After having escaped from a dangerously abusive relationship with tech company owner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) lives in fear that her obsessive former boyfriend will find her again, until she receives the news that Adrian has committed suicide. However, as strange and unsettling things start occurring around her, Cecilia becomes convinced that Adrian isn’t really dead at all and that he has somehow found a way to make himself invisible, stalking her and attempting to destroy her life in recompense for escaping from him, but as her own behaviour grows increasingly erratic, the people around her beginning to question her sanity and understandably sceptical of her improbable theory, she must fight to prove that Adrian is still alive and struggles to safeguard the lives of her family and to escape from Adrian’s threatening behaviour.
You could argue that horror films are a dime a dozen nowadays – with tired, cliche ridden and lazy thrillers such as The Turning, Black Christmas, Truth or Dare, the reboot of The Grudge, or the seemingly endless Conjuring spinoffs
that seem to be a mainstay of cinemas today (though I have to admit that I have avoided most of them) and which rely on constant jump scares, the same old stories, and maybe even rely on simply taking a well regarded horror film from the past and presenting us with yet another modern adaptation. So with Leigh Whannell’s latest adaptation of The Invisible Man, a film that has apparently been based on the classic story by H.G. Wells and a kind of spiritual successor to the classic Universal film, which was directed by James Whale and starred Claude Rains in the pivotal role, you would probably be forgiven for immediately being a little sceptical and fearing it to be yet another tiresome and cheap, dime-a-dozen horror film about an invisible killer that relies on jump scares and panders to the popcorn munching horror crowd.
Well, fear not because The Invisible Man certainly isn’t a cheap cash grab and instead of being an obvious “invisible killer causes havoc” endeavour, it is a cleverly constructed and genuinely unsettling horror film with a strong, unpredictable and thematically rich story, smart direction, and good characters that are portrayed well by a particularly able cast.
First of all, when looking at the film’s intentions and raison d’être, The Invisible Man is refreshingly deeper, cleverer, and more thoughtful than most other modern horror films because it doesn’t just exist solely for the purposes of giving the audience two hours of scares but instead, it’s actually about something – in this case, it’s about abusive relationships, how some people will torment their (former) partners, and how difficult it can be for the victims to readjust to their lives afterwards, becoming afraid of going outside and always in fear that they’re being hacked or that their abusers will find soon them again; we are able to recognise the gaslighting that occurs – something that may indeed happen in abusive relationships – and the film also examines how other people will react to the person who is going through these things. So with this being a fear that most of us can recognise, the horror in this film is based in reality and this makes it easier for us to immediately empathise and to side with Cecilia, supporting her right from the off as she escapes from Adrian’s fortess of a house and as she always feels his presence even weeks after they part, constantly on the lookout for him on the street and fully expecting him to show up and to imprison her again, and surely, this “reality based horror” makes things even scarier than a film about a demon, monster, spirit, or any of those things found in other, inferior, horror movies.
The story itself is also well above average because in addition to being intrinsically compelling, there are plenty of unpredictable moments and I was glad to see that it often progressed in ways that I wasn’t expecting; Whannell’s story is excellent because as well as giving the audience a fresh and unpredictable sequence of events, the film also makes use of characters that refrain from making typically dumb decisions, actually having personalities and contributing in some way, and, perhaps most impressive of all, the central antagonist actually feels like a very credible threat. Plus, there’s a couple of callbacks to the original film from the 1930s, so that’s pretty neat.
The film is particularly effective because it stays away from those infamous jump scares that we’re surely all so weary of nowadays (though there is one and it did make me jump) and instead, it focuses on slowly building up an atmosphere of terror and dread, holding back on the obvious scary stuff and cleverly making use of empty space, always suggesting that the invisible man is in the room but letting our imaginations do most of the work as we make up our own minds as to whether he’s there or not, automatically imagining what he might be doing or what he’s thinking, and by simply giving us empty space and silence (as well as a particularly tense score), our imaginations do a lot of the heavy lifting and Whannell does very well by suggesting, rather than showing, to create a remarkably gripping and properly tense horror atmosphere. It also helps that Benjamin Wallfisch’s accompanying score is admirably harrowing and adds greatly to the film’s horror atmosphere, and the film also demonstrates some very appealing production design (Adrian’s house is a treat to look at) and excellent special effects, particularly in the second half where the antagonist takes a more active role, and the design of a certain item of clothing (no details – spoilers) is just incredibly sleek and so cool to look at.
In the director’s chair, Whannell demonstrates a very good grasp of what makes a film scary and he keeps us engaged and on the edge of our seats from the very beginning – starting off by dropping us into an opening sequence that contains no dialogue, but through careful direction and plotting, we come to realise exactly just what the situation is and who the characters are – and he keeps the film moving at an ideal pace (I was surprised to learn that it was a two hour film – it definitely doesn’t feel that way), he very rarely allows the interest to decline, and he stages the “action” sequences with plenty of imagination and the directorial flair that he displayed in Upgrade, keeping events as chilling as possible and ultimately crafting a horror film that is based on genuine dread, not tired gimmicks and clueless direction.
The film’s cast is also one of the film’s strengths and in the central role, Elisabeth Moss is ideally cast as Cecilia because towards the beginning, she effectively conveys her character’s fragility, fright and paranoia, never leaving us in any doubt that she’s expecting her tormentor to come back and afraid of leaving the house, but she’s also able to demonstrate some heart and humour in scenes involving Storm Reid and Aldis Hodge’s characters and although she effectively loses her grip on sanity as the terrible things start happening to her, compellingly “going down the rabbit hole” as she disintegrates and shows massive despair when her life is destroyed, she is also able to show enough grit and fighting spirit as she gradually learns to stand up to her tormentor and becomes more proactive as events progress; Moss handles the various aspects of her character very capably and the part really fits her like a glove. In supporting roles, Aldis Hodge is suitably strong and charismatic as Cecilia’s supportive friend and confidant James, Storm Reid displays plenty of passion and a fighting spirit as James’ daughter, Michael Dorman is quite mysterious as Adrian’s brother Tom – appearing as another of Adrian’s victims but also harbouring some potential darkness – and Oliver Jackson-Cohen is appropriately nasty and detestable as the controlling mogul Adrian.