Out of Sight, Out of Mind
It’s surprising that in Hollywood’s never-ending quest to remake every horror movie in existence, it’s taken them this long to get to The Invisible Man. Setting aside the old-fashioned bandages-and-fedora original, the core concept is as timeless as it gets, not to mention relatively cheap to execute on film. In any case, it’s here now, and thankfully it’s in the form of a standalone movie instead of whatever franchise-baiting dreck we would have gotten had it remained part of Universal’s scrapped Dark Universe project.
Eschewing the entirety of the original’s plot except for its most basic premise, the movie is now set in modern-day California. In the opening scene, architect Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) sneaks out of the house of Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her abusive sociopath of a boyfriend. After barely escaping with her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Cecelia temporarily moves in with her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), hoping to hide from her vengeful ex.
A few weeks later, Cecilia learns that Adrian has apparently committed suicide, and has left her a sizable piece of the fortune he’d made in the field of optics. After getting over her initial shock, Cecilia embraces the fresh start the money promises, but her excitement is short-lived. She soon finds herself the victim of strange occurrences: objects around her move seemingly on their own, she becomes suddenly accident-prone, and she can’t shake the feeling that she’s being watched. As her unseen tormentor’s tactics grow more vicious, Cecilia must battle the disbelief of her friends and family, as well as find a way to free herself of Adrian once and for all.
Since this premise, though perfectly sufficient, is ultimately a vehicle to deliver tension and scares, the movie lives or dies on its execution; in this case, it lives and then some. What makes the invisible man such an effective villain is that he personifies the age-old truth that the things we can’t see are the scariest, and director Leigh Whannell milks this for all it’s worth. The movie’s creepiest moments happen in times of near-stillness and total silence, inducing dread with something as innocuous as a brightly-lit bedroom.
The screenplay avoids giving away too much too early, taking its time to build suspense before the invisible man makes his inevitable appearance (so to speak). This stretch of the movie is essentially one of those loss-of-control thrillers that were so popular in the ’90s: think Enemy of the State or The Net. Plenty of Adrian’s machinations are intended to scare Cecilia, but just as many are meant to upend her life. These moments, though rarely scary, end up being some of the movie’s hardest to watch; a sabotaged job interview is especially painful.
Such scenes exemplify why Moss is so essential; she brings credibility and depth to what could have been a standard “no one believes me” horror role. She makes the audience wholly sympathetic to Cecelia’s plight, from the immediate threat Adrian poses to the more insidious deterioration of her sanity. The supporting cast around her is fine, though the only ones who make a lasting impression are Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the visibly psychotic Adrian and Michael Dorman as his uncaring lawyer brother. This is decidedly Moss’s movie, with her performance often the key element to selling the horror – the special effects are solid, but we could never believe the invisible man’s existence if we didn’t believe her.
It’s not until the mental hospital-set climax that we witness Adrian at the height of his power, and here Whannell shows off some of the same fluidly violent action he used in Upgrade. Though these scenes lack the quiet foreboding of their earlier counterparts, they make up for it in visceral punch, depicting the invisible man as a brutally physical force and juxtaposing the raw power of his blows against his lack of visual presence. The conclusion that follows falls prey to the multiple endings trap, offering up a twist that’s momentarily effective but needlessly complicated. It’s the only time the movie stumbles in its otherwise precise pacing, and it’s capped by a final scene that isn’t bad, but feels unworthy of the movie’s nail-biting heights.
At its best, The Invisible Man is a thriller-horror hybrid that delivers on both counts. One particular scene is so well-done, so genuinely shocking, that it’s all but guaranteed to go down in history as one of those iconic scary movie moments. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll just say this: you’ll know it when you see it.