Dissecting a Thriller: The Invisible Man Explained
Warning — spoilers ahead!
The feeling of presence or paranoia can be very disconcerting and in worse conditions, truly terrifying. Oftentimes, the shadows that linger in the dark corners of our room or the ghostly feeling of someone walking behind us are only in our heads. But in Whannell’s 2020 film adaptation of The Invisible Man, the imperceptible monster is real.
Cecilia makes an escape from her abusive and narcissistic boyfriend, Adrian. It was a close call but she successfully escapes from his clutches and goes into hiding, fearful of being found. When she finds out Adrian committed suicide, she has a momentarily relief, thinking that she is finally safe and can start a normal life. However, her celebration is cut short when she feels a strange presence following her around the house. As the Invisible Man continues to terrorize her, she puts the pieces together and realizes that Adrian is not dead and, as a leading scientist in optics, has found a way to make himself invisible. Unfortunately, no one believes her, suggesting that she has gone mad. She must find a way to stop the Invisible Man before he completely destroys her life and kills everyone she loves.
Out of all the horror flicks that Blumhouse productions has released in the past few years, this one has to be the best one yet. Let’s take a closer look on how suspense is built in this spine-tingling sci-fi thriller and how the director brings an invisible monster to life on screen. And as bonus, what we think could be improved.
Hitchcock’s “Pure cinema”
When it comes to filming horror/thrillers, there’s no better man to consult than the master of suspense — Alfred Hitchcock. He coined the term “Pure cinema” which is an approach to film-making that mainly uses imagery and sound in storytelling as opposed to using dialogues (or “photographs of people talking” in Hitchcock’s words). Dialogues convey the narrative of a story by directly telling the audience the events or background of the story through conversations between characters. Whereas “pure cinema” shows it to the audience. A key advantage of using “pure cinema” in filmmaking is that audiences would have to actively watch the film to piece the narrative together based on images. This is important for a successful thriller as it invites the viewer to feel the same anxiety, and pressure as the character. Watch how the opening sequence of The Invisible Man applies “pure cinema” not only to introduce the story.
From this sequence, we learn:
- She has planned this escape for a while: drugging her boyfriend to sleep, disabling the cameras etc., which means she’s been wanting to escape but found it difficult.
- Her boyfriend is a rich, tech genius who may be a possessive control freak because of all the cameras and high walls (his big house is like a jail) and he puts an electric collar on his dog. (A man who mistreats his dog? Red Flags!)
- There is a display case that could showcase a suit but we can’t see it (foreshadowing)
These are just some of the things we note based on the visual information given without dialogue (there could be more!)
Perfecting the process of building tension and suspense is key to make a successful thriller that will leave audiences at the edge of their seat, heart pounding. Hitchcock once said,
“Mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunnit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.”
A good thriller would get the audience to actively participate in the film, by giving them crucial information that the characters don’t know. They would, then, feel the urge to warn the characters of the impending danger. And thus suspense is built. Take the scene above as an example. We can see the breath of hot air behind Cecilia. The audiences know that the Invisible Man is right behind her but she doesn’t know. As a viewer, we’d be screaming in our seats saying “He’s behind you!” hearts racing, thinking whether he’s going to attack her or not.
Timing the Scare
Here’s another aspect where the film takes a page out of Hitchcock’s book: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” The film has few and sparse, shocking jump scares (unlike many Hollywood production horror flicks) but has long suspenseful sequences that has terror that lasts longer than a few seconds of screams that a jump scare brings.
To better illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the opening scene again. It begins quiet with only the sounds of the waves crashing on to the rocks and hills outside. Already this sequence is tense. This informs us that Cecilia has to remain extremely quiet, so when she kicks the dog bowl by accident and makes a rattling noise, it’s a shock. Then a momentary relief comes when she checks the camera to see Adrian still fast asleep. The slow pulsating intense music plays while she changes her clothes, the tension increases, signalling the urgency. The pulsating sound increases as she reaches the garage, feeling like someone is behind her, turns around to find out it’s only the dog. Thefalse alarm decreases the tension but no sooner are the stakes raised higher when the dog hits the car while she’s taking out the shock collar, setting off the loud alarm. The music is louder, tempo slightly faster as the lights turn on in Adrian’s room while she is climbing over the wall. The tension reaches its peak when Adrian reaches her getaway car (not shown on the clip). The increase and decrease of tension in this opening scene lasted for at least 10 minutes until she finally escapes. It’s the long anticipation of wondering if he’ll catch up to her is the terrifying part.
