Released: 27th February
Seen: 6th February (Preview Screening)
In 1897, H.G. Wells wrote the book The Invisible Man. The story followed a scientist, named Griffin, who found a way to change the way his body reflects light and, therefore, became invisible. Naturally, the scientist used his power of invisibility to do a whole bunch of murder and just generally be a bit of a dick. This book was insanely popular and is still regarded as a classic of the genre. It would later go on to inspire one of the early Universal monster movies with the James Whale directed The Invisible Man, planting the image of a man who can only be seen when wrapped in bandages and glasses. The Invisible Man would continue to be brought up in pop culture, being remade again and again by either having him meet Abbott and Costello, having him be a secret agent, making him a woman, there was even a version in the early 2000s that made him Hollow Man instead of Invisible Man.
It’s been done many many times and was due to be done again when The Dark Universe was a thing. Remember that? Remember when we were going to get an MCU-style cinematic universe that would feature a ton of Universal movie monsters and then The Mummy bombed so hard that it basically killed the idea of a shared universe. Well, one of the films we were meant to get was The Invisible Man and after some serious rethinking of how to handle the property (namely “Hey, making a connected universe of movie monsters is not a great plan so how about we just tell some good stories instead?”) the reigns for the movie were handed over to Upgrade writer/director Leigh Whannell who came up with a pretty brilliant pitch. Namely “What if we actually looked at what the victim was going through instead?”.
For this new version of The Invisible Man, the movie spends all its time with Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who has just barely managed to escape from an abusive relationship with the obscenely wealthy scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She only escapes with the help of her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer) who sets Cecilia up to stay with their friend James (Aldis Hodge). Soon after escaping, Cecilia learns that Adrian seemingly committed suicide but around the same time Cecilia can’t help but feel that she’s being followed by someone she can’t see. What unravels is a story of an abuser who is unwilling to let his victim go and will do everything in his considerable power to either get her back or destroy her life, clearly not having a preference between those two options.
I’ve long been impressed by the work of Leigh Whannell. As a writer, he just seems to get how to construct a good horror movie, see his early work in the Saw franchise for a master class in how to just shred people’s nerves and in how to construct a horror movie plot. As a director, the man has some insane skills that were on full display in 2018 when he unleashed Upgrade onto the world (seriously, go rewatch Upgrade, it’s legitimately one of the best horror films in recent years) so when I heard that he was going to be the one handling The Invisible Man I was excited and optimistic. I had insanely high expectations going in and he surpassed every single one of them. This film not only has a genuinely incredible story to tell but the visual language that was created for it is astounding.
Making the story all about a victim of domestic abuse is definitely an interesting way to take this story, one that really works well. The titular Invisible Man is now a horrifying gas-lighting sociopathic boyfriend who will find ways to hurt his partner in broad daylight and no one sees it or can stop him, taking this fantastical concept and grounding it in reality. The disturbing reality of abusive relationships is how easily they can be hidden around people, so using that as a major element of a story about the Invisible Man is kind of brilliant. He still retains his status as a horror icon but we are never invited to sympathise or identify with him. We never really even get a chance to see him, the film does away with the whole “Oh he walks around with a trench coat and bandages” thing because the filmmaker understood the reality that if someone turns themselves invisible, they don’t want to be seen.
What helps most, beyond just a really good script, is the performance by Elisabeth Moss who just owns every frame of the movie. She has to play this abused woman who is slowly trying to regain her strength and power, often having to pull all this emotion out in scenes where there’s no one except her on screen. Her performance is incredible, up there with Florence Pugh in Midsommar or Lupita Nyon’o in Us in terms of “This would be an awards contender if it were part of any other genre”. She just delivers something truly incredible and watching her throughout this film is so powerful. I’d dare to say that the power of her performance is why the audience I was with broke out into thunderous applause at one particular moment near the end of the film.
Then there’s the visual language used for this film, particularly the trick of letting the camera go off on its own every now and then. It creates this sense of incredible dread, like the camera may have just picked up on another character who we just can’t see and it’s goddamn terrifying. Every time the camera would slowly pan away, I was biting my cheek so hard I tasted blood because I was so sure that we were about to see (ok maybe not ‘see’) the Invisible Man do something else to hurt the main character. It makes you start fearing open spaces and scanning the frame for a hint where the villain is. I personally spent several moments just staring at the curves of a curtain behind the main character because I was so sure I saw it move just a little to form the shape of a head… this happens a lot and it’s genuinely unnerving to constantly wonder “Is he in the frame right now and when is he going to do something horrifying”, and the brilliant thing is that even when we get the moment of release where the bad guy does something brutal and shocking… the tension’s still there. It never stops because we always know that he’s there just enjoying the torment that he’s inflicted upon our main character.
It also never stops because every element is perfectly designed to never truly let you get comfortable. If the idea of an invisible asshole who might kill you doesn’t keep you on your toes then the intense score might. It is so precise and perfect, holding on past the moments of release to make the tension build again almost instantly and holding them there. Accompanied by sound design that, at several moments, had me shaking because I was so damn sure I could hear the footsteps of the invisible man. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, every element of this film is perfectly assembled to the point where I couldn’t imagine a way to make a better version of this film. I can’t poke a hole or pull on a thread, there are no threads for me to pull on. It’s just a glorious horrific construction that says “I’m going to scare the shit out of you” and then does it with joyful glee.
The Invisible Man is a fresh terrifying take on the classic H.G. Wells story. Led by one of the most engaging and powerful performances and filled with some genuinely shocking moments of pure horror, it grabs hold of the audience in the first 30 seconds and refuses to let you go. I know it’s early in the year, we’re barely over a month into is but this feels like an early contender for a spot in the best of the year list. It’s one that absolutely shouldn’t be missed.