When Universal attempted to get their own version of the MCU off the ground (a monster cinematic universe, dubbed Dark Universe), The Invisible Man was one of the first films on the slate. But first, the The Mummy happened. After The Mummy failed with critics, audiences, and most importantly, at the box office, Universal took a step back and began to rethink their commitment to the Dark Universe approach. That included their version of The Invisible Man, which was originally set to star Johnny Depp.
Well. Thank god for that.
The failure of the Dark Universe would eventually give way to director Leigh Whannell’s version of The Invisible Man, and I can only imagine it’s infinitely better than what we would have gotten otherwise. Instead of functioning as a small slice in an interconnected world of supernatural monsters, The Invisible Man stands on its own as a film that draws on monsters much closer to home.
The Invisible Man follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) as she decides to make a run for it in the dead of night to leave her abusive, controlling partner, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Though Cecilia makes it out of her ex’s home in one piece with the help of her sister (Harriet Dyer), the danger to her life isn’t over. She hides out with family friends James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), afraid to even venture even so far as the curb to check the mail out of fear that Griffin has finally tracked her down. When Griffin evidently takes his own life, Cecilia begins to relax – until she starts experiencing more of the physical and psychological abuse that was the hallmark of her ex.
The Invisible Man looks at many terrifying aspects of abusive relationships, including the question: Why don’t women leave them? It also posits an answer pulled from real-world statistics: that most domestic homicides happen after a woman tries to leave an abusive relationship, not during. Even if a woman can manage to leave after being ostracized from friends and family or becoming financially dependent on her abuser, leaving the abuser may prompt, rather than prevent, more danger.
Though only vaguely mirroring the source material from H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man is very much a horror movie for our time. Because although the metaphor may feel a bit on the nose, it’s somehow never too much. The average abuser may not be able to physically disappear, but much of what happens to Cecilia is so horrifying because it hardly feels supernatural at all. She’s constantly questioning her own sanity because her ex’s harmful actions are ones only she can see or feel, and the more she struggles to get away from him, the more focused his efforts are on making her life hell.
The Invisible Man gives us plenty of the psychological torture you can imagine from a stalking, abusive, and invisible villain. It takes the most horrifying elements of a ghost story, pitting its protagonist against a poltergeist-like foe that can physically harm its target without ever being seen by the naked eye. This makes for some particularly excruciating moments of classic horror movie tension; the kind that makes you want to scream: Don’t go in there! I spent the majority of The Invisible Man in the kind of tense dread I experience during my favorite sort of horror films.
Beyond checking those horror boxes, The Invisible Man infuses an already-clever metaphor with an appropriately fleshed out protagonist, which is essential to avoiding making the film feel manipulative. Moss is great (when is she not?) at infusing her character with a hypnotic combination of fear, rage, and disbelief. She manages to defy simple categorization as a “badass woman” or the classic kind of horror lead who makes all the wrong moves. Both her performance and Cecilia’s characterization lend a sense of authenticity to the film.
Cecilia dons sweats and sneakers for most of The Invisible Man’s running time, even re-wearing the same clothes on different days. That’s a minor detail on its face. But it’s one that makes its character feel far more familiar than a hyper-sexualized lead clad in figure-hugging, designer fashion and a full face of makeup when she’s barely well enough to get out of bed. And although the titular character is the invisible man, Cecilia is planted firmly as the film’s lead, with her abusive ex appropriately taking the backseat in character development.
Hodge’s performance as James, the family friend/cop who tries to support Cecilia, is the film’s other standout. He inhabits a character who could easily be so frustrating – an annoying obstacle, the guy who won’t believe the protagonist about what’s really going on. But he plays the role with such empathy and despair that it’s hard not to be on his side, even though we know what’s really happening to Cecilia. Through James, The Invisible Man manages to impart an additional layer of the emotional horror of Cecilia’s situation, as she begs those around her to believe the unbelievable when she insists she’s being manipulated from a man beyond the grave.
Horror is often at its most effective when it’s delivering scares via thoughtful social commentary. The Invisible Man has that in spades, proving that a smart script, committed director, and talented actors can be a far more powerful vehicle for classic horror than a generic, paint-by-numbers franchise reboot.