Eschewing the familiar mad-scientist angle seen in James Whale’s landmark 1933 sci-fi horror classic and Paul Verhoeven’s criminally underrated Hollow Man (2000), writer-director Leigh Whannell takes the basis of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel of The Invisible Man and gives it a Hitchcockian-like psychological horror-thriller spin made relevant for today’s #MeToo era.
The story revolves around Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), an architect who decided she had enough tolerating with her abusive tech-genius husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Adrian Griffin). With the help of her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), she manages to escape from the seaside house she’s been sleeping with him and lay low in a suburban home belongs to her cop friend James (Aldis Hodge).
Then comes the news, where Cecilia learns that Adrian has died in an apparent suicide. Thinking that her tormented past is finally over, she opts for a fresh start but soon suspects Adrian is far from dead. She convinced that Adrian, who happens to be a renowned scientist specialises in optics who knows how to make himself invisible using a tech suit, is out for revenge.
In Leigh Whannell’s version of The Invisible Man, he turns Adrian into a more plausible antagonist — a sociopathic domestic abuser instead of a crazy scientist, whose goal is to make Cecilia’s life miserable. Using the invisibility technology, he takes his time tormenting her bit by bit to the extent of making Cecilia slowly loses her sanity. And from there, Whannell makes excellent use of the psychological tension between the abused (Cecilia) and the abuser (Adrian) to evoke a foreboding sense of dread. One that escalates to the boiling point as the film moves along, complete with Benjamin Wallfisch’s string-laden ominous score that echoes the late Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant musical composition of 1960’s Psycho.
From the tense opening scene alone where Cecilia stages her escape, Whannell clearly has an eye for crafting horror and suspense using classical-style camera movements. The kind that reminds me of what a great horror movie should be. Although he did give us a couple of jump scares every now and then, the otherwise overused horror-movie technique is rightfully earned from a careful build-up rather than simply incorporating them just for the sake of it.
Also, interestingly enough, Whannell somehow manages to take the limited budget (the movie reportedly cost a paltry US$7 million to make) and still effectively showcases the invisible effects with clever uses of camera moves — all of which helps to make the presence of the titular character feels intimidating. This is particularly evident during some of the pivotal moments, notably during a scene in the house where Cecilia is all alone while facing the unseen assailant and another one takes place in a hospital.
Whannell even gets ambitious in his direction, showing what more he can do other than the dread-inducing psychological horror approach seen in the first and second act of The Invisible Man. By the time the climactic third act arrives, he switches gear to make way for an action-oriented slasher-thriller route — a result that made the movie all the more captivating cinematic experience worth watching on the big screen.
Beneath all the well-staged technical craft and Whannell’s know-how direction, The Invisible Man isn’t content for being just a straightforward genre picture. The movie’s underlying concept of invisibility allows Whannell to explore both relatable and timely subject matters about the likes of toxic relationships and domestic abuse. It helps to pave way for some genuinely emotional punches, thanks to Elisabeth Moss’ engaging and sympathetic lead performance as the traumatic Cecilia. The rest of the actors are just as great, even for Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s limited screentime as the titular antagonist who mostly appears in an invisible form.
Once upon a time, The Invisible Man was slated to be a major studio project and set to be included in the now-defunct Universal Pictures’ shared cinematic universe a.k.a. Dark Universe. It even has Johnny Depp attached to star in the title role at one point, only to be scrapped altogether after the dismal result of Tom Cruise-led The Mummy in 2017. I’m glad that Universal has finally come to their senses and made the right choice of revitalising their old gallery of the studio’s classic monsters in the form of a standalone horror film under the Blumhouse production label. Leigh Whannell’s modern take on The Invisible Man isn’t just a great horror film but also qualifies as one of the best movies of the year so far that I never expected it in the first place.