Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman
Who doesn’t love a classic horror story? And who has ever done it better than Universal back in the days of black and white film? There have been multiple attempts ever since to recreate those movies, whether just in emulating tone or aesthetics, or in fully reinventing the stories for modern cinema. Based initially off of H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name and something of a reboot of the television series from the 1930s, The Invisible Man is a classic and well-known horror story, so well-known that if it’s to be retold, it’s best to find a new angle on it, which is exactly what writer/director Whannell has gone and done. Has he hit the horror nail on its head and successfully created something new and chilling, or, much like the titular character, is there nothing to see here?
After leaving her abusive boyfriend, optics engineer and scientist Adrian (Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night, Cecilia (Moss) is picked up by her sister Emily (Dyer) and takes refuge in the house of family friend James (Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid). After overcoming further mental health issues, including agoraphobia, that were brought on post-relationship, and after hearing that Adrian is dead, Cecelia starts to manage getting her life back on track, knowing he is no longer around to find her or hurt her. But as Cecelia tries to tackle reality again, her life is shaken by mysterious occurrences that lead her to believe that Adrian is still alive and stalking her to the point of causing her, and those around her, some serious mental and physical harm. But will anyone believe her?
Whannell’s fresh angle on this classic story, coming from that of a mentally and physically abusive relationship, is a rather meaningful one. It’s one thing to create a horror movie out of someone being stalked by an invisible presence, but to relate that to mental abuse puts a spin on it that makes it incredibly relatable for, unfortunately, many people (not just women). We hear all the time about how people can be too scared to speak up for fear of not being believed, or out of fear of the repercussions or the abusive partner causing them more harm. The scars from domestic abuse can be invisible, and this film brings that to the fore through its thematic overtones. But it doesn’t just leave it there: Cecelia has to fight to be believed, but even then, can she really believe and trust herself? Is she just crumbling under huge mental burden? Whannell answers these questions and more, and he does so in a way that feels almost too nicely wrapped up, but it’s likely something he had to do in order to stay true to the fact that this is a retelling of The Invisible Man story, and so there had to be some kind of resolution.
As a horror movie, it does work very well. Whannell creates suspense by not doing the things that many horror filmmakers do that end up helping the film to critically fail (e.g. relying too heavily on jump scares or an unnecessary score to build tension). It’s not overly saturated with music, there are little to no jump scares (any that do appear may be expected but how they are delivered isn’t always predictable), and the suspense is built through shock tactics in place of cheap jump scares. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that there’s something quite classically Hitchcockian about the whole thing. At times it’s also reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, in that the camerawork is similar – not in a home-movie kind of way, but in the way shots pan across rooms; you might expect something to be there, and you’re never really sure if something, or someone, is. It plays supernatural against science and it creates superb fear and tension.
Where the film does suffer a little, however, is in plot holes. Sometimes a character’s involvement or motives aren’t always made clear – not that we need to be spoon-fed, but something as simple as why Cecelia goes to stay with James and Sydney and what their relationship is specifically could have been more detailed with just a sentence or two of dialogue – and it can leave a feeling of more import being put on the horror and thematic side of the production rather than the ins and outs of the story. It is picked up well in other areas, though again it’s in areas that relate to the mental/domestic abuse themes, such as how Adrian and Cecelia met and why he wanted a relationship with her when he could have “any woman he wanted”. We know a lot about Cecelia, but we don’t know a whole lot about Adrian or his family and their background. Essentially, a little more exposition wouldn’t have gone amiss.
It must be difficult enough emotionally to perform in a horror movie, but to add another layer of exploring the physical representation of mental health on top of that must be exhausting. Fortunately, the ever-talented Moss in the lead role superbly carries the movie on her shoulders. We can see the struggles that Cecelia has gone through and the strength that she pulls from trying to protect those she loves. Whannell puts Moss through the ringer to give depth and character to Cecelia and not keep her down as a damsel in distress. It must have been hard, but it paid off. We literally see or hear hardly a thing from Jackson-Cohen as Adrian, but the little we do see of him is enough to feel the fear Cecelia would have felt when under his control and manipulation. Again, it would have been good to have had more exposure to Adrian to really understand him as a character and understand that fear he represents, but then again perhaps keeping the audience distanced from him helps us to get into the mindset of not knowing if we believe Cecelia or not, much like her friends and family. Hodge and Reid are decent support as Cecelia’s actual support system, and Dyer’s Emily, while a supportive sister, was a bit too quick to not listen to or believe Cecelia at times. Sure, part of that was to keep cutting Cecelia off from those she loved, but it could have been done in a more realistic way.
The Invisible Man proves Whannell’s talent for horror filmmaking. His previous experiences with writing and directing horror (Insidious 3, Upgrade) will certainly have helped build his knowledge in what does and doesn’t work, but this is definitely his best to date. It is apparently part of a reboot of the classic Universal horrors (although the official “Monster Universe” hasn’t really been a thing since the calamity that was The Mummy in in 2017), but if more reboots are to be done, it would be fantastic if they could be done in a similar vein to this one, in which the writer(s)/director(s) come at it from a fresh (and preferably relatable) angle while respecting and including important elements of the original stories. Suspense and thrills can be terrifying, but sometimes themes that relate to reality can be just as scary, if not more so.