The Universal Monsters have not been treated well for the past decade. The Wolfman (2010), Dracula Untold and especially The Mummy (2017) all read like cinematic crimes rather than cinematic honours towards iconic characters. The Invisible Man (2020) is another attempt at adapting one of these characters, helmed by Saw scribe and Upgrade director Leigh Whannel, this time on a lower budget and produced by Blumhouse. And it is not only a breath of fresh air but also a frightening and compelling experience.
Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is married to an intelligent yet abusive and controlling optics developer named Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). A couple of months after escaping from this relationship, she is told that Adrian has killed himself. Yet Cecilia starts to see signs that Adrian may not be dead after all, soon realising that he has created an invisible suit in order to gaslight her into looking insane in the eyes of the public.
Horror films have recently been trying to go for subtext to increase their relevancy in today’s world and The Invisible Man is another noteworthy example of this. It is also a successful one, as it truthfully and empathetically presents the subject matter of domestic violence and gaslighting whilst also understanding that the audience will be able to bring along their own experiences and knowledge. The threat that Adrian poses on Cecilia’s sanity throughout is horrifying because it is so real, though Whannel refuses to let the allegory overtake and replace the narrative, crafting a complex story that is genuinely investing on top of it’s social commentary.
There is also a refusal to rely too much on exposition, which does bite the film in the back on many occasions, as there will be a lot of moments that test your suspension of belief or make you wonder “how did that happen?”. The fact that the story takes place from Cecilia’s limited perspective makes this somewhat of an intentional choice, but I think the story would have benefitted from leaving it a few times and adding more scenes that explain how certain things happened, especially in a final reveal that makes a couple of scenes at the beginning confusing in retrospect.
Whannel’s direction is the bright spot. The camerawork either uses negative space to increase the feeling of paranoia or goes for an inventive “bodycam” approach when Adrian is attacking Cecilia, with the dark moody lighting also adding a bleak sense of atmosphere. The lack of music helps to build tension and the sound design is impeccable, with the few jump scares being perfectly handled. The tone does threaten to veer into silliness during the climax but for the most part it stays credibly serious. Above all else, The Invisible Man (2020) is scary, with several stand out sequences that will be talked about for a while after release.
Much of the film is carried by Elizabeth Moss, as whilst she could probably play a role like this in her sleep, she remains a credible, strong and sympathetic lead. But I also must give praise to Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian, as despite his limited facial screen-time and pretty-boy looks, manages to be genuinely convincing as a monstrous control freak.
The Invisible Man (2020) is a strong antidote not only for many of the weaker horror films we’ve been served recently but also to a long line of lackluster Universal Monsters movies. It’s also a very good film on it’s own merits and will hopefully be a solid sign of things to come for these adaptations.