The Invisible Man transforms a ‘joke’ villain into an abusive, gaslighting monster

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“I saw an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of what The Invisible Man was,” says director Leigh Whannell.

Classic horror fan or not, you’ll no doubt have seen images from 1933’s The Invisible Man. Because, much like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Claude Rains’ take on Dr Jack Griffin was nothing short of iconic. The dark goggles, the smoking jacket, the face swathed in white bandages… it’s the stuff Halloween costumes are made of, quite frankly.

And yet… well, in 2020, the OG Invisible Man doesn’t feel all that frightening. A noble chemist who meddles with bleaching chemicals and drives himself insane in the process? It just sounds like another Sky News bulletin, quite frankly.

It’s unsurprising, then, that director Leigh Whannell decided to seriously update his titular horror character for Universal’s upcoming remake.

So, what is The Invisible Man about?

In Whannell’s hugely-anticipated reboot of The Invisible Man, the focus is shifted from the transparent monster of old. Instead, this story revolves around his very real, very human girlfriend, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss).

Desperate to escape her violent and controlling partner, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecilia flees their marital home in the middle of the night and goes into hiding. For a while, it seems as if she’s safe. But, when it’s announced that her ex has died by suicide (leaving her a generous portion of his vast fortune), Cecilia quickly begins to suspect it’s a hoax.

The Invisible Man is really about gaslighting and abuse
The Invisible Man is really about gaslighting and abuse

As a series of eerie coincidences turns lethal, threatening the lives of those she loves, Cecilia’s sanity begins to unravel as she desperately tries to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see. And it feels… well, it feels incredibly timely. So often do we hear stories of women afraid of not being believed by their violators, by others or in court.

Now, The Invisible Man will explore this in a more literal sense, as Moss’ character is running from an actually invisible villain. It is, essentially, a movie about gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

The term ‘gaslighting’, of course, refers to a tactic of coercive and controlling behaviour that aims to make a victim doubt themselves, their perception of events and even their own sanity, with devastating consequences.

This is done slowly and subtly, calling into question the victim’s memory of an incident, trivialising a victim’s thoughts or feelings, accusing the victim of lying or making things up, denying things like promises that have been made, and mocking the victim for their ‘misconceptions’. 

These sly little digs are just the first front in their long war against your agency. They pick apart a person’s trust in themselves, makes them second-guess everything all the time, feel confused and find themselves always apologising.

As Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, previously told Stylist: “Gaslighting is an insidious form of domestic abuse that is, by its very nature, sometimes difficult for victims to recognise and build up the confidence to escape from…

“This form of abuse can be subtle therefore some of the signs to watch out for include: if you are second-guessing yourself all the time, feel confused, find yourself always apologising to your partner, you are having trouble making simple decisions and find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses for your partner.”

And, as reactions to The Invisible Man’s trailer here at Stylist HQ has shown, it can also make others question the victim and their sanity, too.

“Do you think it’s all in her head?” one asked, as the video rolled to a close.

“He might have such a grip on her that she can’t stop believing he’s there,” added another.

Why did Leigh Whannell decide to explore themes of gaslighting and abuse in The Invisible Man?

Speaking about his vision for the reboot, Whannell tells The Guardian: “I saw an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of what The Invisible Man was.

“He’s very well known, but I think as time has gone by that character has become almost comical: you know, the floating sunglasses and bandages.”

The director adds: “The more I thought about it, the more I realised The Invisible Man movie I would love to see has never been made.”

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man.
Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man.

Meanwhile, Moss – whose performance as Cecilia is already winning praise from critics – knows exactly why this twist on a classic villain feels so frightening.

“You literally have a man who is invisible, you can’t see him, she’s saying he’s there, that he’s attacking her, abusing her, manipulating her, and everyone around her is saying, ‘Relax. It’s fine.’ And she keeps saying, ‘No, he is – he’s alive, he’s doing this,’ and no-one believes her,” she says.

“The analogy is incredibly clear.”

What are critics saying about The Invisible Man?

Suffice to say, initial reactions to the film have been incredibly positive, with many praising Whannell’s decision to explore the themes of abuse and coercive control. And Moss’ informed performance, likewise, has been singled out, too.

Critic Witney Seibold tweeted: “[The Invisible Man] is not just one of the most tightly-wound thrillers in recent memory, but it is a pertinent and all-too-real look at the panic and damage left by an abusive relationship.

“Elisabeth Moss digs deep.”

“[The Invisible Man] is one of the best horror films in years,” said another. “[Whannell] has set the bar high for the rest of the year. It’s tense from start to finish in the same vein as a Hitchcock masterpiece. I seriously can’t recommend this movie enough, I plan to see it multiple times!”

And one more added: “Leigh Whannell has crafted a masterclass in tension and terror, and I think my jaw was left on the floor at least twice. Completely thrilling, visceral and emotional.”

Do any other horror films focus on gaslighting?

Last year’s standout horror Midsommar, starring Academy Award nominee Florence Pugh, made a point of focusing on gaslighting and toxic relationships.

The film – directed by Ari Aster shortly after a bad breakup – didn’t rely on darkness and shadow to send shivers down our spines, nor did it pepper its script with jump scares or classic scary movie tropes. Instead, it wove a love story utterly devoid of sentimentality and romance. A love story that many of us, sadly, will know by heart.

And, while the below scene didn’t make the final cut, it sums up everything the movie was about: the acceptable, and unacceptable, sacrifices we make in our relationships.

Perhaps, while you’re waiting for The Invisible Man to hit cinemas, it might be worth revisiting Midsommar in the meantime?

But when IS The Invisible Man in cinemas?

You don’t have long to wait: the film will be released in the UK on 28 February 2020. 

Women’s Aid works hard to raise awareness of all forms of abuse and offer expert support to those who are experiencing it and their friends and family. 

If you are worried that your relationship, or that of a friend or family member, is controlling or unsafe, visit womensaid.org.uk or call the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247. 

Images: Universal

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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