The Invisible Man (2020)
Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman
Please be warned that if you’ve ever been trapped in an abusive relationship you may find watching and discussing the new Invisible Man hits far too close to home.
The Universal Monsters have been going through bad times as of late. From iconic black-and-white classics, the denizens of the Universal vault were unceremoniously ripped and shoved into half-baked hokum. Dracula Untold was bewildering and The Mummy turned to dust upon arrival, so thank the movie gods that the proposed shared “Dark Universe” was laid to rest, the keys given to Blumhouse and writer-director Leigh Whannell.
This is not your great-grandfather’s Invisible Man.
Cecelia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is held captive by her abusive relationship with billionaire tech genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). When she finally makes a daring escape from his house and Adrian apparently commits suicide shortly thereafter, her troubles seem to be over. But then an unseen menace stalks her to her best friend’s house…
The titular transparent terror in Universal’s original Invisible Man from 1933 was a talker. They just couldn’t resist getting the most out of Claude Rains’ fruity voice, getting him to scheme out loud, mock those he was terrorising and proclaim to his unwilling partner: “We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men – just to show we make no distinction”. The new Invisible Man is all-but wordless and far scarier for it. An out-of-place whisper is far creepier and more invasive than any shout ever could be.
The film’s stall is set out from the off – a dialogue-free and mostly silent scene of Ceci sneaking out of bed to escape her abusive billionaire boyfriend in the dead of night. We will return to this moment and this site of her imprisonment again before this story is over.
Elisabeth Moss does heroic work here. Not only is her performance raw and vulnerably multifaceted, but she has to hold the audience’s attention solo for much of the film. We’re all put through the wringer as Ceci is, often on as a much of a back-foot as the supporting characters who don’t believe her. Her pained grimace at none of her otherwise supportive friends or family believing her story speaks for so many real domestic abuse victims. It also can’t be easy to convincingly act out fighting an invisible threat and give it the force and impact of struggling against someone larger than you.
I can’t recall another film ever making such an effective use of space. Almost every location is wide open with nowhere to hide, because this monster doesn’t need to. You might not realise it at first, but the camera actually tracks Griffin’s movements – space is left for him in the frame and just like Ceci we’re left guessing from which direction the threat will come. You’ll find yourself scanning the background for something you know can’t be seen. Everyone on the crew works to amp up this key aspect of the film – Stefan Duscio’s steady cinematography, Andy Canny’s tightly-controlled editing, the many talented and multi-faceted sound designers – all to make something that is invisible to the naked eye become the most frightening thing imaginable.
There’s a long build in the opening act, but once things get going they really get going. The build is so long in fact, that you’re almost lulled into a false sense of security before Whannell wallops you with a jolt from nowhere – he manages to make a chilly evening on a porch and a conversation in a crowded restaurant terrifying through tiny little details you may not notice until it’s too late. There isn’t an abundance of jump-scares, but the few there are will definitely get you.
It’s one of those horror movies of extremes – deathly silent or blaring synthy thriller score (from Blade Runner 2049’s Benjamin Wallfisch), creepy domestic mundanity or heightened splatter action. For fans of director Leigh Whannell, it’s impressive how he manages to get a dynamic, escalating action scene in an Invisible Man movie, and he still does the eye-catching Upgrade camera tricks for good measure.
It’s also one of those horror movies that stays with you. This reviewer appreciated the level of craft on show throughout but didn’t think it got under the skin, until I got home to an empty house and started remembering certain stark images and shuddering.
The Invisible Man is the horror film we need right now. Not only is it tense to the point of discomfort and full of skin-crawling imagery and stomach-lurching twists, but it stands for something. No toxic spouse is absolved, there is no insulting “both sides” argument here – real-world abusers are real monsters and they’ve turned that fact into one of the scariest takes on a classic movie monster there has ever been.