The ludicrous days of Universal’s failed “Dark Universe” may not be far behind, but director and writer Leigh Whannell makes it all feel like a fever dream with The Invisible Man. Instead of the previously announced more conventional adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic novel, that would mainly serve as a cog in a cinematic universe starring Johnny Depp no less, fans of horror are treated to something far superior. This standalone film is focused on getting back to the mysterious yet terrifyingly tangible roots of an iconic premise. Whannel being one of the main creative minds behind notable genre innovating films such as Saw, Insidious, and Upgrade delivers another gem that could only come at this point in his career.
The film follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to escape from an extremely abusive relationship with Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a young tech genius with a net worth far too high for a man of his league. Cecilia has no freedom of thought under Adrian’s physical and mental tyranny. When she finally escapes, he finds a new heinous way to continue his torment. Adrian being a trailblazer in the field of optics, she suspects that he has found a way to become invisible. Thus, giving a new interpretation of the all too real ramifications of abuse. What follows one’s state of mind behind on an invisible string proves to be more horrifying than the average movie monster.
The Invisible Man operates freely from the burdens of being an adaptation of one of Universal’s classic movie monsters. Whannell honors the past without being a slave to it, creating a timely adaptation with incomparable potency. Many might take issue with the Invisible Man for once being the villain instead of the protagonist. The decision to stray from the novel’s unique perspectives into more traditional horror motifs could also not be initially riskier. However, the drastic change pays off in the highest degree. Whannell takes inspiration from classic psychological thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle- crafting a gripping bone-chilling narrative with plenty of room to spare for his own stylistic blows.
Fans of Whannell’s previous work will find lots to ingest here. So much to the point where the invigoration behind the film’s creative process is entertainingly transparent. The cinematography and sound design especially stand out in this regard. Sweetheart cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s collaboration with Whannell creates a duality between high kinetic energy and anxiety-inducing imagery. The framing is constructed to make viewers continuously feel the presence of the Invisible Man without there actually being anything there, even in times of levity. The results will greatly benefit from repeated viewings.
Working with a villain who cannot be seen, Whannell displays an understanding of what is required from the sound mix and design. Original effects and the heightened use of everyday sounds up the ante. These tools backed up by an original score by It composer Benjamin Wallfisch make for total eerieness. For a horror film, there are a handful of structural out of the box decisions. Some are bound not to bring their desired effects upon individual tastes. Although, one cannot help but appreciate how these choices mold the film apart from recent horror films. This is another step in Whannell’s growth as a filmmaker.
All else would fail if not for the resilience of Moss. The role would be a challenge to play for any woman, especially those with any interactions with abuse. Moss’ sheer vitality bleeds from the screen, giving one of the most engaging lead performances in recent horror. Deserving just as much praise as Whannell for the delicate thematic core would crumble without an honest and unequivocal portrayal of a tragically common female experience. In truth, those who have experienced abuse should go into the film with a possible trigger warning. The Invisible Man aims to not withhold on the topic’s complexities, some audiences may not be ready or simply in the mood for such truths.
In hindsight, Whannell’s explicit, somewhat abrasive, storytelling can be greatly appreciated. The Invisible Man himself is such an effective villain because he feels disturbingly genuine. This ugliness that haunts our reality in different ways serves as the perfect source of cinematic horror. Some will disagree, but Whannell sticks the landing thanks to his clear competency of these heavy themes. Make no mistake, the Invisible Man is a symbol for the toxicity that excretes from white male privilege. Invisible to those unaffected and widely disregarded as viable. The fact that this iteration of the monster is modeled as an Elon Musk type makes it more ironically relevant.
Abuse is not a one-way street. The schemes that crack this road apart roll the movie forward making for a theater experience like no other. The wickedness displayed from Jackson-Cohen pushes the Invisible Man as one of the top villains of the year. 2020 is still young, but very few villains year-round manage to reach effective levels like these. This vileness pulling Moss on a perilous journey to the finale ends with incredible satisfaction. The final note, again, maybe be a hard pill to swallow to few. Necessary action for it represents another lesson thas has been too far due in any kind of spotlight.
The Invisible Man is another sign that horror could not be going in a better direction. Well worth the time spent in a packed theater- one is guaranteed to leave with new, enhanced, or challenging thoughts in their mind. What works so well even makes some minor horror tropes fairly forgivable. The next time Universal brings the Invisible Man to screen, it definitely will not be like this. Like it or hate it, no one else is doing it like Leigh Whannell.