Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s psychological horror thriller (available on digital platforms) unearths the classic Universal movie monster – and even includes a quick appearance by a guy wrapped in gauze, just like Claude Rains in the 1933 movie – but with a twist. This “Invisible Man” focuses on a victim rather than the victimizer: Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escapes her abusive ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) but is convinced he’s made himself invisible and is terrorizing her, though the rest of the world believes the bad dude killed himself.
“This was so grounded in reality by making the monster a real person and making him a real threat that we could actually see happening,” Moss says.
While producer Jason Blum figures this is a one-shot dive into Universal’s vintage monster squad for him (at least for now), he loved how Whannell “came up with something super-cool and original and different.” Whannell acknowledges having to fight the urge to include an Easter egg: “I did have to resist in the hospital scene having one of the voices coming over the PA saying, ‘Paging Dr. Jekyll …’ ”
Whannell and Moss break down how the old-school monster is still in the DNA of the new film, and why the movie’s timely themes make him more relevant than ever.
The title villain is a high-tech throwback
The Invisible Man first appeared in the eponymous 1897 H.G. Wells sci-fi novel, and like the book’s central character, Griffin, Adrian is a gifted (albeit sociopathic) scientist in the optics field. It tied into Whannell’s goal to make the movie “completely believable for a 2020 audience,” the Australian filmmaker says. “I didn’t want there to be anything outlandish or fantasy-based. I wanted everything to be really grounded in tech.”
During pre-production in Sydney, Whannell bounced the plausibility of his invisibility concept off a few scientists. “They were all like, ‘Yeah, this could work,’ and then were chatting about the various ways that they would try to do it. So I may have unknowingly unleashed a monster into the world.”
The scares are inspired by old-school filmmaking
The 1930s movie is a little goofy in retrospect, with one scene featuring a levitating bicycle being thrown at villagers by an invisible Jack Griffin (Rains). Yet Whannell embraced similar practical effects – and the influence of Alfred Hitchcock – to craft an atmosphere of constant tension. He also thought of the camera as a character, making the viewer wonder at all times whether Cecilia’s unseen antagonist was in the room with her.
“I wanted to weaponize the audience’s knowledge of cinema against them,” Whannell says. “Audiences today have seen so many movies and are so desensitized to thrillers and horror films that to outwit them can be challenging. I knew that if the audience buys a ticket to a film called ‘The Invisible Man,’ they’re going to be automatically suspicious of any empty spaces.”
Abuse and gaslighting strike a nerve in a #MeToo context
Horror forever has “always been a great Trojan horse for social issues,” Whannell says, and “Invisible Man” was a chance for him to explore domestic violence in a #MeToo-era context and how victims, especially women, aren’t always immediately believed. “I felt for this movie that gaslighting really fit because there’s no one better to gaslight you than someone who can’t be seen.”
Whether a movie centers on a superhero or a monster, “we want to feel like it’s identifiable,” Moss adds. “Even if you’ve got the gigantic supervillain, we want to feel like that’s somebody you could go, ‘Oh, you know what, unfortunately I’ve come across that person’ or ‘That is a person that I recognize in my friend’s life.’ ”
A modern ‘Man’ needed the right woman
Just as key to the movie’s scares and effectiveness as the invisible guy is Moss. “She’s incredibly special and I’m hard pressed to believe the movie would’ve worked nearly as well had we cast anybody else besides her,” Blum says.
Moss thinks she’s inherently drawn to “playing people who are vulnerable and strong and smart and make stupid choices,” and her role as Cecilia was helped by Moss’ three seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which digs into themes of assault and violence with another character who had “her life taken away from her.”
“Invisible Man” has “a real, actual, modern sort of relationship and a different way of telling it,” Moss says. “June (on ‘Handmaid’s Tale’) has grown quite strong and she’s the leader now, and I wanted to take it back to what is it like when you just come out of that experience.”