Fresh off the release of one of the year’s worst movies, Blumhouse Productions responded by delivering an early contender for one of 2020’s best.
The deck was stacked against “The Invisible Man,” the next Universal Studios monster film, after the studio’s attempt to kick off its extended Dark Universe franchise resulted in 2017’s disaster, “The Mummy.” However, after the interconnected monster universe was scrapped and producer Jason Blum was brought onboard, morale transitioned from reluctant to cautiously optimistic. Now, it’s safe to say the radical changes paid off.
In “The Invisible Man,” writer-director Leigh Whannell has crafted a smart, satisfying and flat-out terrifying modern twist on H.G. Wells’ classic tale. With its roots based in the 1897 science fiction thriller, the general premise of an invisible villain wreaking havoc remains. However, as Whannell reinterprets the story to make it feel contemporary, the most impressive addition comes in how the film so aptly and effectively sympathizes with abuse victims and the #MeToo movement.
After years of suffering at the hands of her abusive husband, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) has finally had enough. The film opens in the midst of her heart-pounding escape, as she tip-toes her way through a mansion, gathering her belongings and fleeing into the night with the help of her sister.
But Cecilia knows her manipulative husband, the visionary tech mogul Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), won’t simply let her walk free – he’ll find a way to continue terrorizing her. That is, until word arrives that Adrian committed suicide, leaving Cecilia a healthy inheritance Cecilia. For a brief moment, the crushing weight of living in fear is lifted off Cecilia’s shoulders knowing her abuser is gone. But when things start going missing, floorboards begin creaking and items from her past with Adrian return, Cecilia’s momentary happiness vanishes.
Convinced Adrian is still haunting her, whether it’s his ghost or an invention from his work in optics, Cecilia must prove her sanity and escape her abuser once and for all.
Straight off the bat, Whannell establishes the stakes, masterfully building tension before a single word is ever spoken. The pure emotion Moss is able to silently convey only adds to the intensity. Without any background, any exposition, we immediately understand that this man is a monster and Moss’s Cecilia must escape.
This simple introduction serves as a microcosm of Whannell’s entire approach to a film grounded in domestic abuse. Instantaneously, a history of abuse is established without needing to gratuitously depict any actual violence – a pitfall so many shows and films unnecessarily oblige. While there’s certainly violence throughout the film, Whannell handles it with care and it never feels superfluous.
At the core of “The Invisible Man” is Moss’s delightfully unhinged performance. You might expect the titular villain to dominate the film named after him, but that’s not the case. Instead, less focus is placed on the character itself, and more on the impact he has on his victims – allowing Moss to truly flex her muscles. Unlike the real world, where victims are often doubted or overlooked, Whannell makes it clear from the start that Cecilia is in the right, whether it’s through glimpses of invisible footprints or breath leaving a non-existent body. While other characters doubt her sanity and claims of abuse, the narrative lens never waivers in its support of the victim. In turn, the audience believes her through and through – if only it worked that way in the real world.
While Moss brings the fear to life in “The Invisible Man,” some of it’s scariest moments come from something as simple as the angle of a shot. With Whannell’s direction and cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s brilliance behind the camera, each frame has audiences scanning the edges in search of an invisible disturbance. Similar to the security camera-style footage from “Paranormal Activity,” Duscio’s decision to place his subjects on the borders of each shot allows him to transform empty space into its own agent of terror.
The result is an infinite amount of suspense and genuine fear. Whannell perfectly blends traditional jump scares with intense, psychological horror to make every fright feel earned. As startling as the jumps may be, the ever-magnifying existential dread surrounding Adrian’s gaslighting proves far scarier. On top of those scares, it’s worth noting this film contains one of the most shocking screen deaths in recent memory – one that garnered a more than audible gasp from nearly everyone in the theater. It’s safe to say the popcorn needs to be secured before things get started, or else it might go flying… multiple times.
At 124 minutes, “The Invisible Man” goes by incredibly quickly without ever feeling rushed. Whannell’s pacing is methodical, allowing the intensity and fear to slowly burn until it ultimately turns into a raging wildfire of suspense.
However, the film isn’t entirely faultless. As smart as it may be, “The Invisible Man” still falls victim to a handful of lapses in logic and genre tropes. At times, it’s difficult to discern exactly what powers come with Adrian’s invisibility, as super speed and strength seem to conveniently be on hand whenever they’re needed.
By taking a classic story and updating it to fit the modern day, Whannell has added a new twist to what makes this tale so frightening. Yes, the fear of an invisible predator is timeless, in 1897, 1933 and again in 2020, but what’s most terrifying – and timely – about Whannell’s iteration doesn’t come wearing an invisible suit or wielding a kitchen knife. It’s the startlingly realistic society in which bystanders discredit survivors and turn a blind eye to domestic violence.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.