Grackles review The Invisible Man

Directed by Leigh Whannell

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

Writer/director Leigh Whannell first made his mark on the horror genre back in 2004 when he co-wrote and starred in Saw for his longtime friend and collaborator James Wan. The surprise success of that shocker launched Whannell from obscurity to the frontline of up-and-coming horror filmmakers. He wrote several Saw sequels, the Insidious movies, and even took a stab at directing with Insidious: Chapter 3 and 2018’s sci-fi thriller Upgrade. His latest, The Invisible Man, is Universal Pictures’ most recent update to one of their classic movie monsters. Originally Universal envisioned The Invisible Man as a high-budget action film starring Johnny Depp to serve as part of the Dark Universe, the studio’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, when the inaugural film, 2017’s The Mummy crashed on takeoff, Universal reimagined the film as a lower-budget horror film make through the studio’s cost-effective partners at Blumhouse Productions.

The Invisible Man stars Elisabeth Moss as Celia, an architect living in an abusive and controlling relationship with boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). As the film opens, she’s drugged him and flees in the night to escape his physical and psychological torment. At first scared to death he’ll find her, Celia soon learns Adrian has killed himself and gifted her a multi-million dollar trust on the grounds that she never be convicted of a crime or be found mentally incompetent. But when Celia starts to suspect Adrian is still after her even though she can’t see him, she wonders if she can ever truly escape him.

Charlie Riccardelli: At several points in the movie, I kept thinking about this fantastic horror film from 1982 called The Entity. It’s about this single mother played by Barbara Hershey who one evening is raped by a person she cannot see. Despite seeking help and doing all she can to protect herself, she is besieged by the threat of this spectral nightmare while many of the people around her either don’t believe her or don’t want to face the realities of what is happening to her. As tawdry as that premise could be, The Entity is an appropriate disturbing psychodrama about abuse. While it has more of a thriller-chiller bent, The Invisible Man pulls it off too. Even better, it’s not like so many other films of the moment that has to underline the subtext for the audience. If you go in looking for a tightly-constructed horror film, you’ve found it. If you want a piercing metaphor for the ways in which people perpetrate abuse on their partners, The Invisible Man digs under your skin.

Scott Ray: I agree that this film is much more subtle than you might expect, especially if you were told the premise. That’s what I admire so much about it. It reminds me of films like The Babadook, where you have both a traditional style horror film—satisfying in all the ways great horror films can be—but you’ve also got an interesting, genre expanding meditation on grief. I don’t think The Invisible Man is as innovative as The Babadook, but I do think it balanced its two visions exceedingly well. It is both a tension-filled thriller and a deft illustration of how it feels to be gaslit to an extreme degree. Did you notice that long establishment exterior shot of the house with a gaslight out front?

CR: Ha, I didn’t, but now I want to go back and look for it. I appreciate that Whannell has the restraint to include a visual metaphor like that and not parade it around like some filmmaker who needs to prove their cleverness. I’ve seen some critics refer to this movie as ‘elevated horror’, a term that I don’t like, but I’d love your take. Elevated horror is essentially horror films that are more artistically and intellectually ambitious, ditching jump scares and cheap gore for mood and nuance. Some recent examples would be Get Out, Hereditary, and The Witch. I tend to think this term was invented by people who would normally be embarrassed to watch this genre because they view it as a graveyard for cheap thrills and low brow thought. Every genre is plagued with turgid examples. I’m thinking that as mainstream movies become increasingly milquetoast, those people who are bereft of ideas in their films have started to see the well of possibilities in a genre that grants its filmmakers more creative legroom.

SR: I have to confess, I don’t watch a ton of horror, but I loved every movie you mentioned above, basically for the reasons you described. It’s not that I think I’m too good for horror movies, but the jump scares and the cheap gore of some don’t do much for me. I enjoy any genre done thoughtfully, especially films that are looking to do a little subverting. I also think that I tend to be more frightened of real things in the world, making the more supernatural films more of a stretch for me. In The Invisible Man, though the technology allowing the invisibility seems far-fetched, the type of trauma and turmoil Adrian puts Celia through is all too real.

I’m a long time Elisabeth Moss fan, and in this film she’s done some great work. The last film I saw her in, Her Smell was a great 2019 film that probably didn’t get enough attention. In this film and often, I’m always impressed by how much feeling Moss conveys through quiet and restraint. Of course, she’s also fantastic when asked to scream in mortal terror. She’s really dynamic in that way. There’s also an unhinged quality that Moss portrays, like she’s almost completely lost control. What did you think of the other performances?

CR: Everyone is doing solid work here, but this is Moss’s show. I’m not sure how many people realize it, but she’s been a child actor since the early 1990s, and her turn as Peggy on Mad Men was one of those performances that turns heads in the way she so believably transforms from a meek typist to a cutthroat Madison Avenue copywriter over the course of a few seasons. When it comes to vulnerability, few actors appear to be giving so much of themselves on the screen, but where I think I and many audiences really connect with her is this dogged determination that she will not be underestimated. That’s where this film really kicks ass, when Celia takes the way other’s think little of her and turn the tables to her advantage. While the film gets ample scares out of her being terrorized, it’s much more gratifying seeing her stand her ground.

Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review, Cold Mountain Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.

Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.