This article has been a long time coming. I saw Leigh Whannell’s THE INVISIBLE MAN on February 25, 2020, scribbled notes for this article, and planned to see it again to take further notes after the Noir City Film Festival... but on the night of March 11th—in the middle of the festival—it was announced that all cinemas in Los Angeles would be closing the following day. No way to see the film again! When the Blu-ray came out., I bought it—and it’s been sitting on my stack in the shrink wrap until a few days ago. It kind of symbolized my withdrawal from that twice or three times a week cinema addiction. It was the last new movie that I had seen. I am still jonesing for the rush from having the house lights go down and the movie begin, but it was time to tear off the shrink wrap and write the article...
You are watching a horror movie. The hideous monster has chased our teenage lovers to a corner of the cliffside haunted house’s top floor. They are trapped! The Boy looks out the window—a cliff with a two hundred foot drop to the rocks below. The hideous monster slowly advances, leaving a slime trail behind. Its tentacles reach out for them! No escape! The Girl presses closer to the wall as the tentacle slithers near her face! Her elbow hits a hidden button on the wall opening a secret passage! Moments before the monster strikes, the Boy and Girl jump through the secret passage, where a slide hurls them downstairs to the kitchen... but the monster follows! Trapping them again! As the monster reaches for the Boy, the Girl picks up a shaker of salt and shakes some on the monster! It screams and backs away as the salt burns its slimy form! The Girl grabs the Boy’s hand and they run out of the haunted house into the foggy night. But the Monster chases them! Closer and closer When they reach the road, the Girl’s father just happens to be driving by in his pickup truck, stops, and the Boy and Girl dive into the back of the truck... where there are 50-pound bags of salt! When the monster gets close, the Girl pulls a knife from her pocket and cuts open the bags, pouring salt on the monster until it dissolves into a puddle of slime! The pickup truck roars away!
Isn’t that the greatest horror movie you have ever seen?
Okay, why not?
All of those coincidences!
But what if we take the same scene, but earlier in the story we have the Girl finding the hidden button for the secret passage? And what if they are being chased by the monster and the Girl purposely leads the Boy to that specific section of the wall where the secret passage is? And what if earlier in the story, the Girl discovered that salt hurts the monster? And what if she called her father in the last seconds before her cell phone battery died and told him to buy up all of the salt he could and come to the haunted house? And what if there was an earlier scene where she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed at the monster, but the wounds instantly healed... so she put the knife in her pocket? Now when we see that scene, the coincidences have been removed because the information was “planted” and things like that knife in her pocket (which we have forgotten about because it can’t kill the monster) are now “payoffs” that seem realistic (well, it’s a monster movie).
Chekov (the playwright, not the Star Trek dude) said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following act it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.” This covers a bunch of basic dramatic principles from purpose and economy of the elements in your story to establishing something before it comes into play in the story to avoid coincidence, and we will be looking at both of those because they usually work hand-in-hand.
Leigh Whannell’s INVISIBLE MAN is the relaunch of Universal’s horror universe that we’ve been waiting for. After a bunch of misfires over the years, after bloated big-budget bombs like the Tom Cruise MUMMY (2017). The original movies from the 1930s like DRACULA (1931) were not big, lavish productions—they were made soon after the stock market crash when budgets were tight... so it makes perfect sense for Blumhouse (which usually makes films for $5 million or less) would be the perfect fit. Whannell is the writer of Blumhouse’s very successful INSIDIOUS series, directed the third film, and wrote and directed the great underseen Blumhouse film UPGRADE... oh, and he was the co-writer of SAW and a couple of the sequels. He understands how to make a studio-sized horror film on an indie budget.
BUDGET & THEME
Before we get to the great use of plants and payoffs in this film, a couple of other things... beginning with writing a screenplay for budget (since I wrote a previous three-part article on writing for budget). Though this film looks like a huge studio film, it was made on a Blumhouse budget... in less expensive Australia, with “stock footage” to make it appear as if it were shot in San Francisco. But the bulk of the story takes place in one of three locations: His luxurious beach house, Her friend’s modest suburban house, and a Hospital (which is used as a couple of hospitals). Three main locations, with a few minor locations sprinkled in. Most of the story is in one of the two houses, though it never seems like limited locations. Also a small cast: The protagonist, her cop friend, the cop’s teenage daughter, protagonist’s lawyer sister, the Invisible Man (not much screen time!), and Invisible’s lawyer brother. Great to make the siblings also the attorneys for each side of the couple. Economical and adds an emotional component to the legal scenes.
Another important element is the abusive relationship at the center of the story. Just because it’s a horror story designed to scare you, doesn’t mean that it can’t also explore an issue... and this film does a great job. The core of the story is a woman who leaves her abuser and fears that he will find her, punish her, and drag her back for more punishment. That’s a great take on the “Invisible Man” story because it makes the story personal and emotional. In the H.G. Wells novel, Griffin plans to terrorize the nation... which is a bit abstract. Here, Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) only plans on terrorizing his ex-girlfriend Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss)... more personal and more emotional. This is a great “take” on the concept of invisibility. It could have been a spy story or a crime story or a half dozen other types of stories, but the story of a messy romantic break up is more emotional and easy for most of us to identify with.
From there, we have what is basically a Ghost Story, with Griffin “haunting” Cecilia to drive her crazy. She hides out with cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid)... and after Griffin “commits suicide” and his lawyer brother Tom (Michael Dorman) reads the will, leaving Cecilia $5 million in monthly installments of $100,000, “Contingent, of course, on the fine print: You can’t commit a crime, etc.” And before you can say GASLIGHT, strange things begin to happen... and they often set up other things that will be used later in the story. We are going to focus on the *props* in this article—the guns on the wall. One of the things to be aware of, whether you are writing for budget or not, is that by limiting the props and repeating their use you can give them more meaning and power and even make them symbolic. You may have seen this in films before but never noticed it—in my book Hitchcock: Mastering Suspense I look at Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS, where the door key to the wine cellar from the Unica lock company is one of the most important props in the story. The villain, Claude Rains, keeps that key with him at all times... so we know that it’s important. Our undercovers agent Ingrid Bergman and her CIA handler Cary Grant come up with a scheme to steal the key and search the wine cellar... and the entire time the focus is on that key. The poster for the movie includes that key! People who have seen the movie only need to be shown the key to know what film you are referring to. The *prop* is the real star!
But what about the gun on the wall?
The key to establishing any skill or information or prop that will be important later is to make sure it isn’t an obvious plant. You don’t want the audience to jump ahead of the story, but you want the information or prop to be memorable and even iconic. The way to make a set up invisible is to establish the information or prop for another reason that is important to the story. There are *two* reasons for this information—now and later. The audience thinks the scene is all about the now, but it’s really about the later. INVISIBLE MAN does a great job of this.
THE PILLS: One of the important props is a vial of sleeping pills, which is first shown 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the film when protagonist Cecilia uses them to drug her boyfriend Griffin so that she can sneak out of the house and escape his abuse. She takes the pills with her, not wanting to leave any evidence behind... but the pill vial drops out of her pocket when Griffin chases her and tries to prevent her from leaving 8 minutes later. His bloody fingerprints end up on the pill vial... A half an hour later the pills pop up again when she passes out at a job interview from a drug overdose... and when she gets out of the hospital, finds the vial of pills in her bathroom with Griffin’s bloody fingerprints still on them. She tries to convince people that Griffin is still alive *and invisible*, but people find that hard to believe.
THE LADDER: She hides out at cop friend James and his daughter Sydney’s house in the suburbs. It’s a real fixer-upper and James is using a rickety old wooden ladder to paint the interior walls. Cecilia buys him a new aluminum ladder 21 minutes and 45 seconds into the story, and the ladder pops up again and again in the story, along with the cans of paint. In a scene 57 minutes and 36 seconds into the film, Cecilia is poking around in the spooky attic and when she goes to climb down... the ladder is gone! It has just vanished. How will she get down? This is a great scene, because earlier when she was escaping from Griffin’s luxurious beach house we saw her scale the wall that surrounds the property... and those same skills come in handy when she is trying to get down from the attic without a ladder. Climbing the wall earlier was a plant! A can of paint is also used in this scene—poured down from the attic hatch... to expose invisible Griffin below! Over 35 minutes after these props were introduced, they were put to use!
FIRE EXTINGUISHER: My favorite “gun on the wall” is a kitchen fire extinguisher. 27 minutes into the story, when we think that Griffin is dead and that this is a story about Cecilia dealing with the PTSD from the abusive relationship, she is making breakfast and steps away from the stove for a moment... and we see the range knob twist *by itself* and the gas jet turn up to a dangerous level, starting a grease fire that almost burns down the kitchen. Cecilia rushes back in, tries to put out the fire... but fails! Then James’ daughter Sydney rushes in, pulls out the fire extinguisher from under the sink, and puts out the fire. Close one! This is both the first time that the Invisible Man (Griffin) “appears” in the story and the first time that it seems as if Cecilia has been negligent—which gets her in trouble with James. So we aren’t even thinking that the fire extinguisher is an important prop. By the time it comes back into play 98 minutes into the story as an important element in defeating the Invisible Man at the end of the film, we have completely forgotten that it was under the sink! We remember *after* Cecilia grabs it.
KITCHEN KNIFE: Also in the scene where she is making breakfast is a kitchen knife that she was using to chop ingredients... and that comes into play again and again in the story, like 49 minutes and 15 seconds into the story when Invisible Man Griffin attacks her in the house and she grabs the kitchen knife to defend herself... if she can find him. Both of these are establishing the knife so that it can be used by Griffin later to commit a murder while invisible 71 minutes into the story. Oops! Spoiler! Sorry!
INVISIBLE SUIT: The old versions of THE INVISIBLE MAN had a potion that created invisibility, this time around that ability is created by a suit that uses micro-cameras and micro screens (though this isn’t explained, that’s what I assumed—it’s a “mechanical device” rather than a potion). This suit is first introduced 6 minutes and ten seconds into the film—though we don’t know that’s what it is. In this scene—when Cecilia is escaping Griffin’s beach house, we also see that there are security cameras everywhere—he is always watching. This is a great paranoia builder, and the film has great shots throughout that seem to be spying on Cecilia.
The great thing about recurring props that are planted with one use, only to be used for a later plot-related use, is that it attaches significance and power to those props. If you watch the Scott Frank written DEAD AGAIN thriller, there are a handful of props—including a pair of scissors—that almost end up the star of the show! In the science fiction / horror flick TIME CRIMES several props take center stage... and are used for a completely different purpose in each time travel jaunt. Reusing props gets to the economy of elements part of Chekov’s advice. When you begin looking for the technique of reusing props—setting them up for one purpose and paying them off in a completely different way—it pops up in lots of films! And maybe it will pop up in one of your screenplays?
THREE TYPES OF PLANTS
In the Story Blue Book we look at the three types of plants in a screenplay or novel.
REVEAL/SURPRISE PLANTS: are designed for the audience *not* to remember the information you have established. Once you establish it, you work to make the audience forget it (by focusing on other things) so that when it pays off it is a surprise or reveal or twist. It can be a big twist (he’s been dead since page 7!) or just a small reveal like the clue at the crime scene “730 AM” isn’t a time, it’s a radio frequency. Anything abnormal or unusual or that is a plot twist needs to be planted *first* the key to these plants is to make them as invisible as possible so that the audience doesn’t see Bruce Willis shot on page 7 and think that he’s dead before that is revealed. Usually, to do this you need a strong “diversion”—like a troubled kid who says that he can see dead people. There is a skill in making the audience forget planted information like this!
ESTABLISHING PLANTS: are designed for the audience to remember the information you have established. You might even remind them of the information before it pays off. The Knife and the Fire Extinguisher in INVISIBLE MAN. This is that gun on the wall that Chekov was talking about—you introduce these things early so they are part of the world of your story, so that when they pay off later the audience isn’t wondering where that Fire Extinguisher or secret passage came from.
SOFT PLANTS: are information established which may never pay off! It might just be a cool detail... or may end up that secret weapon in James Bond's briefcase you never thought he'd use. Soft plants need to be things that are *not* unusual—if Bond has a rubber ducky in his briefcase, we are going to need a lot more explanation! He’s a spy! So Chekhov’s gun on the wall probably wouldn’t work as a soft plant because it’s unusual, but character and location details that add depth and verisimilitude that may or may not pay off later work as soft plants. Anything that still provides information even if it never pays off. I love these because if I ever get stuck in a scene, they provide possible ways out. And if they are never used? Realistic details.
As writers we are always planting information that will pay off later, setting up scenes and characters and events. Before we can harvest information, we need to plant it, whether we are writing a horror film or a drama or a comedy. If something will become important later, we need to plant it earlier—make it part of the story that we are telling already. Placing the gun on the wall in Act One so that we can use it in Act Three without anyone questioning how the heck it got there. Creating elements in the world which will become more important later in the story... whether it’s a horror story or a romantic comedy.