Thursday, October 10, 2013

Universal Monster Classics, Pt. 4 - The Invisible Man (1933)

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) - Watching these films so close together, it is easy to tell the quality fluctuation between the Universal Monster Classics not directed by James Whale, and those with Whale behind the camera. To this point Frankenstein, also directed by Whale, is the best of the early three entries in the pantheon. And now we have Whale’s second horror feature, The Invisible Man. Full of life, vigor, and a little more off kilter than the previous three films, The Invisible Man has always been, and remains, one of my absolute favorites. As mad as its protagonist, the film manages to squeeze in a little zaniness to the proceedings, perhaps understanding the ludicrous science at the core. It may not always be mentioned in the same breath as the first three features, but make no mistake, this Universal Monster Classic is among the absolute finest.

Much like Dracula and Frankenstein, The Invisible Man is an adaptation of a famous novel. The H.G. Wells tale of the same name is quite similar to Whale’s film, more similar than the adaptations of either Stoker’s Dracula or Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you were to split these first four pictures into pairs, I would argue that The Invisible Man belongs with Frankenstein. Both deal with defining the “mad scientist” in cinema, both deal with man’s obsession with playing God, and both have a colorful approach to the townsfolk in the periphery.

Claude Rains stars in one of his earliest film roles, an odd one for sure given the fact that he is seen only in the end. He is the mysterious man who appears at the door of a local inn and pub, The Lion’s Head, one snowy evening. His head is wrapped in bandages, his eyes concealed by black goggles, donning a fake nose, his entire look an iconic masterpiece. The man demands a room where he hides away working on strange science experiments and shouting anyone out of the room who might dare bother him. This is where the local color creates a tone altogether more aloof and breezy than the serious horror elements in the first three films; the innkeeper’s wife and her shrill scream is especially memorable, as is the patrolmen and his guttural, stuffy British drawl. These locals’ growing curiosity about this bandaged man builds and builds until he lashes out at their intrusions and the police are brought to the Inn. The mysterious man finally loses grip on his sanity and begins disrobing to reveal that he is, in fact, invisible.

The idea that these special effects could be accomplished in 1933 is still astounding to me. While they show some obvious age, the disrobing and reveal of the invisible man is masterfully effective. Rains was filmed all in black velvet, against a black velvet background, to appear invisible. Laughing maniacally as he disrobes, the man escapes the masses and terrorizes innocents on his way out of town. This allows Whale to have some great fun with an invisible central character as he steals bikes, throws hats into the pond, and brushes unsuspecting folks aside.

The man returns to his hometown, where we find out he is Jack Griffin, a scientist whose experiments made him both invisible and murderously insane. Griffin forces his former colleague, Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) to assist him in a rampage of murder and mayhem which will ultimately lead to some vague sort of world domination. There is also a love interest of Griffin prior to his insanity, Flora, played by none other than a young and striking Gloria Stuart. Most of us these days will remember Stuart as the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic. The remainder of the film involves friends and colleagues of Griffin, as well as the police from the town he terrorized, trying to stop Griffin’s rampaging madness.

As I have mentioned, the presence of James Whale on the set keeps the energy and the tone consistent throughout. Where Dracula and The Mummy fade after their opening moments, The Invisible Man – like Frankenstein – is uniformly enthralling and exciting. The overt seriousness from the earlier pictures is abandoned as well, which is a good move for a film about a man who makes himself invisible. The premise lends itself to a more lighthearted thrill ride, and accompanied by the wonderful special effects, The Invisible Man remains one of the finest early entries into the Universal Monster Classics series.