By the end of “The Invisible Man” we can see the silhouette of this abusive man, even when nothing is there. That is the horror of Leigh Whannell’s new Hitchcockian success. It is not relying on loud, cheap physical jumpscares, but instead a lacerating psychological stress built scene to scene. This is a horror film that stands in a different camp than the Mephistophelian stories of recent great horror films–“Hereditary” and “Suspiria”. This is the excruciating tension that we all want from mainstream horror. It’s classic stuff, and at the center of it all is a decidedly feminist revenge story.
Whanell’s playground of terror begins in the first shot of the film–surging waves crash against a sea rock, a simple way of beginning a film. Except, the camera is facing away from the oncoming waves. Whanell lets the rhythm of the oncoming waves build as the opening credits are shown. And from the getgo, this is where the horror starts. It’s like a recent “Mission: Impossible” movie, wasting no time to get to exactly what you paid for. The core of the terror Whanell creates uses timing and rhythm.
The opening scene comes off as the short scenes that take place before the story in horror. Think of the first person scene of a young Michael Meyers killing his sister in “Halloween” or the teenage girl running at dusk from an unknown person in “It Follows.” Except, this is where the story starts, in a scene of Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) escaping not from a lurking terror, but from her captor. We then learn that this was her abusive boyfriend, in a way that shows us that it captures a certain level of truth in the cruelty of relationships like this. Cicilia now lives with fair-minded cop James Lainer (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Her trauma is deep within her bones–even going to get the mail is a challenge for her. Until she learns her boyfriend has committed suicide. But when she starts to experience strange things around her house, she realizes that he is still alive.
For a Blumhouse horror film, this is one of their best. Their low budget, high appeal business model is appropriate for making money, but hasn’t proven itself as an artistic choice. And, in “The Invisible Man” there are still some of the characterizations of a Blumhouse horror picture to be found. Particularly the characters making bad decisions and plot holes. In a scene where Cecilia hears her dead boyfriends phone ringing in her attic after she calls it, she choses to go look for it. Why not call the police if he’s proven dead?
There are little things that Whannel didn’t think through that hold the film back from being an excellent film. However, the film is so detailed in its suspense. Whannel’s piercing suspense comes from what is being revealed and the story its connected to. The bag of horror schticks (jumpscares, loud noises, possessed creatures) in other Blumhouse horror films is absent, replaced with scenes of silent suspense that are coordinated, like an attack on the sences. And when they, hit, they hit with a punch of fear and adrenaline.
But what really holds the film together, is Moss’ performance, and her command as a character. Beyond the occasional lapse in Whannel’s script, her character has spirit and surprising vulnerability. Her performance is very much cerebral, using her brain to outsmart the man who can not be seen. She becomes one step ahead of him and by the end it, the audience.
Without spoiling anything, where the film ends up taking twists and turns with an emphasis on character growth. Moss’ character transitions from traumatized girl to a badass woman with a surprising amount of exposure. Bait and switch moments are often, in such a way that don’t treat the audience like idiots, but have fun with our expectations.
This is the kind of film that breathes new life into a dying genre. Whannel, whether or not trying, has provided us with a film that has its own puzzle box. This is the great horror film we look for, that offers great fun but at the same time is rooted, in painful, personal drama.