It’s What You Can’t See That Scares You: Paranoia and Empty Spaces in “The Invisible Man”

Contains mild spoilers (most of which are in the trailer)

H.G. Wells’ original novel of THE INVISIBLE MAN, and the James Whale 1933 film of the same name (written by R.C. Sherriff) present us with the classic ‘mad scientist’ scenario, in which Dr Griffin (Claude Rains in the film) invents an invisibility potion and turns crazy, using the new-found ability to cause havoc. Writer / director Leigh Whannell’s THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) brings us a whole new take on the classic story.

Certainly, there’s still the age-old morality tale of science being used for nefarious purposes, but in the case of this particular scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), he was something of a monster even before metaphorically drinking his potion (bringing things up-to-date and more scientifically ‘believable’, in this telling the potion is replaced with an extraordinarily high-tech body suit). Early on we find out that he is in an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), holding a powerful grip over her life and every move she makes.

Cecilia finally breaks free from him and runs away. A short time later, she finds out that Adrian has apparently killed himself, and left her a great deal of money. One of the conditions of continuing to receive that money, though, is for Cecilia to be ‘of sound mind’. It’s not long before Cecilia starts to feel Adrian’s presence nearby, and things turn strange and ultimately violent.

Clearly the subject of the film isn’t entirely whether Cecilia is losing her mind, or if Adrian really has found a way to turn himself invisible, as that’s answered early on.

Rather, to me, it’s about how the grip of such a toxic relationship can keep hold of someone even once it’s apparently over. Cecilia still feels like she’s not in control of her own life. She feels that someone else is holding the reins, and no matter what she does, she’ll never be in charge of her own destiny. This is the part of the movie I found to be more effective and challenging than all of the invisibility stuff (enjoyable as that was, and superbly done). We know that Cecilia isn’t losing her mind, but no one else believes her. No one else can see the truth that’s in front of them, because they simply believe that she is still traumatised from all that she experienced at the hands of her former partner. At one point in the film, Cecilia is tempted to re-enter the ‘relationship’ she had with Adrian before she left him: something which is common to those who have suffered such an ordeal (for a superb analysis of this from the perspective of someone who survived such a relationship, please do read the article by Jenn Adams, linked at the bottom of this post).

The title, then, as with a lot of great titles, can be applied literally as well as metaphorically: despite having left the abusive relationship (and him being apparently dead), Adrian is still the ‘invisible man’ in Cecilia’s life; still there, hovering on the periphery, watching, analysing, waiting to strike out at any apparent misstep.

Cecilia’s apparent paranoia increases as events unfold. Her friends and relatives begin to despair; having been highly supportive of her when she first left Adrian, they (understandably) refuse to believe that Adrian is tormenting her, that it’s all in her head, and she’s the only one to blame for her increasingly psychotic behaviour.

As Cecilia’s paranoia increases, thanks to Whannell’s clever direction, so too does ours.

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of sitting through any number of crashy-crashy-bang-bang action films where everything is thrown at the screen other than any form of discernible plot will know: sometimes less is more. This is especially the case when you’re trying to create a well-crafted horror or thriller. You don’t need to show the monster in its entirety – or even at all – and more often than not the film is all the better for it when a creature or threat isn’t revealed in its full glory. The ‘reality’ of the danger is often a far lesser thing than what your imagination had conjured it up to be. Which segues nicely into mentioning what is, for me, one of the scariest film moments in recent years. THE CONJURING (2013, James Wan, written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes) is one of the few horror films in the past decade or so that has genuinely frightened me. Yet there’s no real on-screen violence; no true on-screen monster by normal definitions; no horrific deaths. What there is, is atmosphere. The scene in question involves two of the children in the family being terrorised by unseen forces. A girl, Christine, is woken up by having her legs tugged while in bed. She sits up. The open door to the bedroom slowly creaks half-closed, revealing nothing but darkness behind it. She wakes up her sister, Nancy, points a shaking finger into the darkness and asks: ‘Do you see it? There’s someone behind the door’. Nancy can’t make out anything, and neither can we, the viewer. We’re straining, trying to see if there really is anything in the darkness. Nancy goes over to investigate, but still can’t see anything. And then Christine says: ‘My God. It’s standing right behind you’. We don’t see anything, other than these scared sisters and a large patch of darkness. But it is a terrifying moment. Less is more.

This being a discussion of THE INVISIBLE MAN, where can you go from ‘less’? How about ‘nothing at all’. Through clever use of the camera, Whannell invites us to be terrified not just of shadows and darkness, but of completely empty spaces. There are several scenes which end with the camera slowly turning and pointing towards the other side of the room. What are we supposed to be focusing on? There’s nothing there, except for an empty chair and a lamp. The scene’s well-lit; everything we should be able to see is perfectly visible without any effort. And yet because Cecilia is facing an invisible menace, our eyes play tricks on us: was that a movement? Is there a crease in that chair where he could be sitting? Was that a breeze from a window, or did someone just walk by? Is Adrian there at all, or are we being left to believe he is, causing our own form of paranoia?

It’s a brave film-maker who will allow the camera to linger on empty spaces for more than a second or two, but in this context it works magnificently, focussing our attention on the fact that the danger could be anywhere – it could be exactly where we’re staring, but we wouldn’t be any wiser, no matter how hard we try looking. With techniques like this being used, you can’t help but be sucked into Cecilia’s world, always on her side and able to relate to what she’s going through; if we’re scared that he’s in the room, then it must be absolute hell for the character going through this ‘in real life’.

The film turns into something more like a traditional sci-fi action thriller for some of the second half, albeit it very well done, including some action sequences reminiscent of Whannell’s previous feature, the excellent, but overlooked UPGRADE (2018).

But it is those haunting images of nothingness that stick with you after the film has ended, and you can’t help but look in the back seat of your car when you’re leaving the cinema.

Just in case.

Further reading:

ADAMS, Jenn. 2020. ‘The Invisible Man Through the Eyes of a Survivor’, Consequence of Sound. Available at https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/03/the-invisible-man-survivor-op-ed/.

All images copyright their respective copyright holders.

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