‘Dark Universe’. The very phrase itself sends shivers down the spines of Universal studio executives who were once salivating at the prospect of rejuvenating the pre-code Monster movies for modern audiences, only for it to die as quickly as it was conceptualised.
When The Mummy tanked both commercially and critically in 2017, Universal’s response was to rethink their approach. Initially meant to be starring Johnny Depp, The Invisible Man seemed destined to follow The Mummy’s action-oriented focus, leaving horror on the sideline.
Produced with a meagre budget of just $7 million and the recruitment of director Leigh Whannell, who is mostly known for his writing contributions to the Saw franchise (plus also stunning audiences with action-horror-sci-fi Upgrade in 2018), Universal seemed to be heading for the right direction.
The Invisible Man is a refreshing remake of James Whale’s 1933 version, and an inventive adaptation of H.G. Wells’ iconic novel. Gone are the maniacal shrieks of Claude Rains’ take on the bandaged, goofy horror icon. The monster in Whannell’s version is as malevolent as they come: a narcissistic, manipulative and domineering sociopath, who just so happens to be filthy rich. A sign of the times, I hear you say?
Leading Whannell’s vision is Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass, a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Adrian’s hegemonic nature (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). When she decides to elaborately escape from his clutches in the middle of the night, Cecilia lives a life of terror and isolation; housed by the generous father and daughter dynamic of James and Sydney (Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid) and under the supervision of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). When Cecilia learns that Adrien has committed suicide, she feels free of his controlling grasp. But when an invisible force begins to wreak havoc in Cecilia’s life, his presence feels more alive than ever…
Horror cinema is no stranger to using demonic forces as a metaphor for more sinister human experiences, and The Invisible Man is no different. Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia is one of horror’s most profound leading performances, who handles the inconceivable trauma of domestic abuse with a terrifying sense of believability (and even relatability). The dramatic irony of an invisible force terrorising Cecilia’s life, unbeknownst to the characters around her, channels a self-destructive paranoia throughout Moss’ performance that feels horrifically frustrating. Her internalisation of trauma also feels reminiscent of Essie Davis’ similar achievements in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, another horror that deals with demonic manifestations of subconscious grief, although The Invisible Man isn’t as nuanced nor as subliminal enough to truly resonate.
Two-thirds of the film is rooted in classical horror conventions: the chiaroscuro lighting that cloaks the mis-en-scène in shadows, the static camerawork that allows the viewer to feast upon the negative space, to wonder where the dangers lie; all executed with resounding success. There’s a brooding malevolence that lurks in the invisibility of the monster, an aesthetic that feels undeniably parallel to the fear of the unseen in many ghost stories. While this focus on horror seems to be discarded in the final third as it accelerates toward its more action-oriented, revenge-filled denouement, it never feels abrupt in its transitioning.
The Invisible Man, with its centrality on patriarchal gaslighting, is by no means an easy watch. But it is unflinchingly timely, a mainstream #MeToo horror that uses the lens of a monster-movie to expose the monsters of everyday life. It just so happens to be terrifying.
Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Michael Dorman