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Director Leigh Whannell says The Invisible Man is the psycho Aquaman of the Universal monsters
Director Leigh Whannell's new take on The Invisible Man is contemporary in every way. The story is about a woman escaping an abusive relationship in the modern era, not some period piece with gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages in the streets. Unfortunately, a horror examines a particularly toxic relationship and what happens when people don't believe her is still just as relevant today as it was in the 17th or 18th century.
Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia, a woman who has called it quits on an abusive relationship with her vindictive and cruel boyfriend, Adrian (played by The Haunting of Hill House's Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Adrian's a tech industry pioneer with significant wealth and all the power that comes with it. After finally escaping him, Cee, as they call her, is getting on her feet, staying with her longtime friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) when they find out that Adrian has killed himself (conveniently leaving no identifiable body behind) and has left a chunk of his fortune to his ex … provided she can prove mentally sound.
As you can see by the setup, it's pretty clear that this is a prime opportunity for Adrian, as the titular character, to really screw with his ex, making everyone think she's crazy as she reacts to the insane stuff that begins happening to her. It also made for plenty of compelling conversations when SYFY WIRE visited the set of the film last year.
The first question upon learning the very different setup was about the titular Invisible Man himself. How were they going to pull that off? What's the in-world explanation for the invisibility, given how much the story has changed? I didn't have to wait long to ask it, either, as director Leigh Whannell came up to my small group of geeky visitors shortly after we entered the stage.
Alas, Whannell wouldn't spill any info about the origins of the invisibility in the film. In the original H.G. Wells novel, the Invisible Man is a scientist who figures out a way to make his skin neither absorb nor reflect light, but can't reverse the effect. Considering the tech background of the main villain here, it seems safe to assume the invisibility is somehow mechanical in nature and not a bubbling potion. That's an assumption on my part, though, as nobody was willing to get into that on this set visit.
When pressed on his big Invisible Man moment, like Claude Rains unwrapping his bandages or even Chevy Chase's gross see-through eating moment in John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Whannell said the tension of what you don't see was the big draw for him, not a pair of floating sunglasses (which he demonstrated with his own pair of glasses as he made his point). Of course, there were going to be some fun show-off moments, but he wouldn't let any of those slip.
The movie, he says, is way more in relationship-thriller territory than a traditional horror movie. Gone Girl and Prisoners were cited as visual and tonal references (and the production designer even mentioned Sleeping With the Enemy).
How about the failed Dark Universe concept? Is that still in play? Not according to Whannell, who says Universal has changed its approach full stop, wanting interesting (and presumably more cost-effective) takes on individual monsters from interesting filmmakers, not a sprawling interconnected universe. So don't expect any Dracula or Mummy cameos in this one.
He also said he didn't feel much pressure taking a stab at this particular Universal monster because the Invisible Man is not one of the big hitters. In fact, Whannell talked to his longtime friend and collaborator James Wan about doing the movie and Wan said it was like when he was given Aquaman, a character "everyone hates." So it's cool because that put him in an underdog position where he could surprise people with a good take on the character.
"There have been a lot of great Dracula movies and a lot of great werewolf movies, but I feel the Invisible Man is kind of the Aquaman of this stable of monsters," Whannell said.
Interviews on a movie set aren't always the best because everyone's so worried about spoiling something that the chats can often be fairly useless in terms of gleaning any actual information about their characters or the story they're telling.
In this case, the actors remained tight-lipped, but their easygoing attitude came with them into the room, which made the chats fun. Storm Reid was the first person to sit down with us, and she gave us a thoughtful interview in which she talked a bit about the seriousness of covering the material that's central to the plot. Abuse, whether mental or physical, is a trigger for many, and the cast knew it was territory not to enter lightly.
Reid said her character Sydney was a down-to-earth girl and that her father's friendship with Cecilia wasn't something she was threatened by as a character. With her character's mom out of the picture, Cee is as close to a mother figure as she has.
In fact, that friendship was the most interesting thing we learned about, in my opinion. It's not often that a movie doesn't pair a single male and a single female together, or at least imply something flirty, but that's not the case between James and Cecilia. They were childhood friends and are always there for each other — but there are no romantic sparks at all.
Aldis Hodge told us that was one of the most intriguing things about the script for him, because he has a strictly platonic friendship exactly like that in his life, and it's not something he ever gets to play. He also said for this particular story it would have felt a little gross to have his character try to slide in romantically when his friend is newly escaped from an abusive relationship.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen has a tough line to walk here. He's the bad guy, and the way the story is structured, he's a villain who may be uncomfortably similar to real-life abusers. Until we see the movie, we can't tell if he nailed it, but he certainly seemed to understand how much responsibility comes with playing this kind of character.
He said he wanted to make Adrian charismatic because that's what many of these toxic men are in real life; they fool people into a false sense of security with their charm and use it as part of their calculated abuse and gaslighting. This is a smart guy, he says. A piece of sh**, but a smart one. He found in his research that these kinds of abusers were by and large highly intelligent, so he's not playing Adrian as a dumb villain, which he thinks makes him all the more frightening. For this kind of person, being invisible is the ultimate power.
As for Moss and her beleaguered heroine, she says watching films, both vintage and modern, was crucial for her process in getting into any role, but especially in the horror genre. She specifically name-checked Rosemary's Baby as a landmark for her character here (specifically the descent-into-madness aspect) and how energized she got the previous week when she watched Ari Aster's Midsommar. Given the film's exploration of toxic relationships, that seems all too appropriate.
For these reasons and with these themes in mind, Whannell knew The Invisible Man needed to be a standalone film from the Dark Universe, it had to position the titular character as the villain, and, above all else, it had to be R-rated.
Whannell was surprised the executives at Universal agreed to his demands, joking that if they'd had any secret plan to tone down the film, he would have found out about it by now.
"Each film tells you what it wants to be," Whannell said. "With this film, I feel like it wants to be more serious tonally. Not to say there aren't moments with the characters where there might be levity, but it's not a tonal thing. I wanted to make something that was like a vise that was tightening on people, which doesn't leave much room for one-liners."
We'll see how it all plays out next month when The Invisible Man hits theaters on February 28.