Horror movies have a long history of exploiting feminine fear, but some horror movies take it a step further and are about feminine fear. Leigh Whannell’s update to The Invisible Man, repurposing what was supposed to be a Johnny Depp blockbuster as a low-budget genre piece, is one such movie. Whannell’s Invisible Man is rooted in the tradition of films like Gaslight—from which the term “gaslighting” derives—Wait Until Dark, Suspiria, and more recently, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, as it uses horror conventions to weave a dark tale of fear, paranoia, doubt, and what it’s like to be a woman whom nobody believes. The Invisible Man deals explicitly with abuse and intimate violence, and the way society marginalizes inconvenient women. It was interesting to look around the theater during the screening and see how differently men and women engaged with the film, with men having a visceral fear experience while women mostly looked sad and knowing about what would happen next.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Cecilia, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with tech bro Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The opening of The Invisible Man is an impossibly nervy, viscerally upsetting slow-moving escape as Cecilia creeps out of bed in the dead of night and tries to exit her home without waking Adrian. Once clear of his immediate physical threat, she explodes to action, fleeing with the help of a friend waiting on the road. The Invisible Man, which is also written by Whannell, is exceptionally smart about its abuse scenario. The entire film is geared to cut off questions like “Why does she stay?” at the knees, showing just how hard it is to get out of a domestic violence situation, and how perilous recovery is for women when the men who abuse them can get to them at any time. Adrian literally haunts Cecilia even after she is, technically, free of him. He dies by suicide, which carries the compounded grief of survivor’s guilt and presumed condemnation from people who blame her for Adrian’s despair, and a twisted clause in his will ties Cecilia’s financial future to Adrian’s dictates—even dead, this guy is controlling and abusing Cecilia.
But is he dead? Almost as soon as Adrian is gone, Cecilia starts seeing things and noticing discrepancies that suggest she is being followed even though there is no visible presence around her. The Invisible Man is a very low-budget affair (which makes its box office especially impressive), so Whannell’s visual tricks are largely practical and limited to small objects moving between shots—it pays to study the whole frame and notice what is different each time we return to a particular location. It reminds me of The Haunting of Hill House, which also stars Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and how the background was always changing in a scene. And the “evidence” of Cecilia’s unseen stalker is mostly relegated to simple, practical effects that would not be out of place in a Paranormal Activity movie, but that only makes Cecilia’s plight more traumatic. What’s happening to her is so SIMPLE and DOMESTIC, it works on the level of home invasion/haunting horror, but also as an allegory of the kind of constant, low-level terror of living in a space with an abuser, where you never quite safe even in seemingly empty rooms.
The Invisible Man is also anchors the audience in the position of Cecilia throughout the film. As viewers, we are never in any doubt what is happening to Cecilia, Whannell does not play his film to trick the viewer. But that also means we are trapped with her in a world that does not believe her, that is not interested in validating her experience. For women, the experience is excruciating, because nothing that happens to Cecilia is a surprise. OF COURSE no one believes her, OF COURSE everyone thinks she’s crazy, OF COURSE the more unhinged she appears, the more everyone starts to doubt her stories of abuse in the first place.
This is what it is like to be a woman, where your reality can be overwritten at any moment by someone insisting that Adrian really is a good guy, and this doesn’t sound like him at all, are you sure that you want to go ahead with these allegations, honey? It’s infuriating and frustrating to watch, but it also makes the finale so much more cathartic. The whole film spirals to the point that the delusion being forced on Cecilia is so galling that it is a relief to see her finally cut through the bullsh-t. The Invisible Man is a smart, lo-fi approach to a classic movie monster that tells a gripping, timely story.