Horror movies always have a moment where someone looks around a space or is startled by a sound in the basement. The lighting in these scenes is often dark, the character in a vulnerable and unsettling situation. The audience then waits for the moment when someone or something jumps from the shadows and attacks. These moments linger for minutes and the audience is literally on the edge of their seats. It’s one of the true hallmarks of the horror genre where the filmmaker slows the pace of a scene and builds up the suspense.
However, dir. Leigh Whannell’s new horror film The Invisible Man has too many moments like this. The Invisible Man tells the story of a woman who freed herself from an abusive relationship and who finds out that her former boyfriend has somehow turned himself invisible. As farfetched as it seems, in the context of the film, it kind of makes sense.
The boyfriend, Adrian Griffin, is a wealthy scientist who’s a leader in the world of optics technology. We see his work on display in his apartment during the first several minutes of the film. We also know that he likes to keep his privacy, even if it means setting up a security system and a literal wall around his girlfriend, Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss). Right away, we come to understand Adrian as the mighty control freak who hates to see himself not in control. And it’s through understanding Adrian’s character that the entire premise of him turning himself invisible turns out to make sense, but again, in the context of his role and the film.
It’s once Adrian’s girlfriend vanishes from his life (no pun intended) that his need to stay in control changes him. He turns from an abusive boyfriend to an invisible murder. Not only does he stalk and hurt Cecilia, but he also hurts the people who share a special connection with her. He winds up attacking Cecilia’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), and many more along the way. Adrian doesn’t let anyone get in between him and her.
While Adrian is a force of nature, his moments when he’s alone with Cecilia and stalking her are too frustrating, even for a fan of horror. Whenever the film needed to pause and have the audience wait for the inevitable (Blah!), I found myself slumping more and more into my chair and blocking my eyes with my hands, thinking to myself, why? Why do horror films today have to rely on the inevitable (‘Blah!) and loud screeching of a violin to snag the audience’s attention? Dir. Alfred Hitchcock discussed this very issue before regarding the difference between suspense and surprise. He mentions how effective it is when the audience knows there’s a bomb ready to explode. The audience suddenly becomes participants rather than spectators. However, if the bomb suddenly goes off, then there are no consequences. Hitchcock’s notion is that the best way to create suspense is to make the audience see the threat before the characters even suspect it.
Although the audience knows that the invisible man or Adrian is near, they would only know it from watching the trailers or knowing what the movie is beforehand. Say, for example, if they didn’t know who or what was stalking Cecilia. It would be the case of a bomb going off suddenly or in this situation, a random door shutting behind Cecilia and the sound of a screeching violin to jolt the audience. While Adrian is a sinister force, we never quite experience his menace throughout the first 2 acts. Instead, most of the horror comes from not knowing the threat lurking behind a door, in the shadows, or at night when Cecilia and Sydney are sleeping and then being shocked when something suddenly falls on the ground accompanied by a screech. Jump scares are now part of the D.N.A. of the horror genre, but they don’t add to the impending threat.
What does add to Adrian’s character is the fantastic action scene in the third act. While trying to abuse Cecilia in a mental hospital, Adrian confronts several police officers in a hallway and takes each one out with their own guns. Whannel uses the same single-shot take used in many recent action films and shows. He also adds sheer brutality and menace after 2 acts of Adrian quietly stalking Cecilia in an apartment. I found myself finally waking up when Adrian used one of the officer’s guns to shoot him in the knee and watch him crumble on the ground. Amazingly, we don’t even see Adrian doing these things. However, we can still feel his presence and understand how far he’ll go to get Cecilia back.
The Invisible Man, unfortunately, falls into the annoying trap of using jump scares to jolt the audience occasionally. If only Adrian would’ve had more of a threatening presence, then perhaps this film would’ve hit home with me.
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