When people consider the classic Universal monster movies, The Invisible Man is one that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, at least compared to Dracula and Frankenstein. That’s probably because the 1933 film, much like the original H. G. Wells novel, put a stronger emphasis on science fiction than horror. While the 1933 version still holds up thanks to its pioneering special effects and Claude Rains’ performance, it’s more fun than it is scary. 2000’s Hollow Man tried to up the thrills, but ultimately deteriorated into B-movie territory. Leigh Whannell’s reimagining finally strikes the ideal balance of sci-fi and horror. Whannell accomplishes this by shifting the focus away from the Invisible Man himself and instead shines the spotlight on his victim.
Between her work in The Handmaid’s Tale and Us, Elisabeth Moss couldn’t be better suited to play Cecilia, a woman who decides to leave her abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In the middle of the night, Cecilia retrieves her packed bag and stealthily sneaks out of their mansion. All the while, a drugged Adrian peacefully slumbers, although he could awaken at any moment. It’s an ingeniously shot, perfectly paced sequence that immediately leaves the audience feeling on edge. What’s more, it tells us everything we need to know about this couple with barely any dialogue.
Cecilia seeks refuge with an old friend named James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). She also gets help from her estranged sister Emily (Harrier Dyer), who informs Cecilia that Adrian took his own life shortly after she left. In another unexpected turn, Cecilia learns from Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman) that he left a fortune to her. Just when everything seems too good to be true, Cecilia begins to sense an eerie presence. As unexplainable accidents begin piling up, she becomes convinced that Adrian faked his death and used his scientific background to turn himself invisible.
This fresh approach to the story is brilliant on so many different levels. Of course, nobody believes Cecilia’s wild accusations at first, which could get old fast in a lesser film. The way it’s set up here, however, works from both a character and storytelling perspective. Cecilia is suffering from a form of PTSD, giving people all the more reason to assume that her paranoia has gotten the best of her. Due to Cecilia’s isolation and fragile mental state, the terror is just as much psychological as it is paranormal.
Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio put the camera to effective use, practically turning it into a character. Cecilia can’t enter a room without being sure if she’s alone. So, whenever the camera maneuvers suspiciously, we never know what it’s leading us towards. Are we witnessing things from Adrian’s POV or are we being led astray? Either way, we’re always left guessing what’s waiting around the corner and each step Cecilia takes leave us in suspense. Even an empty hallway can send a shiver up our spines. Who knew that a film revolving around an invisible character could be so visually interesting?
Like Whannell’s last film, Upgrade, The Invisible Man is a well-crated story above all else, delivering on every plot point it builds up. Whannell has done an especially impressive job at adapting the source material for modern audiences. The commentary on domestic abuse is timely without bluntly hitting the audience over the head. Even the sci-fi element rings surprisingly true in today’s world. Sure, someone can’t turn invisible in real life. The way that this movie approaches the science behind invisibility, though, almost feels believable, as if such an innovation could be achieved in the foreseeable future. The real-world parallels only add to the dread. Coming off the disappointment of Universal’s Dark Universe, The Invisible Man is a most welcome addition to the modern horror renaissance, as well as one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.