Review: 'The Invisible Man' brings the iconic horror character to new heights

The latest adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel is a haunting film that will have you looking over your shoulder

When I was young, I used to be terrified of going up the stairs in my house. I feared that something would grab my ankle and drag me down, never to be seen again. To combat this, I would stand at the bottom of the stairs, brace myself and full-on sprint up the stairs, making sure to never look back to the unseen forces. These emotions — the anxiety and paranoia — resurfaced as I watched The Invisible Man,directed by Leigh Whannell.

Whannell seemed to emerge out of nowhere in 2018 with the release of his cyberpunk horror film “Upgrade.” However, he has actually been working in Hollywood for over 15 years, with his major credits including writing blockbusters like  “Saw” and “Insidious.” Whannell specializes in horror, and with his latest feature, he brings the iconic character of the Invisible Man, featured in the 1897 book by H. G. Wells, to new heights. 

The release of The Invisible Man” comes after Universal Studios’ failed attempt to start its own cinematic universe, starring its iconic horror characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy. Johnny Depp was originally slated to star in the film, but those plans changed after the box office disappointment of 2017’s “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise. Then, in 2019, Universal announced that its horror films will instead be made as standalone films.

In the original novel written by H. G. Wells and in multiple adaptations afterward,  “The Invisible Man” focuses on the titular character Adrian Griffin, a scientist who finds a way to make himself invisible. This leads him to a life of crime, including burglary and murder. However, Whannell takes a unique approach by focusing on the victim of the story, rather than the main character. 

Cecilia Kass, played by Elisabeth Moss, escapes the clutches of her abusive and controlling relationship with Griffin, portrayed in this adaptation as a wealthy businessman. After staging his own suicide, Adrian uses his wealth and resources to make himself invisible to stalk Cecilia. The victim-focused perspective feels timely — the film was released shortly after the Me Too movement surfaced, and the conviction of former film giant Harvey Weinstein came just four days before the wide release of the film.

Whannell puts audiences in Cecilia’s shoes as she struggles with whether her ex-boyfriend is actually stalking her or her mental well-being is taking a turn for the worse. 

The film achieves this by using point-of-view shots; we see whatever Cecilia is seeing or isn’t seeing. There are several scenes where we focus on an empty corner in the room, but is it really empty? That uneasiness and feeling of being watched is expertly crafted through the film’s cinematography.

I should note that this was not an easy film to watch. Viewers come to really empathize with Cecilia as she is haunted by her past relationship. Whannell compels us to throw our own experiences with Cecilia by never actually seeing the abuser. Obviously, he's often invisible, but throughout the film when he isn’t invisible, and even in the trailers, you don’t ever clearly see Adrian's face. This decision allows audiences to come up with their own version of Griffin. 

Elisabeth Moss is the highlight of “The Invisible Man," as she portrays a woman who feels isolated in a crowded world and haunted by her past.  Whether she begs for help from her peers, shares a tender moment with her sister or finally challenges Adrian — in a third act that's both frightening and exhilarating — Moss is powerfully convincing. Aldis Hodge plays detective James Lanier, who takes Cecilia in and looks after her. The two are accompanied by Sydney, James’s daughter, and they form a trio that brings a sentimentality and intimacy that serves as a break for the tense scenes involving Griffin.  

In the saturated market of horror films, "The Invisible Man" is a profound work filled with hair-raising tension and scares. Despite its fantasy element of an invisible man, the story is very much grounded as we witness a woman dealing with the trauma of an abusive relationship in a world that very much reflects our own. After watching this film, you’ll end up looking behind you more often or sprinting up your own flight of stairs. 


Reach the reporter at txayasom@asu.edu and follow @its_tim_x on Twitter.

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