(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Invisible Man delivers its biggest jolt by subverting its innovative use of negative space.)

As 2020 finally draws to a close, the time to review and reflect upon the year’s best cinematic offerings is upon us. This bizarre year might have thrown a complete wrench in everything, including the theatrical release slate, but it didn’t slow horror down in the slightest. The genre repeatedly proves that it can thrive in any setting, from the box office to the small screen. Among this year’s best in horror is Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a new take on a Universal classic that just so happens to be one of the last theatrical experiences pre-pandemic lockdown.

Whannell consistently delivers new thrills and chills in modern horror, using a savvy movie-goer’s knowledge against them. With The Invisible Man, Whannell wields negative space like a weapon, creating nail-biting tension throughout, thanks to audience expectations and innovative camera work. It culminates in one of the film’s biggest scares; Whannell subverts his careful crafting of negative space to pull the rug out from under the viewer with a shocking jolt.

The Setup

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escapes her violent, controlling relationship with wealthy optics engineer and businessman Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), only to find herself frozen by PTSD-induced fear. She’s unable to even step foot outside of her new safe house, the home of Detective James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Then she learns through her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), that Adrian took his own life and left her a fortune that comes with stipulations. As a series of bizarre coincidences become increasingly dangerous, Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian’s death was a hoax. With everyone around her believing that she’s lost her tenuous grasp on reality, Cecilia works to prove that she’s being targeted by someone invisible.

The Story So Far

Using diazepam, Cecilia drugs Adrian to sleep through her harrowing escape from his highly secured home. Her sister picks her up and takes her to Lanier’s home, where no one should be able to find her. Cecilia struggles to leave the house until news of Adrian’s suicide. His brother and acting lawyer, Tom (Michael Dorman), handles Adrian’s final arrangements, leaving her $5 million in his trust on the condition that she remain of sound mind and commit no crime. Soon after, Cecilia begins to suspect she’s being watched and that Adrian faked his death.

On a job interview, Cecilia faints; her doctor later reveals that she had large traces of diazepam in her system. She finds the blood coated bottle she lost during her escape on the bathroom counter when she steps out of the shower. A relaxing girls’ night in with Sydney goes awry when an unseen force hits the teen, knocking her to the floor. Both Sydney and James blame Cecilia and leave her home alone. Cecilia’s further isolation by a scathing email sent from her address to Emily ensures a wedge is driven between sisters. All allies now mistrustful and disbelieving her cries that Adrian lives, Cecilia returns to his home for proof. She finds it in the form of a high-tech optical suit, but she barely makes it out alive when she’s attacked. Armed with evidence, she seeks aid and to make amends with Emily.

The Scene

Cecilia and Emily meet at a very crowded, public restaurant for safety’s sake. Cecilia begins with heartfelt apologies and sentiments to repair the damage caused by her email. Her pleas for understanding receive consistent interruption by an overly helpful server, hoping to take their order. Once Emily’s icy demeanor finally thaws, Cecilia leans in to explain that she can prove an invisible menace is stalking her. As Cecilia starts to detail the high-tech suit that she found, Emily gets confused and distracted by a knife hovering mid-air between them. In one swift, fluid motion, the blade slices Emily’s throat and moves into Cecilia’s hand – leaving her holding the murder weapon as Emily bleeds to death and restaurant-goers realize what’s happened.

In a film filled with memorable scares and intense sequences, this restaurant scene stands out not just because it features a major character death, but also because of how unexpected it is. Within the scene, the focus is on the dialogue and the heartfelt conversation between sisters – the last moment you’d expect such an unceremonious offing of one of Cecilia’s closest and only allies. On a larger scale, the highly crowded restaurant should provide one of the safest spaces for Cecelia in a film that consistently proves how well the invisible Adrian thrives in the empty corners of her own home.

From the start, Whannell weaponizes the audience’s knowledge of film. He intentionally makes the camera a silent, knowing observer of the story through camera movement and angles that suggest the invisible antagonist is lurking unseen within the frame. In the highly suspenseful opening sequence, Whannell employs wide shots that don’t center on Moss to leave her character exposed and vulnerable. More importantly, it instills the expectation that something terrible will happen, that Adrian is going to pop up at any moment. That this scene is devoid of music only enhances the tension; the quiet makes any sudden noise that much louder in the vast, bare house.

This carries through the entire film. The camera often pans away from its central characters to empty spaces in the hallways or rooms, as if to imply it knows something is there that the characters can’t see. Whannell builds much of the tension and terror from this negative space. The audience subconsciously connects the emptiness of the room with the eponymous invisible foe stalking Cecilia. We can’t see him, but the camera’s gaze suggests where he’s hiding, and it’s far too close for comfort.

Cecilia’s return to Adrian’s sprawling home, one of the most intense scenes, exemplifies the film’s use of negative space. It’s not just the camera work that seeks to create unease and dread in how it watches Cecilia from afar, a nervous, knowing spectator, but in the production design. Adrian’s house is large, sparsely decorated, features a cool palette, and minimal design to amplify the negative space. That it ends in a thrilling chase, with Cecilia barely escaping, further sets the expectation that the following scene in the restaurant will give us a reprieve from the suspense.

The warm tones, the loud background music, and the highly populated space is a stark contrast to the preceding scene. While negative space equates with imminent danger, the lack of it here indicates security for Cecilia. The bustling restaurant filled with constant moving bodies leaves no room for Adrian to hide, at least none that the camera dwells over. The setting sets up an expectation of protection only bolstered by the emotional focus of the scene. For the savvy viewer, this scene appears to further character development, to give the viewer a moment to catch their breath after the chase. It instills the idea of a turning point for Cecilia that she may finally rally enough to fight back.

That’s precisely when Whannell subverts expectations. With one violent slash, Adrian removes any semblance of safety for Cecilia by removing her fiercest of allies and proving not even the most public of places provide sanctuary from him. The implication of just how close to Cecilia he had to be to pull this off exacerbates the shock. Whannell once again proves a modern master in scare-crafting by subverting audience expectations with one potent jolt to propel Cecilia’s journey into the third act, without ever easing up on the intensity.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: