After a little over a year of doing this column, I think you and I have a pretty good thing going. If you’ve come this far and are still willing to follow my incessant ramblings, I think our relationship can survive a wee confession: hard as I try, I just cannot get into the Universal Monsters movies. Don’t get me wrong, I value them for laying the foundations of the horror genre, but when it comes to actually watching them, I just don’t find them as engaging as more modern films.
Take, for example, James Whale’s iconic Frankenstein. This is a movie that defined gothic horror and created the look for Frankenstein’s monster that would be ingrained in our collective consciousness for generations. I’m a huge fan of the film’s visual aesthetic and the notion of a sympathetic villain is one that always resonates with me. But when I actually sit down to watch it I find myself looking at the clock within the first ten minutes.
So, when I settled down to check out Whale’s other Universal title, 1933’s The Invisible Man, I kept my expectations low. After all, if I couldn’t get into one of the most famous horror movies in the history of cinema, how would I react to one that often seems treated as an afterthought? As I settled in for my viewing, something fascinating happened. Things started off as they usually do. I enjoyed the nostalgia of the golden age title cards and smiled at the novelty of the outlandish studio sets, but braced myself for the inevitable slip into boredom. But it never came. Instead, I sat intrigued by a movie that, while still very rough around the edges, had me transfixed for its duration.
The premise is as simple as any movie I’ve covered: laboratory assistant Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) has concocted a serum that grants him invisibility, but there are two catches. One, he doesn’t have a serum to make him visible again. Two, the secret ingredient, monocane, has the pesky side effect of driving a person utterly insane. After attempting to find a cure for about five minutes, Griffin shifts gears and decides he’s going to coerce his fellow assistant Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) into going on a wild bender of murder and mayhem, all while his estranged love, Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart), and her father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), try to track him down and find a cure.
In The Invisible Man, Whale’s direction is a stark contrast to the singularly gothic and creepy tone he sets in Frankenstein. Rather than wallowing in contemplations of death and the macabre, Whale sets an atmosphere of something closer to frivolity. While Rains’ turn as Griffin leans heavily on menace, the townspeople around him seem like they’d be more at home with the residents of The Simpsons’ Springfield. They’re all over the top, bumbling, and played for laughs. I spent a good part of the first act trying to figure out if I should be ready for chuckles or scares.
As it turns out, both were in the offering, with ample humor serving to distract from some blindsiding dark turns. For every silly line or pratfall, we get a death that is shockingly depicted for a film released in the early 1930s. Many movies of the era relied on the threat or the implication of violence, with much of the action happening off-screen. But The Invisible Man really goes for it, with Griffin killing police officers, sending a man’s car flaming down the side of a cliff, and even derailing a train full of passengers.
Leading man Claude Rains is pivotal in making this maelstrom of conflicting tones work for the film as he shifts from mischievous to murderous at the drop of a hat. What’s more, he has to do so with his face fully covered in bandages or via voicework in scenes where he’s supposed to be invisible. But damned if he doesn’t come through with flying colors (or lack of color in this case). Most people point to Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger as the first villain to bring some personality and flair to the villain role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he took notes from Rains’ Dr. Griffin, who is obviously having a ball hamming it up with one-liners as he causes all manner of havoc. Whether he’s doing something relatively benign like stealing a bike, or something more serious like sending dozens of people to die in a fiery wreck, Rains applies just the right balance of dark humor and outright cruelty to fit the situation.
As great as Rains’ performance is, there was still the risk that the illusion could be ruined by shoddy special effects. One of the main reasons I wanted to check out The Invisible Man was to see how they could pull off any kind of convincing visual effects gags. While there were plenty of gags with objects seemingly moving themselves, I was amazed at effects supervisor John Fulton’s use of a matte process to provide more complex visual effects. For example, there are scenes where Rains is actually in the shot, but any exposed skin has been deleted from the frame so that it appears that he’s just an empty set of clothes.
While this may not seem like any great achievement, it’s important to remember that digital alterations wouldn’t be possible for another seventy years or so. To pull this off, Whale had to shoot scenes with Rains (who was claustrophobic) wearing a restrictive, black velvet suit against a black velvet background, and then Fulton would overlay those shots into a scene with the appropriate background. Think of it as green screen before green screen, and while it may not match today’s standards, the finished product is quite impressive for its time.
The Invisible Man is by no means a flawless movie. Aside from Rains, much of the acting can be downright wince-inducing, and like most movies of its time, subtlety is less likely to be seen than the main character (invisiburn). But like other Universal classics, it serves as a prototype for a myriad of films that would utilize the invisibility trope, from Memoirs of an Invisible Man to Hollow Man to It Follows. But what separates The Invisible Man from the rest of the Universal pack is that it demands your attention for the duration of its runtime, which is no small feat when you can’t even see the main character.