As an exercise in classical scare tactics delivered through an escalating series of primo setpieces, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell's initial 'The Conjuring' and 'Insidious' films were often supremely effective. Whannell would eventually make his own directorial debut with the thematically rich 'Insidious: Chapter 3', following it up with the clever sci-fi mystery 'Upgrade'. His latest is 'The Invisible Man' and it falls somewhere between the bump-in-the-night spookiness of his first film and thought-provoking futurism of his second.
In James Whale's 1933 classic, the bandage-wrapped, smooth-voiced monster of the title is a scientist who goes crazy, kills a bunch of people and terrorises the countryside. Universal announced a remake in 2016, part of a planned series of films for the studio's Dark Universe project, which draws on the studio's classic monsters. The shared cinematic universe would also include 'The Mummy' and 'Bride of Frankenstein'. But yet again, a major studio discovered that the "Marvel model" is actually pretty difficult to pull off. Universal's 2017 film 'The Mummy', starring Tom Cruise, was a critical and box office failure, and the studio abandoned the shared universe plan to focus on standalone stories. Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions signed on to produce 'The Invisible Man'.
Writer/director Whannell's new rendition largely drops H.G. Wells' original storyline to tap into the more tragically relevant horror of domestic abuse, gaslighting, stalking and people hurting other people. It's an ongoing epidemic in Australia which sees, on average, one Australian woman murdered every week, with our government doing very little to reduce violence against women and children. In a bitterly ironic twist, Johnny Depp, the actor originally attached to play Universal's Invisible Man, would later be accused of assaulting his wife.
'THE INVISIBLE MAN' TRAILER 2
Beginning like Joseph Ruben's 1991 'Sleeping with The Enemy', Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss, 'Get Out', 'Her Smell') has successfully escaped the clutches of her controlling husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a technological genius of the evil variety. Taking refuge with her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), her close friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia breathes a sigh of relief when Adrian winds up dead, having committed suicide. She's also left $5 million in his will, provided she is found to be mentally sound. But the paranoia worsens when she keeps hearing footsteps throughout the house. Objects are moving when her back is turned. It's here that the film seems to adopt the premise of another classic film, 'Gaslight' (1944), about an abusive husband who tries to drive his wife mad. Approaching the brink of insanity, Cecilia works to convince the people around her that there is an invisible man amongst them.
The subsequent supernatural happenings - slammed doors, rearranged belongings, yanked limbs - are nothing audiences haven't seen before, but Whannell stages them for some heart-in-throat suspense. Really, this is only a slightly exaggerated take on domestic abuse. Whannell explores how Adrian was already manipulating people and situations to take away Cecilia's support systems. The film spends a respectable amount of time portraying the state it leaves Cecilia in, and gives her PTSD. Turning invisible gives Adrian a few extra tools, but the methodology is very real and poignant.
As in 'The Conjuring', the film is at its most impactful when Whannell refuses to show the fearsome specter, opting instead to train his lens on the terrified woman who can sense it, pledging his allegiance to the power of suggestion.
By tracking his camera through an entire home, Whannell can play on viewers' familiarity with the space. A great number of the shots are in wide frame, pan-and-scan is used to survey a supposedly empty area, and single takes accelerate scenes which may seem to yield little action, but are successful in getting one's heart racing. And, as in 'The Conjuring', the film is at its most impactful when Whannell refuses to show the fearsome spectre, opting instead to train his lens on the terrified woman who can sense it, pledging his allegiance to the power of suggestion. "He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn't be able to see him," Cecilia monotones. Whannell also keeps most of the background silent sans a handful of dramatic upswellings from Benjamin Wallfisch's score, utilised perfectly.
However, once the film really begins to commit to its scientific mumbo-jumbo elements, a feeling of clinical detachment seeps into the proceedings - providing hostile bogeymen with too much motivation almost always robs them of their dread-inducing mystique. As in all of Whannell's films, the expository scenes feel lackluster.
Elizabeth Moss is excellent at portraying Cecilia's deteriorating mental and emotional state, but there are only so many definitive actions that can help reinforce the notion that an invisible man is in the room and he's out to get you. She has to work hard on portraying that eviscerating paranoia and a fear of something that nobody can actually see. Gird your loins if you're weary of 'The Handmaid's Tale' technique of establishing tension via extremely intimate close-ups on Moss's sweaty, staring face.
While 'The Invisible Man' isn't perfect, it is (like 'Upgrade') a thoughtful entry in the horror / science fiction genre, tapping into modern day fears about privacy and technology, cleverly using on- and off-screen space and delivering each big scare like an effectively-timed punchline.