What scares us is as individualistic as what makes us laugh, makes us cry, even what makes us think. Some movie fans, for example, seek out films that tell stories of the paranormal – a genre that is often rigorously religious in the way it explores the nature of what we cannot see.
Can a doll really contain the spirit of an evil entity? Will a crucifix really stop a vampire from sucking your blood? Is my house haunted? Do exorcisms work?
Some of the greatest horror films ever made have explored such storylines and posed answers to such questions. William Friedkin’s 1973 film “The Exorcist,” for example.
But the best of these films – and I include “The Exorcist” among them – don’t attempt to claim these stories are actually true. Yes, William Peter Blatty took first his novel and then his screenplay from an actual case. But the so-called facts behind that case have always evoked controversy – ridiculed nearly as much as the house at the center of the phony “Amityville Horror” incident.
The trick is in taking something apparently absurd and making it seem real. What Blatty wrote, not to mention what Friedkin filmed, isn’t just some ripped-from-the-headlines study in torture porn. It’s grounded in everyday life, imbued by a cast – from Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair to Jason Miller and Max von Sydow – skilled at portraying convincing, credible characters.
This feel for the everyday is what makes “The Exorcist” less a commentary on religion than a horrifying step into the vagaries of the unknown.
That sense of the unknown is also at the heart of “The Invisible Man,” the latest twist on a story that dates back to the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same title. The twist this time is that the protagonist isn’t the man at all – but the woman the man seeks either to possess or to destroy.
Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia, an architect who – when we first encounter her – is attempting to escape a house (more like a compound) and the sociopath who is her husband. She does make it, though just barely. And of course since this is a two-hour movie, Cecilia’s travails are far from over.
Told that her distraught husband has committed suicide, and that he has left her a handsome settlement, Cecilia tries to relax. It helps that she’s staying with an old friend (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid), but strange things keep happening. A frying pan busts into flame. Important papers disappear. A cell phone goes off in an attic corner.
Cecilia begins suspecting that her ex isn’t dead at all. That he’s found a way to, get this, make himself invisible. And pretty soon everyone – including her friends – begin thinking that she has become mentally unbalanced. Even worse, when it appears that she’s killed someone, the police lock her up. What is poor Cecilia to do?
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, co-creator with James Wan of the first three segments of the “Saw” Franchise, “The Invisible Man” is a good example of what could be called “Me, Too” horror. It explores the fears that many women experience, especially in relationships but also at work.
Yet Whannell unfolds his movie in a classic manner, not so much as a whodunnit but as a how’s-he-doing it. Whannell creates a solid sense of place – whether it be a cliff-side mansion, the kitchen of a working-man’s house or the cramped shower of a mental hospital – and he affects a narrative pacing that punctuates long, slow sequences with sudden stabs of graphic violence.
What doesn’t get lost until the very end is the mystery of the unseen, melded with everyday authenticity, from which the best horror emanates.