My immediate thought coming out of last night’s screening of writer/director Leigh Whannell‘s The Invisible Man: “Now, THAT is how a reboot is done.” Based on the classic story by H.G. Wells, Whannell’s adaptation of the iconic movie monster puts a timely spin on the horrors that are felt, rather than seen. Shifting perspective to the victim of an abusive relationship, Whannell channels the horror of being gaslit by an invisible presence into a genre film in ways that are smart and unbearably suspenseful. The scares are earned, because the horror is very real.
The Invisible Man begins in immediately tense fashion, with Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) attempting to sneak away from her tech-savvy abusive boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, recently seen on Mike Flanagan‘s The Haunting of Hill House), in the middle of the night. Narrowly escaping, Cecilia hides out at police detective James’ (Aldis Hodge) house with him and his daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). The threat of Adrian finding her leaves Cecilia terrified to leave James’s house. The trauma of his abuse has clearly taken a toll on her.
But when Cecilia’s sister (Harriet Dyer) visits with word that Adrian has committed suicide, there’s a brief sense of relief that she may no longer have to live in a constant state of fear. That is, until strange occurrences within James’s home lead Cecilia to believe that Adrian is not dead, but that he has found a way to make himself invisible and continue tormenting her. And of course, nobody believes her. But Cecilia knows what Adrian is capable of, and it’s up to her to expose and overcome her invisible abuser.
The genius of this latest adaptation of The Invisible Man is how smartly it melds topical, real-life horrors with genre trappings. The scary aspects of Whannell’s film originate from the real horrors of gaslighting and domestic abuse, without feeling exploitative. By the time the tense, exposition-free opening sequence ends, we clearly understand Cecilia’s traumatic situation. So when things begin to go bump in the night, the terror has already been established and the threat is felt immediately and often.
Whannell also directs the hell out of The Invisible Man, using elaborate camera moves and a keen visual eye to build suspense from the things we can’t see. There are scenes where you think the camera is following our protagonist, but then the camera will shift them out of focus or hold a shot of an empty doorway. Whannell clearly understands the idea of the scariest things being the things we can’t see, and he’s proven to be proficient in selling that idea visually.
The scenes in James’s house are the most effective, as they see Whannell revitalizing the tired haunted house tropes and elevating them to a different level of character-based fear. And The Invisible Man is able to sustain an uneasy tension for pretty much the rest of the runtime. And that’s a credit to Whannell’s assured directorial hand, but it’s also thanks to Moss’s central performance.
Elizabeth Moss carries us through every second of suspense and gives one of the more sympathetic horror performances in recent memory. We are with her every step of the way, and Moss conveys Cecilia’s palpable dread so clearly that every one of Adrian’s manipulative tactics hurts us, too. She makes us feel the pain of the torment, and everybody’s disbelief in her convictions only makes us root for her more.
Moss’s likable family dynamic with Hodge and Reid sets up the promise of a happy life without Adrian, one that gets interrupted fairly quickly. And Michael Dornan brings a questionable vibe as Adrian’s brother, who’s responsible for providing Cecilia with the fortune that Adrian left for her.
The Invisible Man has a few narrative tricks up its sleeve, ones that thankfully have not been spoiled by the marketing material. And even as the film teeters on the edge of ridiculousness, we are with Cecilia the entire time and the thematic thrust of the concept remains consistent.
Leigh Whannell knows what makes an invisible evil scary. And he updates H.G. Wells’ core concept in a way that is impactful and relevant, and letting the scares come naturally out of the understandable fears of the protagonist. In this new version of The Invisible Man, the scares are 100% earned, because the horrors are very real. Now, that is how a reboot is done.
The Invisible Man is rated R, and it comes to theaters tomorrow night.
All images courtesy of Universal.