Visible Only by Gaslight: Arley Sorg and Josh Pearce Discuss The Invisible Man

Josh: This is “Gaslight: The Movie”.

Arley: The first thing he does when he’s invisible is turn up the gas on the stove. Metaphor?!

H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, and the 1933 Universal movie based on it, get a modern treatment in the latest The Invisible Man, starring Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the abusive, controlling Adrian Griffin (the world’s leading expert in optics) and Elisabeth Moss as his girlfriend, Cecilia Kass (who is sick of his shit).

After Cecilia escapes Adrian’s fortress-like home in the middle of the night, she receives news that he consequently committed suicide, and her friends and family assure her that she is finally free of him forever. However, a series of eerie events slowly convinces her that Adrian is not actually dead, but has found a way to turn himself invisible and is now stalking her.

Arley: It was an entertaining movie that does what it sets out to do, and does what it looks like it does in the previews, which is sort of a mixture of horror and high-tension action-thriller.

Josh: I don’t want to spoil anything because there were a lot of things in this movie that surprised me. I actually stopped watching the preview halfway through because it was giving away too much.

Arley: Yeah, don’t watch the trailer. The film does a good job of having surprises along the way that will keep you entertained, keep you on your toes. This movie does all the most important things well. Despite that the major plot points, what you could call the acts, and the overall story are made obvious by the trailer. He fakes his death, stalks her, she fights back, and so on.

The Invisible Man contains elements familiar from other horror movies, particularly Paranormal Activity (with which it shares a production house): an invisible presence pulling the covers off a sleeping woman; scattering coffee grounds on the floor to reveal footprints; long, lingering shots on empty rooms. However, unlike that and other horror films with invisible malevolent creatures such as Poltergeist and The Conjuring, where you’re just waiting for the monster to get on with it, The Invisible Man‘s motivation makes sense — Adrian is playing with Cecilia because he wants to destroy everything in her life (including her sanity) until she has nothing left and feels like she has to return to him.

Arley: I would say it’s a scary movie. People I watched it with and people in the audience were responding to a lot of the jump scares and classic horror tactics (which I used as a gauge of the horror levels). I found it tense, but for me personally, not necessarily scary.

Josh: I was not expecting them to make it full horror until I saw the trailer. For the most part, he could have just as easily been a ghost. But it was really well done. I had a physical reaction to two different scenes — I felt my skin crawl.

Arley: I know which part you’re talking about. That one quarter-second does so much for the story! The brutality of this movie is crazy.

Josh: Yeah, it keeps doubling down. I also liked how they updated the scifi aspect of the original story. Even though we poke holes in that technology, it’s still within the realm of extreme possibility.

The Invisible Man was originally intended to be the latest Universal Classic Monster added to the studio’s interconnected “Dark Universe” but, following the disappointing Dracula Untold and the Tom Cruise-vehicle The Mummy, Universal pulled the plug on having their own cinematic universe and went back to standalone stories for all future monster movies.

Johnny Depp was first announced to star as the title character but, after the collapse of the Dark Universe, creative control was given to Leigh Whannell, who took it in a different direction. Whannell has experience with the horror genre, having written and directed several Saw and Insidious installments —

Arley: Ooo! I like Insidious.

— and he also wrote and directed the small-budget scifi gem, Upgrade.

Arley: What! That was a really good movie. I wish we had reviewed it when it came out.

Josh: Never thought I would feel grateful toward Alex Kurtzman, but thanks to him making such a bad movie with The Mummy, we got this surprisingly solid The Invisible Man. I was unsure if I was going to like this reboot at first, because of the whole Dark Universe thing. I love the original black-and-white movie, so I was certain they were going to fuck it all up.

Arley: The tension of the movie is great. The director and the actors know how to do tension. Even before he fakes his death, some of the tensest scenes are just shots of empty frames. When she’s leaving the house and they show an empty hallway.

Josh: I didn’t know who was directing this, but it was great that there was a unified creative vision. After the first few minutes, I found myself not watching the person who was in focus — I was looking all around for things to move on their own in the rest of the frame. Great directorial skill. Great way to build audience investment in what’s happening on screen, without it coming off as gimmicky.

Arley: I found a number of things to be trite and obvious but there were also a lot of things that defied expectations, decisions that so many filmmakers would not have chosen, and that easily overpowered the trite elements, making this movie wonderful.

The movie does a lot with its $7 million budget (though it’s probably easy to cut costs when your main monster is invisible a majority of the time). There aren’t any extraneous visual effects, and for the first half of the film, all the tension is accomplished through interpersonal interactions and Elisabeth Moss’s wide-eyed staring at empty doorways. She’s closely miked so the audience gets a lot of her heavy breathing, adding claustrophobia and panic to otherwise affectless scenes, like in Underwater.

