Leigh Whannell’s ever-expanding contribution to horror cinema reaches a particular highlight with The Invisible Man, which shows that with good actors and a great screenplay you can successfully update a Universal Pictures horror franchise without Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, and a hundred-million-dollar budget.
After a long period of abuse, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) finally escapes her controlling and violent boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). When he commits suicide shortly afterwards, she hopes to finally recover and begin a real life. It soon become clear, however, that Adrian is still alive, and is using an advanced invisibility suit to threaten and destroy her life.
While you can make a good horror flick out of some well-placed scares and creepy elements, the truly great horror films are often those which take the stylistic trappings of the genre and use them to actually say something. Jordan Peele’s films Us and Get Out interrogate the African American experience in a racist nation. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead uses zombies to attack runaway consumerism. In The Invisible Man, Whannell takes the famous title and core premise – a man can turn himself invisible – and transforms it into a sometimes brutal depiction of domestic violence: the physical abuse, the paranoia, and the interminable mind games that ensue.
Whannell’s screenplay relates the terror of spousal abuse by making the often invisible symptoms literally invisible: the paranoia of being attacked without warning, the fear of not being believed or trusted by others, and the utter hopelessness of being trapped by one’s attacker. It is telling that the most frightening elements of The Invisible Man are not anything related to the film’s science fiction element (a high-tech suit that renders the wearer undetectable) but those that are based on real life. Oliver Jackson-Cohen is understandable barely seen throughout the film, but he gives a vivid and terrifying performance as the brutally violent and controlling ex-boyfriend Adrian.
In the end, however, it is Elisabeth Moss who dominates – and rightly so – as the tormented and fearful Cecilia. She is working with multiple layers of behaviour, and does a spectacular job of showing each facet when it’s most relevant: the terror, the dread, the desperation, and the resolve. She is blessed with an excellent screenplay that provides an honest-to-goodness character arc that allows her change and grow as her ordeal goes on. Delivering good performances in horror cinema is often quite difficult, as it can be rare for a script to offer actors good material with which to work. Moss is blessed with some genuinely great material, and uses it to demonstrate clearly why she is one of her generation’s finest American actors.
This is a tightly-wound and smart horror film that is emerging, at the end of a difficult year, as one of 2020’s very best Hollywood features. Leigh Whannell’s contribution to the genre just keeps growing and growing.