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“The Invisible Man” and How to Make a Modern Monster Movie

Director Leigh Whannell made creative use of the different types of frights you could come up with — the quiet opening of a door, the looming shadow in the corner — and using negative space to achieve that.

The Invisible Man arrived on VOD and streaming services March 20.

Beware of what you can’t see. Because it may be coming for you. Therein lies the challenge laid at the door of director Leigh Whannell and his lead actor Elisabeth Moss in creating terror and dread — when you can’t see it coming — in the Universal Pictures film The Invisible Man.

Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.

But exactly how do you create a world based on innuendo, whispered insults and undefinable fears when those fears are mere insinuations?

What the filmmakers decided to do was to adopt a strategy that would resuscitate some of Universal Pictures’ headline monsters of the 1930s and 40s, and breathe life into a new series of standalone films that would appeal to a modern audience:

The first film is Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a thriller that stands on the legacy of classic movie monsters—think Dracula, Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon—and preys upon the anxieties and fears that those early monster stories instilled. The 2020 The Invisible Man is the first of a new generation of Universal Monster movies, said producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions: “Universal is working on a handful of them, but ours is the first. So, that’s nerve-wracking but also a lot of fun.”

Read more: What You Can’t See: Negative Space and the Cinematography for The Invisible Man

As the director, Whannell was given freedom to develop a villain whose terrorizing tricks have little to do with simple shocks or CGI. In The Invisible Man, the horror is in the storytelling—an unknown, anxious tension drives the film from beginning to end because the villain, whatever he is, remains nearly always just out of your field of vision.

That villain is Adrian Griffin, an abusive and controlling man who is enraged when his girlfriend leaves him in the middle of the night. Played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Adrian’s anger is vindictive, cruel and cunning, and any similarities with the original Invisible Man of the 1933 H.G. Wells novel—who was seen as a sort of antihero in search of his lost identity—is gone. There’s nothing indecisive about the morality of this invisible, violent villain.

Those monster movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s are near and dear to the heart of Blum: “That’s why I wanted to do this. Our concept was to make the stories relevant to today. And that’s just what Leigh has done with The Invisible Man.”

What’s different this time around: The Invisible Man is told from the perspective of the hunted, persecuted girlfriend played by Elisabeth Moss. The film’s director spun the original story—of a scientist who devolved into madness—into one that focused on the object of the villain’s obsession. “I said, ‘If you were making an Invisible Man movie, you would make it from the point of view of his victim,” Whannell explains. “Say a woman who escapes from her abusive partner in the middle of the night and then finds out that he’s killed himself but doesn’t quite believe it, especially when mysterious things start happening.’”

As a result the focus and the perspective is on a strong, brave woman—a timely story that speaks to what’s going on both in terms of domestic violence and how women are perceived in the media.

This modern story of obsession is told from the perspective of Moss’ Cecilia Kass, a smart, capable architect in San Francisco who has become imprisoned by Griffin. When she escapes from him—a man who is a talented optics pioneer—she goes into hiding with the help of her friends and family.

But even though she is told that Griffin has committed suicide, Cecilia begins to suspect he’s not actually gone. Instead, he has somehow managed to make himself invisible using the tools of his trade. His goal is to torture her, a theory that sounds paranoid to everyone she tells it to. She finds herself questioning her own sanity while also trying to protect herself and the people around her.

“[Leigh] is talking about how women who have been made to suffer—controlled for a period by a man — women who are feeling like they’re losing their grip on reality, and how society judges them as ‘just being hysterical’ and that ‘it’s all in your head,’” said Kylie du Fresne, a partner working with Blum. “That’s not the truth. We’re very much living through that now, and this film sheds a light on that in a way that I haven’t seen much on screen.”

A Masterclass in Delivering the Scares

Whannell made creative use of the different types of frights you could come up with—the quiet opening of a door, the looming shadow in the corner—and using negative space to achieve that. With that in mind, the pace and POV shots that Whannell uses manage to reiterate over and over again that Cecilia may be right: Adrian has faked his own death and, as implausible as it seems,  found a way to haunt her with her new invisibility.

Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.

As Madeleine Whittle writes in Film Content, “a series of omniscient high-angle shots abound, laying bare every square inch of clinically framed interiors as though through the lens of a surveillance camera. It demonstrates a room’s apparent emptiness. It dares the viewer to doubt his own eyes.” To read Whittle’s full article, click here.

The film also intentionally plays with classic horror-film tropes to great success, says the actor Elisabeth Moss. “When the medicine cabinet opens and closes, you expect somebody to be back there,” she says. “The same thing happens when the refrigerator door opens. Building the suspense was really fun for us. Things like that, as well as turning on a light in a dark room and revealing that [the] shape in the corner is actually a coat rack.”

The film manages to balance the desire to scare with the challenge of conveying the ferocity of a human being who goes to great lengths to avoid being seen. So how can you possibly hope to defend yourself when you can’t prove the monster is there?

Sound Design… and Dread

The film also makes pragmatic use of sound. The 1933 film made played up the invisible man’s half-embodied voice as a way to portray his physical presence in a scene. In this film however, the invisible man barely speaks at all—we see and hear the palm of his hand slowly press against a foggy glass door; we see and hear a breath of condensation appear in the cold air. The goal of Adrian is to move through the world undetected except when it comes to appearing to Cecilia.

(from left) James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) and Detective Reckley (Sam Smith) in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
(from left) James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) and Detective Reckley (Sam Smith) in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.

Composer Benjamin Wallfisch was recruited to deliver music for The Invisible Man. “I didn’t want to wallpaper this film with loud strings and make a bombastic score that told you when to be afraid,” Whannell said. Wallfisch, who created compositions for Blade Runner 2049 and the films of the It franchise, managed to use silence rhythmically, “so that, when there is music, the gestures and sonic attitude are sometimes so left-field and extreme,” Wallfisch said. “ You almost don’t trust the score’s absence when it’s not there … as a kind of analogue to the presence of Adrian Griffin in the film.”

The film also took a less-is-more approach with CG. “Specifically, we both see the role of VFX as supporting a practical (i.e., real) approach wherever possible,” explains visual effects supervisor Jonathan Dearing. The shared strategy of Dearing and the director was unique: to exercise a level of restraint, one that ground all VFX in the real world. “In all cases, our mantra is the same, that VFX should be as believable as possible,” Dearing said. “One should not be tempted to create something so out-of-this-world that the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred.”

That created the massive challenge of creating what is not on screen. “We did a lot of research into the ‘invisibility technology’ that actually exists today,” explains production designer Alex Holmes. “There is some, but it’s generally only been achieved on the tiniest of scales by ‘bending’ light around objects so that you then literally can’t see them because they aren’t reflecting light back at you.”

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For the film Holmes devised an idea based on the science of optics. The idea: create a suit made of hundreds of small cameras, all filming what’s around them while also producing a hologram of what’s being filmed on the opposite camera.” The effect being that whatever is behind the suit wearer is being projected on the front, making him disappear,” he said. That gave the postproduction team the option to work with holograms and with camera irises animating in an out—in effect creating hundreds of little eyes all over the suit.

Read more: Remembrance of Robocops Past: Upgrade Reimagines the 1980s Sci-Fi Thriller 

“[P]hysicists told us that, in theory, what we were proposing could be done — but not without 20 years of development. That was perfect,” Holmes says. “We needed this to feel like tech that was out of reach of today, but still believable.”

The result is a horror film with adult sensibilities. As Whannell tells Variety, “To put it bluntly, you have to take it out of kiddie land.” Whannell, who was involved with envelope-pushing series Saw and Insidious., explains, “I have to make this an adult thriller. And I’m not saying that violence is a way of making it an adult film, but this is horror, man. This is a horrific, scary character. I want to see what a violent psychopath who has the power to be invisible is capable of.” To read the full interview, click here.

And that’s tough to do with a “tier two” character like the Invisible Man. Whannell said in an interview with the A/V Club that the Invisible Man has never been the most frightening creature. As a result, Whannell knew that fear to be found in what the audience couldn’t see. To read the full article, click here.

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