One of the less utilized members of the gang of misshapen creatures known collectively as the Universal Monsters is the Invisible Man. Believe it or not, Of course, nowadays the translucent terror’s influence can be strongly felt thanks to Leigh Whannell’s cracking 2020 overhaul, but back in 1933, Frankenstein director James Whale took a punt at another famous cautionary tale when tackling H.G. Wells’ tale classic tale of paranoia, madness and victimless public indecency with impressive results.
While the Invisible Man franchise took many different forms during it’s run with wildly varying storys, different actors and even a meeting with Abbott And Costello being tried out to bolster box office, it’s the original that stands out as by far the best.
On a snowy night in deepest, darkest Sussex, a strange man with his face clad in bandages strides into a pub and impatiently demands a room for the night. He is Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist whose tinkering with powers just beyond his understanding has left him completely and utterly invisible to the human eye and as a result has left him a hostile and short tempered prick. Hoping to continue his experiments while sealed away in his room, Griffin is nevertheless disturbed by the excruciatingly annoying and extraordinarily nosey innkeepers wife which kicks off another one of Griffin’s incandescent rage fits. However, when the police is called, Griffin somehow snaps even further, going from invisible man to invisible man-IAC and unwrapping his bandages to show off his vanished visage and launching a half-playful assault on any witnesses. It seems that this “invisible man” has now gone completely off the deep end and starts having delusions of grandeur that involve plots, plans and sizable portion of murder.
While Griffin’s fiancee and work colleague race to locate this translucent slice of rampaging crazy and the police scratch their heads wondering how they’re supposed to arrest a man they can’t see (must have saved themselves a bundle on the wanted posters, though…), Griffin himself convinces/threatens his old assistant to help him in his megalomaniac endeavors, but then turns on him when he gets ratted out.
As Griffin grows steadily more unhinged – and with it, more diabolically confident in his abilities – he starts to hold the city hostage to his lunatic whims. Can he be stopped before the death toll rises any further or will he realise his fiendish dream of being an all powerful see-through psycho?
The only horror icon that still feels threatening while clad in a pair of pyjamas and a dressing gown, The Invisible Man is a walloping good thriller us sci-fi/ horror undertones that, despite a lot of moving things around with fishing wire, holds up damn well today. Proving that his exemplary work on Frankenstein was no lighting flash in the brain pan, director James Whale sets to work crafting a deviously entertaining caper under legitimately bizarre circumstances. After all, whomever accepted the role of el hombre invisible would have to perform the either role buried under enough bandages to swaddle a dolphin or have their head optically removed thanks to 1930’s movie magic.
Enter Claude Rains and his extraordinarily expressive voice, ironically marking his first “appearance” in American movies, who proves to be utterly magnificent in the role thanks to an inordinate amount of gravitas and some cracking examples of 1930’s bellowing (Boy, that man could fucking yell…).
In his hands, Griffin is a teetering volcano of toxic masculinity who threatens, bullies and murders his way relentlessly through the movie thanks to his invisibility serum making him madder than a bus full of Max’s. “I’ll show you who I am and what I am!” he roars at a gawping policeman as he unwinds his disguise and he goes on to prove himself as a thoroughly hissable shit of a human being, alternating between deranged hijinx (stealing a bicycle while whooping like a loon) to casual brutality (throwing a baby’s carriage over during an escape or playfully tipping unsuspecting people off a cliff).
As the film goes on the plot admirably thinks big, with Griffin embarking on a one man rampage which at one point involves him buffering about with rail lines and sending a train hurtling off it’s rains and into gorge and it’s the escalation of the violence that keeps the film so gripping. Not only are genuinely unaware of what horrors Griffin will perpetrate next, we also have no fucking clue where he’ll be either, something that continually freaks out the people trying to catch him.
The other performances range from the usual stilted leads, anguished fiancee’s and the usually “Cor blimey guv’nor!” stylings of the village townsfolk, but much like every other entry in the Universal Monsters catalogue, it’s the villain who is the main draw. However, it has to be said that the movie shoots itself in the invisible foot during the final reel as the method used to finally bring him to sweet, visible justice is that someone overhears him snoring and grasses him up. After all that he’s finally cornered because he fell asleep in a barn? Seriously?
Anyways, for a horror/thriller made in 1933, it has some suprisingly forward thinking imagery; Griffin removing his wrap around sunglasses to show off his empty mouth and eye holes is riffed on in Paul Verhoven’s 2000 homage Hollow Man, which follows very similar threads (invisible=insane) and every bandaged character since, from Darkman to Batman’s Hush, owes a massive debt to Whale’s suprisingly hardcore classic.
Yes, some modern viewers weaned on state of the art visuals might chortle at the sight of a log wobbling through the air, supposedly lifted by invisible hands, when it’s obvious that it’s in a bit of string, but this WAS state of the art back in 1933 and it still holds up pretty damn well today.
Thanks to HG Wells’ intriguing premise and James Whales stylistic flair, The Invisible Man proves to be among the finest entries of it’s time.
Could this film be any better..? If it could, I can’t see it.