In anticipation of Halloween and in celebration of the recent blu-ray release of the classic and iconic “Universal Monsters” series, I have decided to review each title individually in chronological order, and the latest review of the series is for “The Invisible Man” that was directed by James Whale and premiered on 13 November, 1933.
Did I mention that James Whale was a genius? Seriously what he accomplishes here with “The Invisible Man” is nothing short of sensational. He is able to communicate to the audience the horror of a being who is invisible to their eyes, but not only that, he makes the film exciting, genuinely terrifying and even funny, whilst treating the subject with the utmost respect and seriousness. Whale has once again produced a masterpiece of horror with “The Invisible Man” and you may be surprised at just how dark and grim the story becomes as it goes along.
The story of “The Invisible Man” is a simple one and is quite similar to Whale’s earlier horror film “Frankenstein” in as much as it is about a scientist, Jack Griffin, out on his own trying to perfect his personal experiments in invisibility. Testing on himself Jack finally succeeds however he has no way to bring himself back to visible flesh and blood. Worse still, one of the drugs used in his achieving invisibility causes the mind to go insane. Whilst trying to find an antidote, the madness envelopes Jack as he suddenly realizes just how much power an invisible man could have in this world and he starts to exploit his situation and begins a reign of terror. Can anything bring this once mild mannered man back before it is too late?
“The Invisible Man” has the potential to be a very silly story if not handled at all correctly and the trap of turning the film into a comedy is ripe, however Whale has resisted this temptation and has handled the tone of this film in such a serious manner bringing out quite a dark and nasty story indeed. That is not to say that there is no comedy in the film because there is, but it usually comes from the way Jack torments his victims with his invisibility, because let’s face it, Jack has a seriously disturbed mind. The image of the woman being chased by a pair of pants is an absolute classic.
The greatest asset “The Invisible Man” has is the casting of Claude Rains in the titular role, but what makes it all the more amazing is that with the exception of the final scene of the film, Rains is not visible on screen for the majority of the movie. When he is onscreen he is covered in bandages, so he is unrecognizable, so his entire performance is basically a voice-based one and anyone who knows Claude Rains knows that this is not going to be a problem for him. His voice is an amazingly distinct one, but it is the aggressive inflections that he puts into his voice that makes it such an amazing performance. The subtle changes in his voice indicate where he is of mind for that scene, and can often change mid-scene, but it is amazing at just how terrifying he can make this character just through his voice. I honestly believe that no one could have played the role of Jack Griffin better than Rains back in 1933. Granted, I am a big Claude Rains fan, but this is not the origin of my hyperbolic statements, he is just really that good.
For a film about an invisible man wrecking havoc, you could predict that there was going to be a lot of special effects in the film and with a film this old, you would expect them to date significantly. While that is true of a few (the aforementioned pants chasing the girl is a good example), the majority of the effects hold up brilliantly and I was left wondering how they were done so efficiently. I can only imagine how special these effects were back in 1933 when the film premiered. Things such as chairs, bikes, clothes moving all on their own are impressive, but when Griffin begins to get violent they become even more special, like when the police officer is murdered with a wooden stool (quite a shocking scene, I might add). The genius of Whale is that he knows how to shoot these effects to get the best out of them without revealing how they were done.
I mentioned that this was a dark film, and visually this proves to be true too. At least with the scenes featuring Rains as Griffin, Whale has gone with a dark and heavy shadowed look especially in the tavern Griffin is staying in. When the peripheral characters take center stage, the shadows disperse and the film lightens. I mentioned in my “Frankenstein” review how Whale knows how to give a character an entrance and this is true again here. Just check out Rains’ entrance at the tavern, his face bandaged up complete with a prosthetic nose and dark glasses, covered in the snow that had been falling outside. It is at once impressive and so chilling. While the camera moves considerably less than it did in “Frankenstein” (no doubt due to the special effects), Whale still always choices the perfect camera angle to tell his story. Again, I was stunned and impressed by his frame compositions. Just like in “Frankenstein” Whale performs another dolly shot that tracks between two sets passing through the decorated border of each. While the shot here is still impressive (especially for its time), I must admit I preferred the one in “Frankenstein” more as I thought it was more effective dramatically, here it was almost like Whale was showing off.
Aside from Rains the rest of the cast have little to do sadly and aren’t really stretched dramatically either. The usual James Whale love triangle appears once again, but doesn’t really go anywhere. The girl in question is none other than Gloria Stuart who modern cinema fans know as the old lady, Rose, in James Cameron’s “Titanic”. Obviously here she is in her prime playing Griffin’s fiancée Flora, and she really was quite stunningly gorgeous. That said, she has little to do other than look pretty and try and convince Griffin to return home, but I do not mind this so much because “The Invisible Man” really is Griffin’s story alone. The other prominent member of the cast that needs to be mentioned is William Harrigan who plays the cowardly Dr. Kemp, Griffin’s partner and the third part of the love triangle, and I thought he was great. He really does scared and cowardly well. It was obvious that no woman would go for a sniveling man like Kemp here.
There is one thing keeping “The Invisible Man” from being a 5-Star masterpiece and that is the terrible performance of Una O’Connor, the wife of the innkeeper. She is horrible and her constant shrieking and screaming is like nails on a chalkboard for me. She is so over-the-top and incredibly annoying, I cannot stand any of her scenes (beware because she is also in “The Bride Of Frankenstein”). I understand that she is brought into the film as a spot of comedy relief but for mine she fails terribly and almost ruins this amazing film.
As I mentioned earlier the tone of this film is very dark and the number of people that Griffin ultimately murders is over one hundred. It is amazing that just a couple of years earlier in “Dracula”, Universal dared not to show the effects of the vampire’s fangs and here in “The Invisible Man” there is so much on-screen carnage. I was seriously shocked by a lot of these deaths and Griffins sadistic nature as a whole. The murder of a police officer and the destruction of a train full of innocent people were totally unexpected and shocking, and yet is one of the reasons I love this film so much. The finale of the film, although it isn’t as poignant as that of “Frankenstein”, I found incredibly sad too.
Overall, Whale has done it again and created yet another masterpiece with his take on H.G. Wells' “The Invisible Man”. I love this movie so much and can watch it repeatedly without it ever getting old. Although unseen throughout the film, Claude Rains is sensational as Jack Griffin, the titular invisible man, his voice so powerful and terrifying. Everything I love about this film, the look, the actors, Whale’s sublime direction, its dark nature. If it wasn’t for the terrible Una O’Connor in a prominent role I would have given “The Invisible Man” a perfect score, however I still consider the film a (very slightly) flawed masterpiece.