In his third directorial effort after 2013’s Insidious: Chapter 3 and 2018’s Upgrade, Melbourne native Leigh Whannell takes a modern and anxiety inducing approach to his reboot of the horror classic The Invisible Man starring Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men), Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House) in the title role.
Adapting the story from the H.G. Wells classic, writer and director Leigh Whannell is no stranger to making films about the things that go bump in the night. Taking a break from supernatural horror to explore the sci-fi elements he first dabbled with in Upgrade, Whannell’s adaptation leans into a deeply human angle; exploring the real life horror and trauma of domestic abuse and violence.
In his thoroughly modern take the invisible man is a billionaire scientist and expert in optics named Adrian Griffin, whose battered wife Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) we meet attempting a clandestine escape from their Californian mansion-turned-prison. Cecilia, terrified of being found by Adrian, hides out at the home of childhood friend and local detective James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid). Briefly relieved to hear of his death, it isn’t long until a string of bizarre happenings occur in the Lanier house, driving Cecilia to question her safety and her sanity.
There’s a few things to unpack here. Firstly, where previous adaptations have focused mainly on the exploits of the Invisible Man (2000’s Hollow Man being a prime example), Whannell shifts his camera focus onto the victims. In doing so, he generates a greater sense of fear, anxiety, and pearl-clutching worry. It’s not a totally new angle for a horror movie, and yet in the case of The Invisible Man it feels fresh, subverting early expectations that this film would just be about a man who turns invisible.
Moss, no doubt having taken her experiences on the set of The Handmaid’s Tale into this new role, is very fitting for Whannell’s lead. Cecilia is meek and skittish, spooked easily by something as simple as a door knock or a lone jogger. Through her interactions with Adrian, we quickly see behaviour patterns not uncommon in domestic abuse victims; gaslighting and a need to be in control that allows him to skilfully infiltrate every facet of Cecilia’s life, leaving her feeling completely alone.
Second, the impressive visual and practical effects. Considering the comparably small budget of $7 million, Whannell’s combination of green suit CGI and, as he puts it, “100-year-old methods” of pulleys and strings produces a result that should, by all accounts, feel totally ridiculous to watch but instead is engaging and enthralling. Watching a character fight the air around them might make you giggle at first, but pair this visual with Whannell’s wide pans and long pauses on empty spaces and before long you’re on edge and waiting for the next blow to come.
The use of technology itself as a motif is also a great choice and well executed for bringing this story into a modern setting. Often presented as a key obstacle for Cecilia, technology’s role in her life and in the story is constantly haunting.
Thirdly, are the links to the source material. Adrian’s surname is a beautiful nod to Wells’ original character and his genius in optics mirrors that of Griffin in the original text, whose primary focus was to change the body’s refractive index through science. Where Griffin’s experiment was irreversible, however, Adrian’s is not permanent, thereby allowing him to toy with his victims in new and more sinister ways.
Considering the low expectations after the failed attempt at launching the Universal Monster franchise with 2017’s The Mummy reboot, Whannell’s The Invisible Man is an excellent addition to the new school of monster films that will likely stand out against the pack for years to come. With a long track record of successful horror films behind him, it should come as no surprise to fans of his previous work that this latest film has all the makings of a classic; helping Whannell to retain his title as an icon of horror cinema.
Adrian’s presence and personality, even when he isn’t visible, is typical of a narcissistic sociopath. He feeds off the power and fear that he can exert over his victims, stalking and baiting Cecilia and those around her for the sake of proving that he still maintains control over her. This narrative is still very common for many women who suffer at the hands of an abusive spouse, and Cecilia’s constant anxiety that she hasn’t truly escaped him will strike a chord of empathy in audience members who may have experienced similar relationships.