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‘The Invisible Man’ hides genius in plain sight

| Thursday, March 5, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

I have the same routine every time I come home from a horror movie. As I’m driving, I can’t help but look into my empty backseat, expecting to see the latest boogeyman patiently waiting to jump and force me off the road. I have absolutely no idea what I’ll do when I finally find Michael Myers or Freddy Kreuger sitting in my car; all I know is that I don’t want to see them. But I look anyway.

The appeal of horror movies doesn’t come from things that go bump in the night, the poltergeists and demons that populate our nightmares. It comes from our inability to look away. Leigh Whannell’s spectacular “Invisible Man” remake expertly plays upon that dynamic by making vision and erasure the central metaphors of its story. Instead of focusing on the titular scientist as earlier film versions have, this latest take on H.G. Wells’ tale centers on one of his victims.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with wealthy scientist and “optics pioneer” Adrian Griffin whose Silicon Valley pedigree and nouveau-riche affectations place the story firmly in 2020. Cecilia’s opening escape from Griffin’s mansion establishes the white-knuckle tenor of the film, with the glass and mirrors design of the house foregrounding the importance of transparency in a movie all about sight. With the help of her sister and a local cop (Harriett Dyer and Aldis Hodge, both going above and beyond what could be thankless roles), Cecilia hides out from Adrian and tries to readjust to life on her own. After Adrian commits suicide, Cecilia thinks that she can finally rest easy and begin the long process of healing. Everything is not what it seems, however, and a series of increasingly suspicious events leaves Cecilia sure that Adrian is haunting her from beyond the grave.

It’s a shame that Whannell had to keep the title of the film; with the source of Cecilia’s haunting revealed before we even enter the theater, plenty of the story’s potential ambiguity goes out the window. With that enigma accounted for, Whannell ratchets up the quality of the film’s scares, using both the visual aptitude he showed off in “Upgrade” and the perverse creativity of his “Saw” screenplays to craft a genuinely terrifying piece of audience manipulation.

Mainstream horror cinema has a basic rule regarding negative space: If there is an empty area in the frame, the audience can be sure that it will be filled. Talented directors know how to use this negative space to thrill and scare moviegoers, whether it’s Spielberg hiding the shark in “Jaws” or Oren Peli using a slowly roving camera to drive up tension in “Paranormal Activity” (whose suburban setting and deliberate pace are an obvious influence on “The Invisible Man”). Whannell gleefully inverts the audience’s expectations of negative space; his empty areas remain unfilled even as the music ramps up and the camera creeps closer. A pair of scares — one involving frozen breath on a cold night, the other using a can of paint — will immediately sear themselves onto the brains of anyone who watches them, perfectly encapsulating the appeal of “The Invisible Man.” The audience — and Cecilia — know that Adrian is somewhere in the frame, hiding in chairs and open doorways. We just can’t see him. 

“The Invisible Man” isn’t flawless — the third act, in particular, suffers from a jump to sci-fi-inflected action sequences — but it doesn’t need to be. It is the rare multiplex horror film with no aspirations towards “elevated horror.” Even as it soberly depicts gaslighting and toxic masculinity to drive the story forward, Whannell’s script concerns itself first and foremost with thrills. Moss’ performance is the heart of the film, her panic and resourcefulness immediately making Cecilia an ideal audience surrogate. Whannell follows Moss’ lead, letting his protagonist be truly vulnerable and giving her ingenious ways to strike back against her tormentor. By the time Cecilia shares a look with the audience at the end of the film, Moss and Whannell have taken a timeless horror classic and given it new, vital life.

Even as it terrified me, even as I chewed over its unflinching violence and portrayal of PTSD, the true power of “The Invisible Man” didn’t strike me until I was well out of the theater. I spent plenty of time on the drive home looking into the back seat. Once again, I didn’t see anything — but now, that’s the scariest possibility of them all.

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