These days, the horror-fantasy thriller tends to be a junk metaphysical spook show that throws a whole lot of scary clutter at the audience — ghosts, “demons,” mad killers — without necessarily adding up to an experience that’s about anything. But in “The Invisible Man,” Leigh Whannell’s ingenious and entertaining update of a concept that’s been around for 120 years (and recycled less often than you’d think), the thrills don’t just goose you; they have an emotional import. This gratifyingly clever and, at times, powerfully staged thriller is too rooted in our era to be called old-fashioned — in fact, its release feels almost karmically synched to the week of the Harvey Weinstein verdict. Yet there’s one way that the movie is old-fashioned: It does an admirable job of taking us back to a time when a horror film could actually mean something.
Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), a Bay Area architect who has just escaped from a toxic relationship, finds herself stalked and terrorized by her tech-mogul ex, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has figured out a way, through advanced digital imaging, to make himself invisible. Early on, he invades a bedroom, unheard and unseen, waiting for the perfect moment to pull off the bed covers and leave Cecilia utterly freaked out. But that’s just the beginning. Infiltrating communal office spaces, corporate boardrooms, and asylum cells, Adrian becomes a silent unseen force of deadly vengeance. He can drug you, he can steal your work portfolio, he can dash off fake emails and, more than anything, toy with your mind. He’s the invisible gaslighter.
In James Whale’s famous 1933 poetic sci-fi horror film, the invisible man was a spectral presence, played by Claude Rains as a haunted but delicate figure swathed in bandages — one whose vanishing act was treated, in the end, as a kind of affliction. The idea of the invisible man as an aggressive invader, on the other hand, a human monster who can strike at any moment, creates a highly charged set-up for fear and tension, and the new “Invisible Man” is a logistical mind-game suspense film staged with killer verve.
It would be easy to imagine a version of this movie that’s nothing more than a slickly executed victim-meets-tormenter-you-can’t-see, cat-and-mouse action duel. But Whannell, who was James Wan’s original collaborator on the “Saw” and “Insidious” films, and who directed “Insidious: Chapter 3” and “Upgrade,” has something more pleasurably ambitious in mind. Cecilia, who’s crashing for a while at the home of her childhood friend, a courtly police officer named James (Aldis Hodge), and his high-school-senior daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), makes a few fumbling attempts to explain what’s going on to them. But even they don’t buy what she’s saying. That sounds like a standard hurdle the heroine of a sci-fi drama has to get over, only in this case the fact that everyone thinks Cecilia is seeing things — or, more to the point, seeing a tormenter she isn’t able to see — is the source of the film’s tingly, anguished resonance.
The traumatic power of Moss’s performance is that she acts out the convulsive desperation and rage of a woman who is being terrorized and, at the same time, totally not believed about it, even by those closest to her. “The Invisible Man” is a social horror film grounded in a note-perfect metaphor. It’s the story of a woman who got sucked into a whirlpool of abuse and now finds that she can’t free herself, because the abuse remains (literally) out of sight. She’s every woman who’s ever had to fight to be heard because her ordeal wasn’t “visible.”
The early scenes fill in the endgame of Cecilia’s relationship with Adrian, a sick-puppy genius of optics technology who plays like a more malevolent knockoff of Oscar Isaac’s control-freak tech guru from “Ex Machina.” Adrian lives in a remote glassy mansion perched high in the hills over San Francisco (its surveillance center looks like something out of the Batcave), and he has essentially made Cecilia his prisoner, promising to kill her if she leaves. That’s why she wakes up with a hidden bottle of Diazepan (what used to be known as Valium), having drugged him to sleep, so that she can run out to the road below and be rescued by her sister, Alice (Harriet Dyer).
Whannell establishes a mood of suck-in-your-breath paranoia, as the figure we assume is Adrian shows up to torment Cecilia. Officially, he is dead (a suicide). Cecilia has even been named in his will; she’s getting a trust of $5 million to be given in monthly increments of $100,000. But, of course, that’s all too good to be true, especially when Cecilia starts promising to pay for Sydney’s tuition at Parsons School of Design. Moss acts with a slow-burn anguish that expresses the terror of how a bad relationship can keep its hooks in you long after you’ve shaken yourself free of it.
Adrian, now devoting his existence to torturing Cecilia (to the point that he’ll deny his own existence), launches his game of terror, and she fights back, even as those around her are convinced that she’s losing her marbles. They think she’s still so caught in Adrian’s grip that she’s hallucinating his presence. For a while, her sister becomes her enemy, but Cecilia agrees to have a rapprochement with her in a very public place — a posh Chinese restaurant, where the movie catches us up in an acerbically funny scene that skewers the latest in unctuous waiter etiquette. But it’s just setting us up for the kill. What happens next is jaw-dropping, oh-no-he-didn’t! crazy-awful-thrilling. It’s a scene that ups the stakes.
The way invisibility is achieved in “The Invisible Man” is pure fantasy, though it’s been given just enough of a seductive “technological” underpinning. Whannell uses it to stage the action with brute-force originality, as in a sequence where the invisible man, popping in and out of sight like a faulty green screen, cuts down an army of hospital security guards, one by one. And the culminating encounter at Adrian’s house makes for a delectable meeting of the minds. “The Invisible Man” is devious fun, with a message that’s organic enough to hit home: that in a toxic relationship, what you see is what you get — but the thing that gets to you is what you don’t see.