The week started with Harvey Weinstein being pulled away in handcuffs; it ends, appropriately, with the release of a fantastically fraught horror movie about domestic violence towards women. Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s absorbing, upsetting, and more grounded version of The Invisible Man stands as a loose remake of the 1933 original (itself an adaptation of the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells), but radiates with genre-clashing originality: an ominous implosion of horror, sci-fi, and psychological realism.
Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia, a San Francisco architect who escapes an abusive relationship, quietly and dangerously sneaking away in the dead of night. Her soon-to-be-invisible partner Adrian (a mostly obscured Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is the Lead of Optics at a tech company, and went through severe, expensive lengths to keep Cecilia contained and servile to his wishes. This includes developing a suit wielding hundreds of small cameras to create the illusion of invisibility.
The specifics of Adrian’s malevolence are left to shadowy suggestion, even as Cecilia explains the abuse to her rescuing sister Alice (Harriet Dyer) and their obliging cop friend James (Aldis Hodge). She recalls Adrian’s gaslighting activities, describing how he “controlled what I wore, what I ate … what I said, what I thought”, in a monologue worthy of Moss’s crushing and vulnerable performance. In this scene, you can see Whannell’s difficulty in juggling the very real with the limits of conventional horror – helping the audience with a redundant piece of ominous music. Although the booming, dream-shaking score from IT composer Benjamin Wallfisch vibrates your soul, it’s misjudged here. And considering the film’s mostly adept use of silence, this feels like a missed opportunity.
Whannell finds that chilling and valuable silence, which reflects Cecilia’s need for peace. After escaping, she lives with James and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) but she can barely leave the house: regular noises become jump-scares, sudden movements grow into threats. Although it’s not exactly a character-study, The Invisible Man focuses in on Cecilia with a pace scarcely seen in modern horror. This patience pays off in an action-heavy final act, which strongly resembles the energetic choreography of Whannell’s 2018 debut Upgrade. Once it transpires that Adrian has developed a technological way to turn invisible, these scary periods of silence clash with the horrors of empty, negative space. Knowing a threat is there, without seeing exactly where, betrays our human binocular vision – offering a new and visually exciting horror experience.
Many believe horror movies need terror of a kind that straps your heart in a vice and squeezes till there’s nothing left. But, aside from a few formulaic scares, Whannell clearly doesn’t desire that kind of reaction; the horror in The Invisible Man is in the situation, the reality. As Cecilia declares Adrian’s invisibility, she’s looked upon with an almost patronising scepticism, especially as he starts to rip her new life apart. It reminds me of Netflix’s Unbelievable, in which a teenage rape survivor is crushed and coerced by the disbelief of others. The Invisible Man has only a fraction of that frustration, but bravely shows that the trauma doesn’t stop when the abuse does.
Horrors have always reflected the societal fears of the time, and The Invisible Man reverberates as a bold and thrilling addition to the genre. Whannell may not be as impressively evocative as Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), but he’s treading the same scary path.
The Invisible Man is released in cinemas on Friday 28 February