If only Universal’s failed Dark Universe plan had begun with Leigh Whannell’s terrifically nervy and audacious The Invisible Man. A loose reimagining of H.G. Wells’ classic book, the film could’ve given the studio’s dud of a cinematic universe the spark it needed to thrive, driven by pinpoint direction and a modern spin that evokes “Me Too”, privacy concerns, and gaslighting. Whannell’s third solo directing gig after Insidious 3 and the wildly underrated Upgrade (a superior version of Venom), this edgy psychological horror frays the senses as intensely as anything experienced in A Quiet Place.
That tension begins to churn at our gut during a killer slow burn of an escape sequence, as Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss, unhinged and lovin’ it) slowly creeps out of the gigantic, isolated home of her abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a tech mogul with a very specific specialty. The next few minutes are a masterclass in the use of sound and darkness to create fear, every step Cecilia takes is nearly silent, but made to feel heavy as a drumbeat. By the time she scales the walls and races out into a lonely, dark street to await the arrival of her confused sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), our skin is crawling.
What emerges is that Cecilia has been living under the violent specter of Adrian for so long, and yet nobody seems to have realized it. Alice had no idea, and the same goes for her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) or his college-bound daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Adrian has controlled every aspect of her life, which explains why the promising architect has done nothing with her career, and why she’s afraid to leave James’ home even to check the mailbox. Even when Cecilia, or “C” as her friends annoyingly call her, begins to think herself safe following news Adrian has killed himself, she doesn’t seem to fully trust it.
Of course, Cecilia’s instincts prove to be spot-on, and before long she’s the victim of unseen attacks. Actually, that’s overstating it. She becomes the victim of an annoying, manipulative pest who starts out by silently moving things around the kitchen, causing her to burn breakfast, then quickly builds up to isolating Cecilia from her friends and family. The way this is done is so surgical, so cruel, we can see the patterns in the way real-life abusive men drive their victims away from the people they rely on for support. The more Cecilia screams that Adrian is alive, the more broken from reality everyone thinks her to be, because who could possibly believe such a story? What is he? A ghost? Somehow he faked his death? The gaslighting going on here is truly epic stuff, and far more terrifying than the invisible stalker’s footprints or their hot breath emerging out of nowhere on a cold night. Whannell, who has been freaking folks out since he and James Wan launched the Saw franchise, knows there are limits and keeps Cecilia’s confrontations with her unseen foe to a minimum. He flips the tables (literally, at one point) at just the right moment so things don’t get repetitive, and we stay on board with Cecilia’s attempts to prove she isn’t crazy.
One of the few drawbacks is so much of the movie’s second half was given away in trailers. Not all of it, mind you, there are a few red herrings and bloody plot twists (one death scene is a real jaw-dropper) that throw a monkeywrench into our expectations. But nearly everything directly involving Cecilia is out there, and that’s a shame. Eventually, The Invisible Man lives up to its title and the big question becomes “how” as much as “who”, and the reveal is pretty weak even if it makes some logical sense. When you’re talking about classic movie monsters, satisfying is probably a better way to go than logical, and this just comes across as an easy answer to a pesky plot point that might’ve been left unanswered.
We can probably leave it unsaid that Moss is great, once again, at playing a woman on the edge. Her performance carries Cecilia through maddeningly unstable to in a desperate fight, not just for survival but to prove her own sanity. While definitely a “showy” role, what Moss delivers actually mirrors Whannell’s approach to the film, which is to keep its themes and Cecilia’s backstory of abuse as understated as possible. Trusting the audience to engage with these aspects is one of the most visible reasons why The Invisible Man is a big win for Universal and Blumhouse as they redefine what it means to be “monster” in today’s world.