‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) Review

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We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there…

Sailor Monsoon’s recent series about the best movie villains and Vincent Kane’s about the foundations of modern horror franchises got me thinking about re-watching The Invisible Man. It was never my favorite of the Universal Monster films, but I’ve never really thought about why.

I think it boils down to the fact that the titular ‘monster’ is just so damn unlikable. Dracula is more of an inhuman monster, but he’s charming and, well, not crazy. The rest – Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Wolfman – even the Creature From the Black Lagoon – are all sympathetic to one degree or another. Griffin is a psychotic murderer who only gets worse as the film goes on. I think for a kid who kinda wanted the creature from Frankenstein to be his friend Griffin was the most monstrous creature of them all.

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It’s a little weird to feel like that about the film when I dearly love the original story and Griffin is a bad guy from the jump in that. In this, he at least starts out looking for a way to return himself to normal and has no idea that the chemicals he’s used are slowly wrecking havoc with this mind.

The Medium
My wife gave me the Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection on Blu-ray several years back, and I treasure it. The Invisible Man looks fantastic, as do all the films in the set. It’s just the original film, so if you’re looking for more Invisible Man you’ll have to look to the Invisible Man: Complete Legacy set or (if you’ve got the scratch) the 30 film Complete Universal Classic Monsters set.

The Invisible Man is available for subscribers on Starz, but otherwise you’ll need to rent/buy it on streaming.

The Movie
In the middle of a blinding snowstorm a man swathed in bandages and wearing dark glasses struggles through the drifts to the Lion’s Head Inn in Iping. Despite his strange appearance and behavior he’s rented a room – though the proprietors will come to regret doing so.

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The bandaged man is Jack Griffin, a scientist who has managed to discover the secret of invisibility. He’s apparently never heard of animal testing, however, and has used his formula on himself without first finding a way to reverse the effects. He’s left his work and fiancé to try and find a way back to visibility.

Unfortunately for him – and for many other people in the film – he’s neglected to do his research. His old boss Dr. Cranley (Henry Traves) and co-worker Kemp (William Harrigan), looking through his lab for clues to his disappearance, find a list of ingredients that include a dangerous bleaching chemical called monocane. Though Griffin is unaware, due to his outdated research materials, monocane has a horrible side effect. It causes homicidal madness.

And it’s effects are already being felt. When the Inn owner attempts to evict Griffen – for lack of payment and stinking up the joint with his chemicals – Griffen assaults him. When the police arrive he removes his clothes, becoming completely invisible, and goes on a bit of a rampage through the village before disappearing into the countryside.

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Claude Rains is just incredible in this film. Given we never really see his face and often don’t see him at all it falls on the actor to create the character pretty much by voice alone, and what a voice! Alternately wheedling, intelligent, crass, rational  and insane – you’d never know the man grew up with a Cockney accent and a speech impediment. And that laugh! If they’d ever made a Batman film in the 40’s Rains would have been a fantastic Joker. It’s hard to believe now, but he wasn’t the first choice for the character (that would be Boris Karloff) nor the second or third. According to one story he was chosen only after director James Whale overheard his screen test for another film.

Griffin shows up at Kemps home and threatens him into being his accomplice. Griffin has big plans, you see, plans that include terror, murder and just maybe ruling the world. Who could stop a man they can’t see? The leaders of the world would live in fear of invisible hands around their throat. Unable to trick Griffin and terrified of his abilities, Kemp agrees to help get Griffin’s notebooks back from the Inn. In the process Griffin straight up murders a disbelieving policeman.

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The special effects in The Invisible Man still hold up amazingly well. Everyone talks about the invisibility effects by John Fulton – and they’re fantastic – but I found myself really noticing the wire work this time around. We’ve all seen ghost or psychic movies where objects move ‘on their own’ and I generally find that stuff to be pretty poorly done. Here, however, things like doors opening and closing, furniture moving,  books opening or objects being flung all have a realistic heft to them. They, with some exceptions, actually look like things being manipulated by an invisible person. One of the standout effects also contains a minor flub, however – Griffin’s footsteps in the snow in the climax are appear perfectly like a person walking – but in shoes, rather than barefoot.

As the movie progresses Griffin’s mania gets worse. Despite an attempted intervention by his fiancé, (Gloria Stuart of The Old Dark House and, much later, Titanic), Griffin goes on a murderous spree, attempting to initiate his ‘reign of terror’ as a first step to convincing the world they should capitulate to his will. Some of his horrifying crimes include throwing a couple of searchers off a cliff and sending a train with hundreds of passengers plummeting off a bridge.

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Despite all the mayhem there’s a distinct thread of dark humor running through the whole film, which is only to be expected when a movie is directed by James Whale. Griffin skips along a road in just a pair of pants, singing “Nuts in May.” When Griffin returns to murder Kemp the poor man, trussed into a car that’s pointed at a cliff, says “I’ll do anything you want!”

Griffin responds with, “You will? That’s fine, just sit where you are.” And then proceeds to describe the whole process of shoving the car down the hill and what will happen to Kemp when it flies off the cliff!

I think the first time I watched The Invisible Man I felt a bit cheated by the ending. After scene after scene of Griffin outsmarting and overpowering his opponents he’s caught sleeping in a barn. The authorities set fire to it and as he stumbles in the snow he’s shot to death. It felt anticlimactic, but it works for me now. Something about the way Griffin simply refuses to accommodate the most basic of necessities despite his grandiose plans – like sleeping in a safe location – feels right. It’s his hubris that gets him in the end.

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The Invisible Man was a huge hit for Universal, and it spawned a slew of sequels and remakes (including one slated for 2020 starring Elizabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge). There’s just something fascinating to us about the ability to be invisible. There’s a lot of potential power – and temptation – in that ability. What would you do with it? What would any of us?

The Bottom Line
The Invisible Man is exciting, scary, funny and pretty brutal for its time. I enjoyed it a lot more this time around, though I still don’t think Griffin would get invited to a lot of Universal Monster get-togethers. He’d probably just kill everyone.