It’s entirely possible to make an effective horror film about serious, personal, sensitive and uncomfortable themes that also works on the genre level, but The Invisible Man is content to act only as a metaphor. The Shining covers a lot of the same thematic ground — abuse, gaslighting and trauma — and so does Hereditary, the best of the recent wave of horror movies that go to great pains to be about something. The difference is that those films were also gripping, compelling and scary while The Invisible Man is all plot and theme.

Leigh Whannell’s film opens with Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escaping the isolated mansion of her abusive partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the dead of night. Not long after, we hear that Adrian has committed suicide — but soon enough, Cecilia is subject to strange occurrences that could only be caused by her dead boyfriend. Her theory on what’s happening comes early and correctly, and though the filmmakers dutifully slip in a red herring or two, the film generates no real suspense about what’s happening or how it’ll play out. As soon as we see an eerie lab in the opening scene, before we even know her partner is a leading researcher in the field of optics, we can guess how the man will make himself invisible. And once we meet Adrian’s creepy brother Tom (Michael Dorman), we know who the man will be once he is visible. No way will Adrian be unmasked with another hour of the movie to go.

A movie can transcend the audience’s prior knowledge of the story just by how creatively and artfully it reveals those details. But The Invisible Man doesn’t bother to create suspense concerning the presence of an invisible man, and it could’ve used more small omens like the stove suddenly roaring to life on its own, more moments where we’re waiting for something to happen instead of everything happening at once while simultaneously being explained to us. Once the figure is uncovered, he spends much of his remaining time in the suit doing implausible kung fu moves and behaving more like a low-rent supervillain than a monster.

The most effective and terrifying scenes involve how the invisible man hurts the people around Cecilia, especially the young daughter (Storm Reid) of her best friend, James (Aldis Hodge), a detective at whose house she hides after the opening escape scene. In these moments, we identify with Cecilia as both a victim of gaslighting and as a classic, wrongly accused horror protagonist. We believe Cecilia’s anguish as she describes what she suffered in her relationship, and we feel for her as she watches her friends slip away from her perceived growing insanity.

But The Invisible Man seems content to be a psychological drama dressed in the clothes of a horror film rather than to fire on both cylinders at once. Whannell has written some real, red-blooded horror films, and he’s capable of more than we see on the screen. Maybe he’s toning down genre elements like suspense, surprise and atmosphere out of respect for the subject matter. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that those elements can emerge out of the subject matter, and that the trapped mind of a protagonist like Cecilia is the perfect place for such a thing to occur.

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