Moonlit waves crash against coastal rocks, the darkness punctured only by an amber light coming from the windows of a mansion sat atop the cliff above. It’s a neo-Gothic scene wholly worthy of the classic studio chillers, while the film’s title fades in a cool, 1990s-esque glassy font.
Depending on when you start counting, Leigh Whannel’s The Invisible Man is Universal’s fifth attempt to reboot their old stable of monsters. Still, it seems that the erstwhile genre studio has finally learned their lesson to focus on making one decent film instead of endless franchise starters like 2017’s risible The Mummy. The masterstroke of the gambit is in not trying to replicate the creaky pseudo-Gothicism of the studio’s 1930s and 40s classics, but instead to pitch this reimagining as a 1990s-style domestic thriller. In fact, Whannel leans hard into the 90s aesthetic, with cinematographer Stefan Duscio casting the film in icy blues and cold, glassy surfaces, while Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, invokes the golden age of 1990s thrillers, with spiky textures from a melodramatic mix of strings and piano.
Starting fresh with everything but the conceit of a chap with chronic visibility issues, Elisabeth Moss is Cecilia, Adrian’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) gaslit, abused girlfriend. It’s a terrific turn from Moss, invoking the crystalline intelligence of The Silence of the Lambs-era Jodie Foster. It’s as if Cecilia is composed entirely of glass, perpetually on the verge of shattering. Fleeing from him in a nail-biting opening escape, Cecilia hides at her friend police officer James’s (Aldis Hodge) house until word comes that Adrian has apparently committed suicide. Still terrified of leaving the house, Adrian’s abusive memory lingers like a spectre before a series of unexplained incidents at the house cause Cecilia to believe that Adrian is still alive and close, even if he can’t be seen.
The Invisible Man trades on that well-established horror trope of the heroine unable to convince her friends that something is wrong, an apparent hysteria growing the more she pushes her fantastic theory. But by situating the film in the context of domestic abuse, Whannel avoids cliché by evoking the way that distressed women are routinely treated as irrational and disreputable – a theme carried through to the film’s inspired conclusion.
As the screws tighten, Cecilia becomes ever more isolated as Adrian’s poltergeist activities become increasingly malign. Invoking the classic serial-killer POV of Peeping Tom, the camera stalks Cecilia with long shots and from behind doorways, creating menace with negative space to the point where the frame itself becomes the villain. A surfeit of jump scares is immensely fun without being relied upon for cheap tension, while a visual reveal involving a can of paint in an attic is uncannily creepy.
The method by which Adrian makes himself invisible is a perfect summation of the film’s themes of patriarchy and the unseen power of perspective. Notwithstanding a few screenplay clunkers and narrative contrivances, those who care to look will find The Invisible Man an intelligent and rich piece of work – one unafraid of its genre trappings. If this is indicative of the direction that Universal is taking its horror reboots, the return of the mid-budget thriller is all but assured.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm