If for KING KONG alone, 1933 would already be one of the most important years in film history, but it’s astonishing to see how so many movies made a literal lifetime ago are still so vibrant, relevant, and straight-up wackadoo. Take James Whale’s THE INVISIBLE MAN, based on the novel by visionary author H.G. Wells. Like Wells’ best-loved work, this film contains themes, ideas, and images that continue to thrill and fascinate, eighty years later.
THE INVISIBLE MAN is one of the great Universal horror pictures. Like the rest of the Universal Monsters, the title character has become a Halloween hallmark, despite beginning life as a literary creation. But Dr. Jack Griffin, The Invisible Man, is different than the others — in some ways the most disturbing. He’s arguably the least charming of them all. Count Dracula is totally evil, but he’s got old-school swagger. The Wolfman, Larry Talbot, is tragic and tormented. He doesn’t ever want to hurt anybody, but when things get hairy, he can’t help himself. The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster are similarly tragic figures. Im-Ho-Tep is a romantic at heart, and as for Frank, he can’t help that he was built out of murderer parts. The Creature From The Black Lagoon is basically an animal. He can’t really be blamed for his lizard-brain horniness, or for his killing sprees resulting from it. Griffin can be. He was a scientist. He knew the risks. He invented the invisibility serum and took it himself, despite knowing that the compound had a side-effect of insanity. Then he began plotting, and killing. Not a good guy. There’s no angst or ambiguity there.
The director was James Whale, who had previously made FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (not to mention THE OLD DARK HOUSE). As much as he is justly admired by horror fans on a case by case basis, it still strikes me that James Whale is underrated as an auteur. Many directors have successfully traversed genres, but not nearly many have successfully traversed tones. FRANKENSTEIN is spooky and shocking in parts, but even today, it leaves the viewer with a sense of melancholy. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN has its eerie bits, but generally succeeds most as high camp. These are strikingly different experiences both from each other and from THE INVISIBLE MAN.
THE INVISIBLE MAN is upsetting, creepy, troubling — and occasionally dryly funny, since it’s James Whale after all. But as a central figure, Griffin is malicious from the get-go. There’s no arc. He’s not a good guy who goes bad, and certainly not a bad guy who finds a heart. He’s a villain. His final fate leaves the viewer (or me, at least) cold. When the movie ends, you don’t miss him, or shouldn’t, not the way you miss any of the other more charming or tragic Universal Monsters.
Which, of course, didn’t stop any of the sequels and team-ups that followed. The central conceit of invisibility was still wide open to be eagerly explored, and the special effects, even now but especially for the time, were thrilling and inventive. It’s a blast to watch Whale and his team work. It’s very fun to watch the movie, even if I’ve described it as a good-bad time. Preston Sturges contributed to the script! He knew well how to mix chuckles with tears.
Claude Rains gives an impressive performance, despite the fact that by definition we hardly see him in the movie. The film’s ingénue is Gloria Stuart, who my generation only knows from TITANIC. She’d previously worked with Whale on THE OLD DARK HOUSE. There are cameos by Dwight Frye (DRACULA), Walter Brennan (RIO BRAVO), and John Carradine (who would eventually play Dracula in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). It’s easy to forget now, after eighty years of collective exposure to the Universal Monsters, but many of those original pictures are sincerely sinister affairs. THE INVISIBLE MAN is Exhibit A.
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