Film Editor Matt Taylor illuminates this reboot of the Universal Monsters 1933 classic The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss
Content warning: this article contains mention of domestic abuse that some readers may find upsetting.
Let me start by saying that the rhetoric currently doing the rounds online that all modern horror movies are schlocky, jump scare-filled piles of garbage is entirely untrue: if you genuinely believe that, you aren’t watching the right horror films. As both a critic and general moviegoer, I’m no stranger to good horror – a quick glance at my previous reviews, or even my ongoing dissertation, will tell you that. And yet, I’m always pleasantly surprised by a horror so good that I may genuinely struggle to properly stand after the credits start to roll; I’m talking about the likes of Midsommar, Us, The VVitch, Raw, Suspiria, or Hereditary. This is something that has only happened a handful of times, which is why I was extremely taken aback when I found myself staggering out of Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man remake. Thankfully removing all memories of Universal’s failed Dark Universe, this Blumhouse-produced take on The Invisible Man gives the horror genre the perfect start to the 2020s; Whannell’s film is at once a chillingly slick horror and a superbly feminist story of surviving domestic abuse, and brings all of its components together to create an unshakeable powerhouse of terror.
It is fair to say that this is not your grandparents’ Invisible Man. Far removed from the bandages and sunglasses of HG Wells’ original creation, Whannell’s version turns the classic character into a hateful domestic abuser experimenting with invisibility to stalk his girlfriend Cecelia after she finally manages to escape him. But it would be wrong to focus on him when this is not his story; this is Cecelia’s film through and through, and both Whannell and actor Elisabeth Moss work perfectly together to give audiences a heroine for the ages, a stand-in for anyone who has suffered any kind of domestic abuse who we never once feel distant or estranged from. This is her story.
It is safe to say that without Moss this would be a very different film, and, chances are, it would not be as successful as it is. The two-time Emmy winner pulls no punches here; her description of the film as a ‘feminist empowerment story’ is bang on the money as she channels her previous research into abuse survival into the character of Cecelia, rewriting scenes and lines of the script on the fly with Whannell until both were satisfied that Cecelia was how they wanted her to be. It’s a testament to her acting ability that, not only is she able to make us fear an empty room (though more on that later), but one of the film’s most intense scenes is its opening, that sees Cecelia escape her and Adrian’s house to finally get away from him. There are no monsters, no music, and only one word of dialogue, but Moss sells it beautifully. Everything from her body language to the level of emotion welling up in her eyes – even the way she tenses her whole body when she thinks she has woken Adrian up by accident – everything we need to know about Cecelia we learn in this opening scene. She is careful, logical, brave – but above all, she is a survivor.
As we’d hope, the supporting cast are on top form, too. Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid are in beautiful shape as father-daughter duo James and Sydney, the former of whom is a childhood friend of Cecelia who offers her refuge after she escapes Adrian. It is clear that all three love each other to pieces, but as Cecelia’s paranoia increases over the course of the film, and with no proof to back up her claims that her dead ex-boyfriend is stalking her, it’s a struggle. Hodge is particularly superb, acting as the only man in Cecelia’s life that she can trust when all others have failed her, but when his daughter is put in danger he’s forced to prioritise. Reid is simply wonderful as Sydney; the star of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time pours her heart and soul into her part here, selling both the lighter moments with Moss and the more intense ones with equal gusto, letting the audience believe every moment of her performance. The 16-year-old is absolutely one to watch in the coming years. Harriet Dyer is fantastic as Cecelia’s sister Emily, who, as with James and Sydney, feels pushed away from Cecelia as the film progresses. The chemistry between her and Moss is equal parts tender and frosty, truly selling the pair as sisters pushed apart by conflict. Michael Dorman gets a deceptive little role as Adrian’s brother Tom, and manages to walk the line between endearing and suspicious without leaving the audience sure of which he actually is.