Once the Invisible Man does leap into action, everyone sells it completely. The slow-burning sequences transition into faster-paced action while still retaining all that tension. You completely believe that the actors are fighting hand-to-hand with an actual, physical, and invisible person.

Arley: I believed that someone was twisting the guard’s arm to make him shoot himself.

Josh: I think Elisabeth Moss is one of the best actors working right now. Her behavior switch at the end was solid.

Arley: My favorite acting of hers was when she was scared. I thought that was great. For me, the rest was just okay. I don’t know if that’s the acting or if that’s the directorial decisions or aspects of the character that I didn’t like. For example, when they had her try to go outside, when she is shell-shocked. I’ve seen that same narrative device 18 billion times and I’ve seen it done better so I was bored with it. The opening had already developed nice tension through physicality (when she stopped during her sneaking out to see if he was still sleeping) and that communicated more about the situation and her character than everything she said to her friends later.

Josh: I agree, that whole sequence between leaving the mansion and seeing invisible breath was the weakest part of the movie. Not terrible, but they were trying to cram in a lot of worldbuilding and character all at once, which didn’t quite mesh with the how streamlined the rest of movie was. Except one interesting part of that sequence was the slow revelation of James’s (Aldis Hodge) character. You start out thinking he’s going to be one kind of side character, and then bit by bit they build him up into something else.

Arley: The worst actor was the guy playing Adrian Griffin. Fortunately he was only in it briefly, and mostly invisible. I liked James’s daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid) a lot. She was charming, both character and acting-wise. The invisible man’s brother, Tom (Michael Dorman) —

Josh: That guy annoyed me, but that was what they were going for.

Arley: At first I thought his acting was bad, but then I realized he was having the desired effect on me. And it really hit home later when Cecilia’s talking about what a worm he is and insulting him and I was feeling what I supposed to feel, which meant he was actually really good at his job. Pet peeve: horror trope of shit goes crazy and nobody believes the person in the middle of the shit, or dismisses everything as a hallucination or whatever. It’s an overused tool which sometimes makes sense, but not as often as it’s used. It makes sense here, to a point. But, I hate when it keeps getting used throughout the story.

There are minor quibbles with how things work in the world of this movie, but those logic gaps generally serve to fast-forward the action and keep the plot moving. Nothing in it is world-breaking, and most of the problems are probably only us reviewers, as writers, nitpicking little plotholes. An audience expecting to watch a tense, entertaining story will find exactly what they’re looking for. This movie will grab you, take you on a ride, and you won’t care about the little question marks along the way.

Arley: That last scene was so cheesy, though.

Josh: Should have left it ambiguous, for sure. But you can’t do that for a wide-release audience, and maybe they were setting up for The Invisible Woman, which Elizabeth Banks is supposed to write and direct and star in. And, as someone who’s always lived in the Bay Area, I found the score really weird. Those were the most grim establishing shots of San Francisco since, I dunno, Zodiac. They’re showing helicopter shots of the City on a clear day and I’m like, “Wow, that looks lovely. There’s no fog!” and they’re playing this really ominous horror music over it. Cities have different feels. SF isn’t New York or LA. You can’t treat them interchangeably.

Arley: It should’ve been set in Chicago or something more industrial and gritty. It’s only in SF because tech was a major plot point. But it was military tech so it could’ve been anywhere. It could have been DC.

Much like how the title character of 1933 version is driven insane as a side effect of the invisibility serum, this movie seems to present extreme wealth as its own special form of insanity. Correlations between high-functioning sociopaths and CEOs, Wall Street brokers, and other high-risk, high-reward pursuits have been widely discussed before, but as Adrian Griffin tears a swath through Cecilia’s life, there seems to be little difference between the immunity given to him by invisibility, and the invincibility he enjoys in his social status. In any case, the legal, medical, and social systems can’t stop him from doing whatever he wants. No lock keeps him out.

There’s a little bit of social commentary on male-female toxic relationships without getting too preachy, and it’s an interesting framework to tell the story of a woman whom no one believes. There’s a possibility that if Leigh Whannell had worked with collaborators on the script, some of the small bumps would have been smoothed out, but it would have almost certainly resulted in the watered-down, mediocre studio fare that the other Universal Monsters turned out to be. So many things about The Invisible Man are creative, effective, and better because of that singular vision.

Conclusion: Worth seeing.

Written and directed by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid & Michael Dorman

Josh Pearce, Arley Sorg (by Laurel Amberdine)

JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.

ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.

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