1930s, 3.5/4, Horror, James Whale, Review, Universal Monsters

The Invisible Man

#1 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.

Carl Laemmle Jr. finally got James Whale to come back to make another horror picture, having tried to get him to direct The Mummy, and Whale ended up making one of the least typical of these early films. It’s something between a thriller and a black comedy, and it works remarkably well, all the more impressive since we don’t see the star of the film until the final moment.

Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) arrives in a small, English village, his whole head entire wrapped in bandages and his eyes hidden by dark sunglasses. He demands a room in the local inn and sets up all of his equipment in the sitting room he has rented. His angry outbursts and noxious chemicals bothers everyone, driving away the business from Jenny (Una O’Connor) and Herbert (Forrester Harvey) to the point where they try to drive him out, but Griffin reacts angrily in response, escalating the situation until the police arrive and Jack reveals his condition to them all. He’s invisible. He’s also completely insane. The literal explanation we get in the film, around a made-up compound called monocaine, is the sort of nonsense we’d later get regularly in bad B-movies, and much like the explanation of the abnormal brain in Frankenstein is completely unnecessary.

Anyway, we see that insanity most clearly when he tracks down his fellow scientist Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan). They had both worked for Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) under whom Griffin had worked after hours to develop his invisible formula. He needs to find out how to reverse it but only as an effort to extend his great plans. The formula has given him ideas about power and how to rule the world, and he describes how he will instill a reign of terror upon the world through his invisibility (a few unimportant men dead here, a few important men dead there).

Whale’s previous Frankenstein was obviously influenced visually by German Expressionism like Murnau’s Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Caligari, but that visual influence is largely gone here. Instead, it’s been replaced by another influence: Fritz Lang’s M. After the chaos erupts in the small town and Griffin gets away, there becomes a heavy emphasis on police procedural. It starts innocently and quaintly enough with the local police constable questioning those who had witnessed the event, dismissing it all. However, when Griffin shows up again (driven by Kemp) to retrieve his notebooks that he had left, the police take the situation more seriously and we get a full-blown police procedural of the process of trying to track down an invisible, insane, murderer in the English countryside, much like the search for the effectively invisible child murderer in M. It’s also interesting that Griffin’s small speech about the reign of terror he wishes to initiate so closely resembles Dr. Mabuse’s similar speech about the Reign of Crime in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

The first half, or so, of the film leans more heavily on the comedic aspects, and the latter half leans more on the thriller, procedural elements. It doesn’t lose those comedic aspects completely (there’s a moment where the invisible Griffin spins a police constable around by the feet that’s pretty funny), but the emphasis really does shift, creating some very nice tension in the final sequences of the film.

The attention the film gets is largely for its special effects, though, and those are actually rather remarkable. I have a decent understanding (not practical experience, though) with how these effects were created, and they hold up surprisingly well. They’re almost never quite perfect (some bleed-through on double exposures, matte lines, etc.) but they are wonderfully effective. They use every trick in the book up to that point in special effects, and combined with both of the film’s major tones, it is both somewhat scary and opportune for comedy.

James Whale seems to have been the most accomplished and talented director working on the Universal movies. Laemmle also brought him back for Bride of Frankenstein, and there seems to have been really good reason for it. Whale understood the psychology of the monster better than the rest of the talent making these movies. Griffin is an interesting follow up to Imhotep. Griffin doesn’t have magical powers. He’s just an invisible man, but he’s far more terrifying than the mummy, and that’s because of his motive, his plan of action, and his will to act upon it. The implicit reference to Dr. Mabuse (who was, himself, what Lang intended as a vessel for Nazism as a warning) creates an interesting subtext about the potential dangers and damage a man like Griffin could inflict, made manifest in the film by the strangling of a single railway worker and the flipping of two switches that leads to a terrible train crash. That’s far more terrifying than anything the mummy does in his film.

Rains carries the film from beginning to end, which is kind of amazing considering we never see his face until the very end. He’s got one of those great British voices that carries a lot of emotion, and he gives it his all (except maybe in the outdoor sequence in the small town where his voice sounds almost demure and obviously happening in a sound booth). His madness is the centerpiece of the film, and Rains makes it real. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine as well with Harrigan playing the straight man with palpable fear that sells his subservience to the invisible wannabe tyrant invading his home. Gloria Stuart is also in the film as Flora, Griffin’s girl who operates as a window into the life he led before, is capable in her small role.

Amusing, funny, and exciting, The Invisible Man is James Whale righting the ship of the Universal monster franchise after the stumble that was The Mummy. Told with confidence and style, it’s one of the heights of the whole franchise.

Rating: 3.5/4

9 thoughts on “The Invisible Man”

  1. Agreed about Claud Rains being the tentpole, though I don’t mind the supporting cast in this one for some reason. Maybe because they have more to do than just be appalled.

    This is also pretty good horror, there’s a line from H. G. Well’s Invisible Man to Lovecraft stories, right down to the insane scientist/killer.

    And somehow a mad human killer is a bit more scary, a bit more believable in an era where serial killers are known and walk among us. (and are occasionally elected to office)

    I also agree that the effects are good, the early Universal films hold up well, though some had better budgets.

    Also thank God for fuzzy-legged foreigners who don’t believe in DCMA takedown notices.

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    1. The insanity is the part that interests me the most, and the part that most quickly gets dismissed in later entries in the series. You can limit most insane men, but one who can elude all capture? Who can sneak into places and cause chaos to advance his evil causes without being seen or detected?

      I really think Jack Griffin is my favorite monster of the whole series. I’m glad they never found a way to bring his character back, relying on the concept more than the character himself.

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      1. I’m honestly torn between’s Bela’s Dracula or Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Both have strong points for me, but Claud Rains did a great job with Griffin, for sure.

        Oh and finally convinced the wife to watch a movie tonight. Going to see Top Gun: Maverick. I’ll take it.

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      2. Nice.

        I did like Top Gun: Maverick. It’s textbook Hollywood with a big budget. It’s a good time at the movies. I just never got around to writing about it.

        I also watched the new Pinocchio because Robert Zemeckis, and I just can’t bring myself to write about that one. It’s too depressing to think about what happened to Zemeckis.

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