Synopsis: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.
Stars: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Forrester Harvey
Director: James Whale
Running Length: 71 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I think it’s safe to say The Invisible Man doesn’t get as much love as his fellow Universal Monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman. Heck, I’d even say The Creature from the Black Lagoon gets a few more hits on his Instagram. While The Invisible Man (actually Dr. Jack Griffin in this first installment) may not be as instantly memorable as others in Universal’s stable of spooky characters, his debut film is a landmark achievement in technique and surprisingly complex storytelling for the era.
After the success of other monster movies Universal made this adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells a priority and went through several screenplays that strayed from the Wells source material. Having been burned by the last adaptation of his work, 1932’s middling Island of Lost Souls based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells insisted The Invisible Man stick closer to his original vision. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff’s final draft paid attention to the wishes of Wells and there are only slight differences between the novel and the movie. Overseeing it all was director James Whale, who scored such profound success in the horror genre with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, not to mention Bride of Frankenstein which was on the horizon after The Invisible Man.
What makes The Invisible Man so interesting and creatively different from the jump is that it isn’t an origin story, per se. When we first meet Griffin (Claude Rains) on a wintery night arriving at a small pub looking for a room, he’s already been through an experiment that has turned him invisible. Seeking a quiet space where he can rest and perform tests to find a way to reverse his condition, it’s only when the pub owner and his wife (a hilariously campy and over the top Una O’Connor) won’t leave him alone when the trouble starts. Lashing out in the first of several increasingly violent episodes, Griffin eventually descends into mad scientist territory as he terrorizes his sly former colleague (William Harrigan) and a countryside gripped with fear. The only person he reserves any warmth for is Flora (Gloria Stuart, Titanic), his fiancé who is willing to stick with him, even knowing his murderous impulses.
For a 71-minute movie, Sherriff (via Wells) packs quite a lot of ideas and layered narrative into the action. In a movie-going time that was still getting used to “talkies”, audiences had to truly listen to the dialogue to follow along and learn how Griffin came to his current state and how he plans to fix it. All of the backstory usually shown to us is relayed via rapid-fire dialogue so you better strap yourself in and don’t miss a beat. When Griffn goes off the rails and begins to use his invisibility as a weapon, there are various plots on how to catch The Invisible Man and not all of them are as simple as throwing a bag of flour on the guy. I was surprised and pleased to find such confidence put in audiences by the filmmakers, they clearly were aiming for a sophistication that maybe wasn’t quite present in earlier Universal monster movies.
The effects utilized are impressive, even now. Sure, some of the unmasking’s are a little rough around the edges and you can see the image overlay technique used. More often than not, though, it’s hard to detect immediately how the effect was accomplished and even harder to spot the wires for the items that float through the air as if Griffin is carrying them from one place to another. Even films 80 years later aren’t as consistently clean in their efforts to hide the magic. Watching a documentary after the movie ended revealed most of the tricks and while some were simple bits of practical on-set effects, there were many that required time-intensive work…but the results are worth it.
While I loved seeing another film directed by James Whale and the source material of H.G. Wells is grand, I wouldn’t say The Invisible Man is my favorite of the Universal Monster films. It may lack the thrill of Frankenstein or the creepy chills given by Dracula but there’s something about The Invisible Man that’s particularly captivating. Spawning several sequels and almost getting a reboot a few years back as part of the now scrapped Dark Universe, there’s no substitute for the original. I’d never seen it before this year but it’s absolutely one of those titles you can’t let slip by you.