In fact, the first half of the film focuses on building suspense. The invisible man taunts Cecilia, lurking in the corner, stepping on her blanket and so on. There were some tiny jumps but they only occur at the half time mark in the film do we get a surprise jump scare in the attic scene, where Cecilia finally catches and reveals the Invisible Man in his black golf ball looking suit.
Filming the Invisible man
How does one come about filming an invisible subject? How do we make a character seem like he’s there when we can’t see him? Whannell creatively uses a combination of camera angles, timing and sound to bring an imperceivable character to life. We can hear his footsteps or creaking door opening. When he decides to interact with Cecilia, we see this footprint on the blanket and his cold breath in an otherwise empty air. But what about those moments when we don’t hear him move or when he doesn’t manipulate objects around him? That’s when a clever use of camera shots come to play.
Wide shots are often used to tell the audience who is present in the scene or where it is located. It shows the characters and the surrounding environment. In this film, Cecilia usually occupies one side of the frame. For instance, in the above kitchen scene, Cecilia is on the right-hand side. This shot lingers for a couple seconds as we watch Cecilia cook. However, the empty space on the left evokes an eerie feeling that someone — likely the invisible man — is there.
To get the audience to feel the same creepy, unsettling feeling that Cecilia endures while she is being stalked and terrorized by an unseeable presence through shooting empty spaces (dark hallways, and doorways etc.) By lingering in that shot for several uncomfortable seconds, the anxiety, tension and fear builds up. The audience can relate to Cecilia’s paranoia as we know he’s there but we can’t be sure without being able to see him.
Tracking-pan shots are used several times in the film. It mimics the movement of the head. It directs the viewers attention from one side of the room to the other like in the scene above or to an empty space (like the dark empty hallway in the opening scene), forcing us to look at an empty space. These shots hints that there is something there, which evokes an uncanny feeling because, of course, we don’t see anything. Additionally, the panning shot moves independently from the characters, it makes the viewer feel like they are also in the room, scanning the space. That being said, the audience becomes part of the movie as an invisible voyeur.
Panning shots are also used to demonstrate the movement of the Invisible man. In the first night when the Invisible Man haunts Cecilia, we hear the door open and footsteps follow. Then the camera moves normally as though it is capturing a subject walking and turning in the hallway, except we can’t see the subject. Another example is the hallway massacre scene below where the panning shots follow the head and body movements of the Invisible Man, getting his POV:
Power Dynamic: Predator vs. Prey
This is an interesting shot, where you which illustrates the power that Adrian has over Cecilia. The majority of the frame is occupied the ladder and the bright, open space of the hallway. Adrian, as we later find out, is on the ladder looking up at her. Though we can’t see him, we can picture him as the big predator who has Cecilia trapped and scared like a little prey in the dark, square entrance of the attic. Another way to put it is the big, scary, empty space overwhelms Cecilia in the tiny dark square. In other words, her fear of the invisible Adrian overpowering her. This is the perfect set up for the scream-inducing revelation that happens next.
The Disappointing End
“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
― Alfred Hitchcock
After the cool kitchen fight scenes, the story goes a bit downhill. Admittedly there are still suspenseful moments, interesting twists. But the film shifted into more of a sci-fi action thriller, rather than a horror thriller. It becomes a battle between Cecilia and the invisible monster (kind of like the direction the first Insidious went.), which is satisfactory but isn’t as memorably horrific as the first half of the film.
But it’s the ending scene that let us down. Everything seemed to be tied up in a nice little bow. Adrian admits that he IS the invisible man haunting her and she kills him, turning his weapon against him. It’s a nice and neat story arc for her. She finds the courage to face her monster and everything.
However, we thought wouldn’t it be more interesting for a horror/thriller film to have a slightly ambiguous ending where Adrian didn’t admit that it was him all along but she still ends up killing him anyway. We can then question her sanity. Has she become paranoid or schizophrenic from a traumatising relationship? Has she gone mad with fear? or something along those lines. What do you think would make a good ending for a thriller?
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Photo source: The Invisible Man. Leigh Whannell. Universal Pictures. 2020. Film.
Disclaimer: Any views and opinions expressed are personal and solely belong to the authors. They are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club organisation, company, individual or anyone or anything.