'The Invisible Man' and When the Horror Feels Real

The Invisible Man Still 12 - Publicity - H 2020
<p><em>The Invisible Man</em></p>   |   Mark Rogers/Universal
Filmmaker Leigh Whannell uses the pulpy powers of invisibility to expose the terrors that have become all the more visible in the #MeToo era.

[This story contains spoilers for The Invisible Man.]

It’s just a feeling; the feeling of someone else in the room. Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) leaves her bedroom and enters the foyer of the house, cautiously looking around for some unseen threat. She notices that the front door is open, the chain lock removed, but unbroken. Startled, the first questions about her own sanity beginning to emerge in her mind. Cecilia walks through the door and stands on the porch in the chilly night air, eyes searching for some intruder on the run. She sees no one. She exhales with both relief and hesitance, her breath visible in front of her. Next to her, just above her head and out of her line of sight, a second breath from an invisible source condenses in the cold. Cecilia shudders. It’s just a feeling — a feeling women know all too well.

After years of failed attempts of revitalize its classic monsters, Universal has finally found the winning formula with Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. A reimagining of James Whale’s 1933 film of the same name, itself based on H.G. Wells’ groundbreaking novella, this latest incarnation of The Invisible Man makes the titular character frightening again by giving him a contemporary urgency. The Invisible Man has always been one of the more grounded Universal monsters. Unlike Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolf-Man, his existence isn’t reliant on the supernatural. And while he may share a scientific origin like Frankenstein’s monster and the Gill-Man, there’s less suspension of belief required. It’s far easier to buy a man inventing a scientific formula that allows for invisibility than it is to buy resurrecting the dead from stitched together body parts, or an ancient aquatic creature who falls in love with a human woman.

The success of this new film, and why it makes for such a strong debut in Universal’s latest attempt to make these classic characters scary again, also comes down to morality. The Invisible Man, the original character and not those who assumed the mantle in Universal’s five sequels, is the most vile of all the Universal monsters, driven not by a physical need for blood in order to survive, a curse or a desire to be left alone, but by cold, cruel malice. “An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill,” the bandaged figure says in Whale’s film. In Whannell’s iteration, however, it’s not ruling the world the Invisible Man is after, but a power of a more intimate and realistic nature. In a similar way to how Jordan Peele took the seemingly outdated, oft-explored and parodied horror concept of body-snatching or brain-swapping and made it a frightening vehicle to explore racism with 2017's Get Out, Whannell uses the pulpy powers of invisibility to expose the terrors that have become all the more visible in the #MeToo era.

Prior adaptations of The Invisible Man, or works inspired by it, like Paul Verhoeven’s sleazy Hollow Man (2000), took the same course as the novel by telling the story through the perspective of the central character. Whether we’re talking Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) of the original film, or Hollow Man’s Sebastian Crane (Kevin Bacon), directors have been drawn to the experience of invisible men, their search for a cure, their sadistic reigns of terror and, in Verhoeven’s case, their sexual assaults. As audiences, we’re drawn in to men behaving badly, and the opportunity to see actors revel in their villainy. Even as we look upon the characters in disgust, we still find them compelling, more so if they’re chewing up scenery, not unlike comic book villains. This existence of the monster as a knowable protagonist is an aspect that Universal monsters of the past have thrived on. But for contemporary audiences, the unknown is far more frightening, as is the perspective of the victim, rather than the monster.

Whannell smartly shifts focus away from the Invisible Man and towards his victim Cecilia, casting the central monster in an entirely new light and giving us a fascinating new heroine in the process.

The Invisible Man as a figure of domestic abuse, and a cause for trauma and PTSD, is not the subtext of the film, but the text itself. Before Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) even gains his invisibility, before we even fully see him, or hear him speak, we’re taught to fear him. The opening scene, depicting Cecilia fearfully trying to escape from the house with her belongings without waking Adrian, is a horror intro for the ages. Her behavior tells us everything we need to know about the relationship and we’re made fully aware that’s there’s a monster in the house with her, before any of the genre elements are introduced. We’re not watching a man descend into monstrosity because of his newfound powers, or even watching a bad man grow worse because of them, we’re watching a man, already fully a monster, use his new abilities to further abuse and gaslight his ex.

Even with the prior knowledge of Whannell’s previous film Upgrade (2018), and the filmmaker’s desire to do something new with Wells’ story, the grounded nature of The Invisible Man still comes as something of a surprise. Yes, there’s the nature of Griffin’s invisibility that has literal ties to Whannell’s prior film and continues his techno-phobia-inducing abilities. But what’s more surprising is how seriously the subject of abuse is taken. There is a careful consideration of Cecilia’s experience as a woman who has been trapped in a relationship with a man who controlled every aspect of her life and in a world where men are potential threats. We see how that system of abuse exists in other parts of her life as well, like her interview with a potential new boss who makes a comment that is obviously creepy and out of bounds despite the “nice guy” persona that is all too true to our contemporary society and gender dynamics played across power imbalances.  

Moss plays Cecilia as a woman who has shrunken into herself, a woman who hunches, creeps around and looks downward, even if there’s seemingly no reason for her to do that anymore. There’s a realism to the trauma she’s experienced and continues to experience, not only in terms of how it affects her but her friends and family in her corner, namely James (Aldis Hodge), Sydney (Storm Reid) and Emily (Harriet Dyer). Cecilia’s battle to overcome the abuse she’s been captive to isn’t simply a physical fight against the Invisible Man as movie monster, but a mental one against an invisible man, an ex, who could be any abusive man within our society and whose presence still exudes some control over her life.

The use of negative space within the film accentuates the terror, giving negative energies a place to grow. Cleverly, there are moments that we as an audience, much like Cecilia, are unsure of whether Adrian is in the room or not. But it’s that feeling, that feeling of unease, of being watched, of being threatened, that we’re allowed to share with her that makes The Invisible Man such an involving horror film. The experience may be triggering for some with a history of abuse, or those who have experienced it second-hand through friends and family. But this is also a story of fighting back, of asking to be believed, and being answered with belief in turn. It’s a Universal Monster movie in which there’s no guilt to be found in joining the mob and punishing the monster.

Whannell has found a way to bring a monster out of the past into the present, not so that it can be glorified and turned into a superhero-like figure to build a new cinematic universe, but so that we have something to fear again, an experience to share and ultimately overcome with some measure of catharsis. For the first time since the heyday of Universal’s horror output in the 1930s, a classic monster from its studio library has been stripped of its classicism and utilized to push us out of our comfort zone, challenge our awareness and beliefs and reflect the things that scare us in the here and now, rather than those of the early 20th century. It is truly something to see.