One of the truths about the horror genre is that the monsters we can’t see are often much more frightening than the ones we can. The creatures we imagine are far worse than anything a props or effects department can provide. It is with this idea in mind that Leigh Whannell invites us into a well-crafted story in which the monster literally cannot be seen, The Invisible Man.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, the wife of wealthy Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The film opens on Cecilia’s midnight escape, a prolonged sequence of anxiety and tension. Without knowing anything about Cecilia or Adrian, we are instantly on her side, sensing that a single wrong move will thwart her path to freedom. Everything about the scene, from lighting to sound design is frightening enough for onlookers. It is downright terrifying for anyone who has had to flee an abusive situation under cover of darkness.
Moss is a perfect Cecilia, an intelligent and capable woman who has been beaten down physically and emotionally. Two weeks after running away from her marriage, she is locked away in a friend’s house, afraid even to walk outside to the mailbox. It is to Whannell’s credit that he didn’t feel the need to bombard viewers with the violent history of Cecilia and Adrian’s relationship. But it is Moss who sells us on the truth of it. As odd things start to happen, her fear is accompanied by a knowing sense of resignation. When a chair moves by itself or a locked door opens, we know she’s been expecting it.
Whannell wisely avoids spending too much time on unnecessary details throughout The Invisible Man, only sharing what we really need to know. Emily Kass (Harriet Dyer) helped her sister run away and then set her up at a friend’s house. James (Aldis Hodge) and Sydney (Storm Reid) are the father and daughter who have taken Cecilia under their watchful care. The three are important to Cecilia, but none of them takes any time away from her story. It would have been beneficial to have a bit more development of the relationship between the sisters, but it isn’t wholly necessary to be able to feel the impact of what happens between them and to get a sense of their familial bond.
James and Sydney have more time to time to develop as characters, but we learn so little about who they are outside of their connection to Cecilia and it’s done in such a way that we almost don’t even notice. James is a police officer. Sydney dreams of fashion school. That’s all we need to know in order to care deeply about them.
On the other side is Michael Dorman as Adrian’s brother, Tom. He’s a successful attorney in a fancy high-rise San Francisco law firm and enters the picture when Cecilia gets the news that Adrian is dead. Tom is tasked with executing his brother’s will and Cecilia is set to receive $5 million which, of course, comes with strings. Tom is a smarmy, frustrating guy. The type you want to kick whenever he appears. He is simply the worst and, like everything else that make this movie soar, we just know it without having to know why.
It would be easy to dismiss all of these characters and their places in the story as tropes. We know their place because we’ve seen them before. But Whannell puts a fresh coat of paint on those familiar people and situations, weaving together threads that simply work. The Invisible Man is scary precisely because it’s familiar. We’ve seen it before and sometimes we know what to expect. And that anticipation is what drives the fear and dials up the tension. Playing with what we already know is how the film is able to be unpredictable in some really great ways.
The Invisible Man works as the retelling of a classic monster, channeling the energy of that bygone age into something relevant to our modern era. It touches on the many forms abuse takes, and the ways in which abusers are empowered and enabled. There are a few issues with the script, particularly when it comes to the sisters’ relationship and some American inheritance laws, but those are minor and easy to excuse with a film so scary and satisfying. Watch this with the best sound system you can find, because the sound editing and score are exceptional. But however you can, the important thing is that you go and show with your dollars that these are the Universal monster movies we want to see.
The Invisible Man is distributed by Universal Pictures and is now in theaters.