Three seconds, that’s how long it usually takes to execute a jump scare. One second to show the empty space soon to be filled, the next second cutting away to show the character about to be scared and the final second showing the first space now occupied by a scary thing. It makes sense that something so simple has been stuffed into 75 percent of horror films over the last ten years: it’s quick, easy and effective. What’s forgotten is the set-up and how it can either heighten or cheapen the scare. If it’s an obvious set-up and predictable execution, it becomes boring. And when those scares keep happening, it lessens the excitement for the rest of the movie. When those scares are spaced-out and slowly built upon, it heightens the tension and makes for something wildly more effective.
The Invisible Man could be written-off as another unnecessary remake of a classic book (H.G. Wells’s from 1897) and a classic film (the Universal monster movie from 1933). But now there’s a change in perspective: 2020’s Invisible Man is not the protagonist of his own movie. Instead it’s Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), a fragile woman who barely escapes the seaside compound of her abusive scientist boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Even as she’s staying in the home of her detective best friend (Aldis Hodge) and his young daughter (Storm Reid), Cecilia still feels the presence of Adrian everywhere she goes. Adrian is later found dead from an apparent suicide and his trust has awarded Cecilia $5 million, yet she still feels like something (or someone) is toying with her every move. Is she crazy? Or is Adrian still lurking behind her somehow?
At first glance, The Invisible Man might be seen as a solid project to be helmed by writer/director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious, Upgrade). But Whannell’s track record is full of ugly ghosts and grimy gore, not calculating psychopaths invisible to the eye. The Invisible Man implies some form of subtlety, not something seen in scripts filled with jump-scaring ghosts and limbs being sawed-off. So cheers to Whannell and his production designers for crafting something slow and creeping and, surprisingly, clean. That may sound like a detriment but, given that The Invisible Man is more thriller than horror, that cleanliness adds to the unease in Cecilia’s living nightmare. Whannell’s shot composition shows multiple open spaces free of clutter in each set as a tease for wherever the title character could pop out as he slowly pans through rooms. It makes sense that Alex Holmes of The Babadook was brought in to build the right open corners and dark spaces for the title character to hide.
Whannell also shows an impressive amount of restraint for the first hour of The Invisible Man, doing little things to pick away at Cecilia’s psyche. It also leaves room for him to direct his actors as natural friendly people, which he doesn’t seem too good at here. His script and direction of the actors in relaxed situations are awkward and inhuman, even bordering on Shyamalan-levels of weird. But you’ll know when the suspense part of the movie kicks in thanks to the blaring score from Benjamin Wallfisch (It, Blade Runner 2049), whose loud Hans Zimmer impression doesn’t fit the mood of the movie at all. A sharp string section would’ve worked better for the creeping moments building from the silence Whannell affords to set each scene. Even when he ramps up the tension and the violence (fans of Upgrade’s fight scenes will be pleased) in the second hour, Whannell sets everything up and hits the marks that follow the movie’s mood instead of making up for a lack of action.
While some might feel bad for the constant strife Elisabeth Moss’s roles put her in, it’s hard to stop her when she’s this damn good. Though still awkward during lighthearted moments, Moss is enthralling to watch as she sinks further into madness. Though she starts the movie off slightly unhinged, she keeps adding more bits of crazy to every scene. Moss throws in dashes of manic energy, desperation, paralyzing fear and even something sinister. It doesn’t leave much room for the supporting players, though Jackson-Cohen and Reid bring brief moments of levity. This is all Moss’s show and she excels without succumbing to scream-queen horror troupes.
Rising from the ashes of the Dark Universe (the what now?) and reshaped under Blumhouse Productions, The Invisible Man is a thriller that’s modern in the best sense. It’s patient with its scares instead of being desperate for attention. There’s a clean maturity to its execution even when it goes for bits of sleaze. It has traces of modern horror cliches that thankfully don’t weigh it down. In the end, The Invisible Man is less a remake and more of a re-interpretation, a successful one at that. We’ve seen the man who makes himself invisible, but it turns out seeing the one in view of the man who can’t be seen is compelling for an entirely different reason.