In the opening scenes of “The Invisible Man,” a woman (Elisabeth Moss) escapes an abusive husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night. As the woman, Cecilia, quietly moves through the large house of her tech-genius husband Adrian, she passes by some mysterious technology which plants the seed that her husband will become the titular villain.
Two weeks after freeing herself from Adrian, an agoraphobic Cecilia is living with a cop friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid) and trying to keep her sister (Harriet Dyer) at a distance out of fear of being found.
When it is revealed Adrian has committed suicide and left Cecilia $5 million, she is relieved but then things start happening that lead her to believe Adrian is still alive and has found a way to be invisible.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, this new version of the “Invisible Man” has little to do with H.G. Wells’ novel (other than the invisible men sharing a surname). Instead, Whannell uses the concept of an invisible man to explore gaslighting and abusive relationships in a way that few mainstream films have attempted.
The origin of the term gaslighting ties back to the 1944 film “Gaslight,” in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she’s crazy by dimming the gaslights and acting like the rooms are lit properly.
“Gaslighting: Know It and Identify It to Protect Yourself,” an article by Stephanie Sarkis that appeared in Psychology Today in 2017, addresses the techniques used by people who gaslight, including: lying; denying they said or did something; accusing victims of doing things that the gaslighter is actually doing; telling the victim they are crazy; convincing people the victim is a liar; and using confusion to create instability. Gaslighting is about making someone feel isolated and dependent on the gaslighter.
Cecilia explains that Adrian had complete control over her: what she wore, where she went, what she ate, what she said and even what she thought. So it makes sense that his revenge for being left becomes psychological torture. He systematically turns those she cares about against her and, because he is unseen, she is viewed as increasingly unstable and becomes accused of criminal acts.
Whannell, the writer behind the “Insidious” and “Saw” franchises, tells the film firmly from Cecilia’s point of view. We are always on her side. There’s no needless plot element in which the audience is supposed to question her sanity. This is an interesting twist on the “Invisible Man” formula, which is typically from the invisible man’s perspective and becomes a parable about the darker nature of man.
Despite the supernatural element, the horror here is grounded in reality. This is more of a haunting story than a monster movie which is fitting as those who break free of their abusers are still haunted by them.
Whannell has made a quiet film. The visuals are often subtle: a knife falling on the floor; a burner on a stovetop slowly being turned up. Whannell uses wide shots and long takes that pan or track through rooms and hallways to build uneasy tension. He lingers on empty spaces to generate a foreboding atmosphere.
Moss creates a compelling portrait of a survivor. She starts off as a woman who took everything she had to get out of a terrible situation and this left her broken and fragile. Just as she begins to feel better, the rug is pulled out from under her again. She plays that fear and anxiety perfectly. It is empowering watching Cecilia find the strength to fight back.
This represents Universal Pictures’ latest attempt to breathe life into their old classic monsters. In the last decade, there have been several non-starter franchise attempts with 2010’s “The Wolfman,” a relatively straightforward remake, 2014’s misguided origin story “Dracula: Untold” and 2017’s “The Mummy,” which attempted to kick-off a shared monster universe. The problem with the latter two films was they were focused on franchise building rather than simply telling a good story.
Thankfully, Universal has moved away from the shared universe idea and is going to attempt to make a series of stand-alone films with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Pictures.
Blumhouse makes low-budget horror films (“Invisible Man” was made for $7 million) and so there is a much lower risk. The company also supports filmmakers and allows them to take chances. Blumhouse released M. Night Shayamlan’s series of comeback films as well as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”
Based on this first venture, Blumhouse seems like the right place for Universal’s classic monsters, especially if they continue to allow filmmakers like Whannell to make films that feel personal and intimate rather than movies made by committee.
“The Invisible Man” isn’t perfect. One of the things that leads to Cecilia’s isolation doesn’t really make much sense in context, but the film is so effective it isn’t really worth nitpicking. This is both a solid piece of horror as well as a powerful survivor story that builds to a triumphant final shot.