HG Wells’ landmark novel first appeared in serial form in 1896. Since it’s screen debut in 1933, it has become one of the most adopted stories in movie history. Leigh Whanell’s version of the tale has little in common with Wells’ brainchild. If anything, it’s closest to Paul Verhoeven’s The Hollow Man (2000), in which Kevin Bacon took on the titular role. But where that film was unforgivably salacious in tone, Whannell, rather astutely, uses the central idea as a metaphor for the way in which certain men can exert a powerful and malign influence over their female partners.
Here is a version of the story that chimes perfectly with #metoo – yet boasts all the thrills and jump-scares of a traditional fright movie. No mean achievement.
When we first encounter Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), she is already on the run from an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He is an ultra-successful inventor, working on a top secret project. The couple live in a super-swish home on a remote clifftop, where Adrian controls every aspect of Cecilia’s life – what she says, what she does, what she wears, what she eats – and he’s quick with his fists if she’s slow to obey him. She’s had more than enough. So she slips her husband a tranquilliser, grabs her pre-packed bag and makes a run for it. The film is taut with tension from the opening scene. The mere act of accidentally kicking a metal dog bowl is enough to make me almost jump out of my seat.
Two months later, Cecilia is lodging at the house of friendly cop, James (Aldis Hodge), a close friend of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). When news comes through that Adrian has killed himself, Cecilia starts to believe that her long nightmare is finally over – but then inexplicable things begin to happen around the house, incidents that threaten Cecilia and her developing friendship with James’ teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Cecilia gradually begins to understand that Adrian is still somehow holding the reins that govern her life. But she can’t see him. And the problem is, when she tries telling others that she’s being hounded by her invisible, dead partner, eyebrows are inevitably raised.
It’s strangely reassuring in this CGI-addicted era to see how much suspense Whannell manages to generate with what is mostly a traditional, low-tech approach. Shadowy corners, unexplained sounds in the night, brief glimpses of ‘something’ glimpsed from the corner of an eye … all of these are used to great effect to ramp up the steadily building tension to almost unbearable levels. Furthermore, there are enough twists and turns in this retelling to keep an audience guessing. It’s only as the film thunders into the final stretch that we actually get to ‘see’ the villain’s invisibility… if that makes sense – and to realise that the only person who can help Cecilia out of this sitation is Cecilia herself.
Moss is, as you might expect, superb here, convincingly showing us a character pushed to the very edge of sanity by the machinations of a vengeful and highly inventive partner.
Originally concieved as part of Universal’s planned (and promptly abandoned) ‘Dark Universe’ series, The Invisible Man is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. And then some. Be warned. This is not one for those of a nervous disposition.