This is genre moviemaking at its smartest: “The Invisible Man” takes a well-worn horror-movie concept and makes it pop into new life. It’s even timely.
The story owes nothing to the celebrated H. G. Wells novel, except it has a crackpot scientist with a formula for invisibility. He’s not our protagonist, however.
In the taut opening sequence, we watch as Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) tiptoes out of the expensive high-tech house of her partner, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He’s the scientist, and also a monster.
She is clearly terrified, but successfully escapes what she describes as an abusive relationship. With help from her sister (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia hides out in the home of a supportive policeman (Aldis Hodge, late of “Clemency”) who lives with his teenage daughter (Storm Reid).
Cecilia’s terror should be soothed by the news that Adrian has killed himself. His oily brother (Michael Dorman, from “For All Mankind”) even delivers the news that Cecilia will inherit money from the dead man’s estate.
So why is she uneasy? It’s almost as though someone else is around, watching her. But not visible.
The great idea behind writer-director Leigh Whannell’s film is the way the story’s supernatural gimmick dovetails into its theme: how gaslighting works in an abusive relationship. Cecilia can’t get anybody to believe her when she talks about being stalked, and increasingly she looks like the crazy one.
“The Invisible Man” is that rare film in which screen space becomes a living, vital presence. Whannell cleverly frames his shots so that there’s often a large amount of negative space in the room around Cecilia. Is it an empty room? Or is the title character standing right there?
This means an unmoving shot of a kitchen can become eerie if you stare at it for a while, and a cut to an angle looking at characters through a doorway suddenly feels menacing.
Whannell is the co-creator of the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises, and he knows how to honestly earn the scares. But “The Invisible Man” goes deeper than that; he serves up psychological realism in equal proportion to the horror.
On that score, the film’s definitive masterstroke is that instead of casting the central role with the latest ingenue/supermodel to roll off the assembly line, Whannell got Elisabeth Moss, the hard-working star of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and countless recent indies.
Moss is so committed to Cecilia’s nightmare that she — all too visibly before our eyes — seems to disintegrate as the movie goes along. It’s a bravura turn from a fearless actress, and Moss doesn’t need the audience to love Cecilia every step of the way.
But we do root for her. Cecilia’s experience with a stalker is only part of the nightmare. At least as significant is the helpless feeling that nobody believes her — a big part of the movie’s horror, and harder to vanquish than an invisible man.
“The Invisible Man” (3½ stars)
Smart genre moviemaking, as Elisabeth Moss finds herself stalked by an angry (and supposedly dead) ex. Director Leigh Whannell takes a clever visual approach to convincing us that an invisible man might occupy the film’s empty spaces, and Moss turns in a bravura performance.
Rating: R, for violence
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall