Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman. Directed by Leigh Whannell.
So, like the mighty phoenix that rises from the ashes of a carcass that once was, so too does a project based on the Universal Horror character. For starts, after Universal Pictures’ ‘Dark Universe’ series up and vanished like a fart in the wind due to The Mummy being utter pants, Universal decided to maybe think about doing something on a smaller more traditional horror level. Enter Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, who has in the past produced many successful horror films such as Us and the Happy Death Day films.
The Invisible Man follows Cecilia Kass, who finds herself haunted by the apparent ghost or invisible form of her abusive ex-boyfriend Silicon Valley whiz Adrian, after his apparent suicide.
After cutting his teeth with screenplays for James Wan-directed horror films Saw, Dead Silence, and the first two Insidious movies, Leigh Whannell made his directorial debut with Insidious: Chapter Three; this was a so-so entry into the so-so franchise, but the success enabled him to make 2018’s fun exploitation inflected Upgrade that melded bone-crunching action with a sci-fi thriller concept, and now he’s back with this take on the H.G. Wells’ story.
Writing as well as directing, Whannell has crafted a film that deals head-on with the issues of PTSD, gaslighting and domestic abuse. Horror has always been a great medium in which to deal with social issues, and we’re currently in an era of great horror films serving as metaphors for these, such as Get Out, Midsommar, and Us. In fact, with The Invisible Man it’s hard not to think that the socially conscious horror styles of Wes Craven and George A Romero are being honoured even since their passing.
While the heavy subject matter feels exploitative to couch into this genre piece, Whannell is smart to have someone as socially minded as Elisabeth Moss in the lead role. As Ceielia, Moss manages to give a layered performance as someone who has escaped from abuse and is trying to cope with a new life. The spectre of her abuser never far from her head even in his supposed suicide – though she remains unconvinced he would kill himself.
It helps that Whannell’s supporting cast Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the titular villain are all perfectly pitched as people trying to cope with the deterioration of Cecilia’s mind. What works is that they never play their hand too soon, all of them are clearly into the film and think they have a cunning piece of writing with them.
And they’re not wrong, but this is a Whannell-Moss showcase through-and-through. Yes, Moss has been headlining The Handmaid’s Tale, but this is her first film showcase of her abilities. Like Nyong’o, Pugh and Collette before her, Moss is showing the abject horror that comes from humanity. Brilliantly, Whannell and Moss have no vanity; Moss looks like she’s going through the ringer, and so she should, abuse is not glamorous, it’s not the Facebook posts about The Joker and Harley that foolish people idealise, it’s horrible, and the film doesn’t look away from that reality.
One thing that Whannell does well — for a surprisingly long amount of time — is build a sense of uncertainty in the viewer, leaving you unsure if this is a science fiction film or a film about someone who’s mental illness and trauma has warped the way they see things. You spend a lot of the film wondering if Cecilia is right — has Adrian turned invisible, or is her paranoia becoming so severe that she’s imagined the entire situation?
This is a clever move, as at times we the audience begin to wonder if what we’ve seen is a camera trick to put us in her mind or if she is genuinely right and everyone else can’t see it, the film is in a way gas lighting us just as Adrian is to Cecilia. Now, the film does have to make a generic choice about if it’s paranoia or if it’s a science fiction film, and when that happens it’ll probably split people down the middle, but the ambiguity is brilliantly done and is helped by Moss.
The film, however, is not a prestige drama, its a horror film, and horror films only work if they’re actually scary – and thankfully The Invisible Man is. The brilliance of a horror film, like an action film, is the set-pieces. Instead of a long fight scene, you need a few good scares in there, and Whannell and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio make excellent use of negative space, constantly moving the camera to empty spaces using our knowledge of the screen against us to build anticipation, and the scares do come.
It’s also helpful that Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is both eerie and classic in its composition, feeling like an old fashioned horror film while also feeling thoroughly modern and helping to underline the growing dread. The ending might prove a might too ambiguous for some, and it doesn’t always offer an easy answer, but that’s fine. Timely, important and above all, drop your drink scary 2020’s The Invisible Man is an unironically must-see movie for all – just don’t see it alone – if you can truly be sure you are alone.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.