And then, of course, there’s the man himself; Oliver Jackson-Cohen perfectly sells his role as Adrian, working in fantastically horrifying balance with Moss’ performance and Whannell’s script to create a true horror villain the likes of which we haven’t seen since Freddy Krueger’s introduction in 1987. What’s so remarkable about his performance is that he barely says a word; he speaks perhaps fewer than fifteen lines over the course of the film’s 125-minute runtime (and when he does his voice drips with a tangible malice), yet we are terrified of him all the same. Part of this is down to his physicality – the ways in which he assaults various people over the course of the film, invisible or not, is gut-wrenchingly brutal, deliberately calling to mind Whannell’s previous film, 2018’s magnificent Upgrade. Part of it is down to the invisibility itself; Whannell uses this perfectly, switching between quiet scares and louder ones with ease. As such, a knife falling off a kitchen table but never hitting the floor, or the mysterious increasing heat of a hob, is just as terrifying as a truly gorgeous long take in which Adrian takes out a squad of armed security guards. Whannell knows his audience, and he knows just how to get under their skin, and he, Moss, and Jackson-Cohen work here in a horrifyingly brutal harmony.
That brutal harmony is indeed one of the film’s greatest strengths; Whannell never feels the need to compromise or lose any detail in any aspect of the film’s text, subtext, or indeed paratext. On a technical level the film is utterly stunning. Benjamin Wallfisch’s earth-shattering score is sure to shake you to your very bones, as the Blade Runner 2049 composer pulls out all the stops to create a haunting mix of synth, strings, and horns that carry an even stronger resonance when enhanced by IMAX speakers; Stefan Duscio’s cinematography is nothing less than beautiful – his various framings of empty rooms are perfectly placed to leave us terrified of what is potentially nothing, but because of the way he frames the shot we feel as if there is something, or indeed someone, there; and Andy Canny’s editing is pitch-perfect, knowing exactly when to cut and when to simply let the horror flow. The harmony between all of these components would be the best part of Whannell’s film, were it not for the way in which it deals with its subject matter.
Whannell has admitted himself that, in making The Invisible Man, he felt inspired by Ari Aster’s 2018 masterpiece Hereditary – and while I do not dispute that, the film actually bears more resemblance to Aster’s sophomore feature Midsommar, a breakup movie that disguises itself as a folk horror. The same comment could be made about The Invisible Man; it is not strictly, or solely, a horror film, but a story about domestic abuse that happens to be dressed up as a monster movie. The taboo subject matter is handled with sensitivity and care, and, while we (thankfully) see very little of the actual physical abuse inflicted on Cecelia, we hear enough about it and see enough of his other ways of abusing her that we get the picture. Again, Whannell and Moss sell this perfectly; their dialogue combined with Moss’ beautifully restrained performance in Cecelia’s quieter moments lend a fairly out-there film a feeling of purpose and modern-day relevance that many mainstream movies are missing. What Cecelia tells us she has gone through is exactly what many survivors of domestic abuse have gone through in reality – The Invisible Man, then, is ultimately not a horror film, but a film about a woman striving to find her place in the world while still being haunted by the very real psychological and physical assaults of her ex-boyfriend. This narrative of survival serves to ground the film in humanity, and makes the film’s magnificent final moments hit even harder. The Invisible Man is by no means an easy watch, but it is a film that simply needs to be experienced by as many people as possible. The only question you’ll need to ask yourself is this: is that seat next to you really empty?
Surprising both everyone and no one simultaneously, both Blumhouse and Leigh Whannell have done it again. Combining perfect performances and writing with a bone-shaking score, gorgeous visuals, and a near-unshakeable sense of utter dread, The Invisible Man stands as a masterful, totally controlled, painstaking crafting piece of horror cinema. It is that extremely rare type of genre film that will grab you by the throat and refuse to ever let you go, and should rightfully stand as one of the best, most haunting horror movies of our times.
The Invisible Man is in cinemas now.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.
Want some more spooky reboots? Check out these other reviews on Redbrick Film: