you’ve just got to see this one.
The Invisible Man
5 – Totally Terrifying
- 4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening 2 – Slightly Scary 1 – Hardly Horror