In the annals of great cinematic monsters, H.G. Wells’ original creation The Invisible Man stands with the best of them as a classic figure that represents the long history of fear in cinema. The 2020 incarnation of The Invisible Man also draws from an extended history of horror, a fear that is almost burned into our DNA.
The Invisible Man is so gripping, so arresting, and so terrifying because it embodies the real-life horror that many people, especially women, encounter on a daily basis. It applies an all-too-familiar Hollywood horror to an all-too-familiar horrific reality. When you look at the number of women that are abused by romantic partners, the rate of women’s deaths caused by abusive partners, those numbers are staggering. Look up any statistic on assault and stalking, and you will be even more terrified to hear of how underreported these crimes are. This chilling reality is the thesis statement of The Invisible Man. Adapting the classic film for a modern audience in this way enables The Invisible Man to become so much more than the legacy of the original films.
The Invisible Man is written and directed by Leigh Whannell and stars Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, and Michael Dorman. In the film, Cecilia (Moss) manages to escape her abusive ex, a sinister billionaire and a genius in optic technology. When Cecilia learns that her ex has taken his own life, leaving her his fortune, she knows that something is not right. She suspects that her former tormentor is not dead and strange occurrences and frightening close calls seem to prove her right. Time is running out and the stakes are getting higher as Cecilia strives to prove that she is being pursued by a threat that can’t be seen.
Whannell creates claustrophobic voyeurism through Stefan Duscio’s cinematography, managing to simultaneously build that anxiety of being watched with the feeling that the walls are closing in. Whether you view the shot from the perspective of the Invisible Man or Cecilia, the discomfort that comes with a forced intimacy that you know is unwelcome knots your guts. It’s one of the most effective devices used in the film.
The very concept of a threat that can’t be seen, but that you are certain is there, is an idea that is on its face gender-coded for women. In early scenes of the film, Cecilia is shown to be constantly looking over her shoulder when she escapes the home of her abuser, and as she tries to remain hidden in a safe place, with the reality that she is being stalked beginning to sink in. It is significant that her first alert to the presence of the invisible threat is that gut feeling. It speaks to experiences that women are intimately familiar with. The gut feeling that something is wrong or someone is off. It’s a subtle, but skillful way of illustrating the experiences of abuse victims and showing how that trauma permanently changes the way they live their lives, always looking over their shoulder.
Obsession can sometimes be thought of as the dark shadow of romance. In situations of abuse, control is misrepresented as caring. The Invisible Man is able to explore this with heart-wrenching depth. Despite having her abuse understood by her friends, Cecilia faces that common conflation of obsession and romance in how she is perceived by others. At one point, upon discovering a vital clue in her pursuit of the truth, Cecilia wryly comments on the use of a sentimental date as the passcode to the devices of her torment. “How romantic.”
As victims are recovering from their trauma, culture is reinforcing narratives of partners being driven to their actions out of desperation and love. No matter how ugly the abuse, the question in the air hangs, “What did the victim do?” Or, “It was only because he couldn’t lose you. Don’t you see he needed you?” Having faced assault, trauma, and stalking myself, these were the moments in the film where my breath caught in my throat.
Female hysteria and insanity have been explored in media since the epistolary novels of the late 1700s, hell maybe even before that. From a historic standpoint, the mental unraveling of women is treated as an object of both anxiety and degradation. There’s a lot of talk about the insane woman. There’s a predisposition to fear the overly emotional woman. You see it in politics. You see it in the ugliest Twitter threads. As we see in The Invisible Man, victim policing is just another means of placing a tight patriarchal hold on the very real fears and threats women face.
When Cecilia’s abuser leaves her a fortune in his will, it comes with the stipulation that she not be found to be insane. From there, any defense of her own experiences is viewed through that haze of potential insanity. The goal is to make her feel entirely alone and helpless. The gaslighting of women by abusers (sometimes even authority figures working on their cases) is the new boogeyman of the modern age. If all women are “final girls,” culture is the night stalker that does its damnedest to bring their fears into question and to twist those narratives. At several points, Cecilia must rely on her experience with her abuser’s pattern of behavior. “This is what he does,” she says over and over. The obsession and torment only works if her ex can convince Cecilia, and the world, that she is in the wrong. That she is doing it to herself. That she is crazy.
(Spoiler warning) Beyond being a frightfully close-to-home depiction of the trauma of a particular victim, The Invisible Man very competently tackles broad culture and threats to women. The “Me Too” and “Believe Women” connections are the more obvious discussions, but there are two others that really stick out. The first being The Invisible Man’s scathing commentary on reproductive control.
The underlying thread of Cecilia’s ex tampering with birth control, attempting to force a pregnancy, and the use of a baby to attempt to control Cecilia forever is a theme that screams. In a film where Cecilia is desperately fighting to get out from under the control of man, her body is all that she has and she has to guard it. For much of the film Cecilia takes a beating from the Invisible Man, being threatened and dragged around. Only when it is discovered that she is pregnant does the threat of harm stop. Start digging deep on any debate on a woman’s right to choose and you will find yourself wondering if pro-lifers care about the life of the woman as much as they do the potential life of an unborn. The Invisible Man takes its stance on that matter.
It’s funny. Even though the film is about an invisible threat, it seems that the villain is so plain to see. Watching The Invisible Man conjures up the most famous assault cases in recent memory. It makes you think of Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh: the faces of our culture’s bias and inability to value the pain of a victim as much as it values the potential of an assailant. In many ways, the real Invisible Man is the invisible hand of patriarchy. You can’t see it, no one will call it by name, but it’s absolutely there.
There is an argument to be made that horror has always been a woman’s genre. Final girls have been carrying the burden of horror’s commentary on societal anxieties since the ’30s. Women have been surviving and fighting back in horror for as long as the genre has existed. We’re currently riding a narrative shift, where being a survivor is about more than just making it another day, it’s about planting your feet into a fighting stance and coming to blows with the boogeyman of the day.
The Invisible Man perfectly packages the intimate fears of women, showing its understanding of the larger topics and weaving them into a deeply personal narrative. The familiarity of it makes it a difficult, but vital watch, a solid and provocative entry in the current wave of women making the transition from victim to vengeful in horror.