In the 1944 movie Gaslight, a young bride seems to be going slowly, systematically mad: personal items go missing and paintings disappear; house lamps flicker and dim inexplicably. Is she losing her mind, or is her new husband misplacing it for her?

The film, which went on to win Ingrid Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar, gifted pop culture with a classic imprint for slow-burn cinematic dread, and an enduring term for a particularly nasty form of manipulation — the kind that makes even the most rational human question their own sanity.

No one since then, maybe, has looked as haunted as Elisabeth Moss does in The Invisible Man, an enjoyably nervy little slice of psychological horror whose best moments aren’t its numerous jump scares (though they are, in fact, extremely jumpy) but the quieter, more existential ones.

Moss stars as Cecilia Kass, a Bay Area architect — or at least she aspired to be, once upon a time — living with her tech-mogul boyfriend (The Haunting of Hill House‘s Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in his modernist fortress overlooking the sea. In the movie’s opening scenes, she makes her midnight escape, Sleeping With the Enemy-style; we don’t know exactly why she’s so desperate to get away, but we can guess.

The Invisible Man
Credit: Mark Rogers/Universal

With the help of her sister (Harriet Dyer), she finds shelter with an old friend (Underground’s excellent Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid), and slowly begins to breathe herself back to life. But soon, odd things start happening: her duvet cover is stripped in the night; an unattended skillet suddenly catches fire. And then uglier surprises, too, like a punch in the nose that seems to come from nowhere.

Australian-born writer-director Leigh Whannell, probably best known for his partnership with James Wan on blockbuster body-horror franchises like Saw and Insidious, plays fast and loose with his source material — which feels more than fair, considering H.G. Wells’ original novel was released in 1897 — and its many subsequent film and TV adaptations.

But it also feels like a definitive cut above his previous films in both scope and ambition, even as he falls back too often on genre tropes and hole-y leaps in logic. A lot of the story’s grip-hold is owed to Moss’s performance: raw, jittery, almost unbearably tensed, she’s a woman whose own body is a prison, as long as her ex walks around without one. (How he does it that is one of the movie’s more hammy mysteries, but it’s not hard to figure, given his career choice, how that comes in.)

If the buildup and catharsis of its final minutes are more than a little silly, and marred by Whannell’s urge to put too neat bow on it all, the movie still has its satisfying jolts — including possibly one of the single most shocking screen deaths so far this year. And a thrumming tension underneath it, too, that speaks not just to supernatural terror, but to the ordinary nightmare that any toxic partner can visit on the person they claim to love the most, particularly when they aren’t being loved back on exactly their own terms. With or without biotech pixels, that’s a tale as old as time. B

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The Invisible Man (2020 movie)
A lot of the story’s grip-hold is owed to Elisabeth Moss’ performance: raw, jittery, and almost unbearably tensed, she’s a woman whose own body is a prison, as long as her ex walks around without one.
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