Is this the first real horror movie of the #MeToo era? Leigh Whannell‘s nerve-jangling The Invisible Man bears almost no resemblance to the 1933 Universal pic starring Claude Rains, nor does it take much from the original H. G. Wells novel of the same name. About the only thing Whannell’s modern-day update has in common with those titles is that it involves a dangerous, and invisible, man. But with that basic set-up, Whannell has crafted a surprisingly timely tale of an abused, terrified woman fighting like hell to convince everyone around her she’s telling the truth.
It feels impossible to separate Whannell’s Invisible Man from the #MeToo era, but the writer-director doesn’t lay the comparison on thick. There are no speechifying moments; no scenes that underscore that message. Instead, The Invisible Man uses the central theme of a woman – Cecilia Kass, played by Elisabeth Moss – fighting to escape an abusive situation and finding very few people on her side. Even those individuals who you would think would be there for her – her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), and her lifelong friend James (Aldis Hodge) – have a hard time swallowing the story Cecilia is spinning.
To be fair, her story isn’t exactly believable. After fleeing late in the night from her abusive, and obscenely wealthy, scientist boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecilia is trying to lay-low, afraid to even leave James’ house, where she’s staying with James and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). That all changes when Cecilia gets word that Adrian is dead, apparently by suicide. Adrian’s death is freeing in a way – but the relief is short-lived. Because strange things start happening, and an unseen force is plaguing Cecilia and making her life a living hell.
Is it Adrian’s ghost? No, Cecilia says. She thinks Adrian has faked his death, and used his scientific know-how to turn himself invisible. It might seem like a minor flaw of The Invisible Man in how nimbly Cecilia jumps to this conclusion. The very first sign of something unexplainable happening and Cecilia is telling everyone she knows that Adrian has turned himself invisible. It’s a wild accusation – but it’s also 100% correct. And it plays directly into the narrative Whannell is building here – the story of a woman who just wants people to believe the very-real danger she’s in. Easier said than done.
Moss is a powerhouse here, and that should come as no surprise at this point. The performer has carved out a bit of a niche for herself playing women going through hell, and Invisible Man is no exception. Moss gives yet another fearless performance – hers is a raw, exposed, physical, and ultimately fierce role, and it’s often stunning to watch the manic energy in her eyes as she attacks a scene.
Moss is up for whatever intense scenario Whannell puts her in here, and make no mistake – The Invisible Man is extremely intense. It’s a sure sign of Whannell’s talent that The Invisible Man feels so different than his previous directorial effort, Upgrade. That was a brutal, action-packed sci-fi thriller, whereas Invisible Man‘s pacing is more deliberately, more drawn-out. Whannell realizes how much tension he can milk from long, uneasy scenes where Moss is stalking around a seemingly empty room.
Because we all know she’s probably not alone – there’s someone lurking, unseen, ready to pounce. Whannell never resorts to shameless jump-scares in these moments, but instead allows the scenes to build, and build, and build to the point where it’s almost unbearable. These scenes are aided by some killer sound design that blends long stretches of scar silence with unexplained noises just off-frame, along with a frightening score via Benjamin Wallfisch. The idea of Elisabeth Moss stalking around a dark attic with a flashlight may not seem particularly scary, but trust me – in Whannell’s hands, it is.
Beyond the more traditional horror moments like rest something even scarier: Hopelessness. As the situation grows more dire, and Cecilia’s invisible foe makes those around her think she might be crazy, a despairing air sets in, coupled with a sense that Cecilia is damned and doomed no matter what she does. She’s manipulated and gaslit at every turn, and I was reminded at times of Candyman, Bernard Rose’s chiller in which a woman has the damnedest time convincing everyone around her that an urban legend is very much alive.
Rather than attempt to recreate the gothic, old school charms of the original Invisible Man, or worse – created an action movie ripe for the now-failed Dark Universe – Whannell’s The Invisible Man forges its own path, and brings this classic scenario into the real world. Some of the best horror films are those that take otherworldly scenarios and graft them onto current events – think of They Live and its reaction to Reaganomics; Night of the Living Dead‘s unspoken reflection on racism in America; or David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly and its relation to the AIDS epidemic. The real-world situations butting-up against the supernatural make those films all the more effective – and scary. The Invisible Man understands that kind of thinking, and runs with it – straight into a very modern world of gods and monsters.