Universal Monsters Week: The Invisible Man (1933)
“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go.”
Released in the early running of Universal Studios’ domination of the horror genre in the 30s, James Whale’s classic fright The Invisible Man, is still able to shock and impress over 80 years since it was originally unleashed onto unsuspecting audiences. This is in no small part due to the talent at play both in front of and behind the camera, not to mention the, at the time, groundbreaking visual effects that still hold up (for the most part) to this day.
Having proven himself to the studio brass with 1931's Frankenstein, Whale was in high demand, but thanks to the blockbuster success of that Boris Karloff starring picture, all Universal wanted was a sequel. Whale however wasn't completely sold on the concept of a Frankenstein sequel and decided to pitch H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man to division head Carl Laemmle Jr. as a "one for the studio, one for me" situation. Whale was willing to make the Frankenstein sequel, but first he wanted to get The Invisible Man onto screens. Laemmle Jr., being a huge supporter of Whale readily agreed, even though the screenplay for Invisible Man had been in a constant state of development hell for years. Whale brought in writer R.C. Sheriff, a friend from his London stage days, to help with the script and they were off to the races.
If there's one aspect of Universal Studios classic stable of monster movies that's most memorable, it's the groundbreaking effects. Frankenstein wouldn't have been the memorable classic that it is without Jack Pierce’s makeup effects and the same can be said for John P. Fulton's incredible work on The Invisible Man. Literally inventing techniques in order to make star Claude Rains invisible, his work here is still incredibly effective. Combining multiple takes and the inspired idea to film the actor cloaked in black velvet against a black velvet background, there are numerous shots that can still trick a modern CGI trained viewer.
One of the more faithful adaptations of a classic novel by Universal Studios, The Invisible Man tells the story of Dr. Jack Griffin, a chemist who has discovered the secret of invisibility. Unfortunately for Griffin the formula has not only turned him invisible but has come with a nasty side effect of making him insane! The screenplay is ahead of its time as the story isn't told in chronological order, forcing audiences to fill in the gaps, something unheard of at the time. Whale, though a commerical director, was never one to hold a viewer’s hand when telling a story, which is just one of the reasons his films hold up so well to a modern point of view.
Added to the novel's original story are various side characters most notably a love interest in the form of Flora Cranley, played by the always lovely Gloria Stuart. Stuart, now best known for her Oscar nominated performance in James Cameron's Titanic, was just getting started in Hollywood. Whale enjoyed working with the actress in his underrated horror picture The Old Dark House so much that he invited her to join the small cast of The Invisible Man. Stuart is a vision, and her beauty and innocent personality give Rains' Griffin a plausible reason to use his powers of invisibilty to provide a wonderful life for her. Another massive highlight of the cast is the innkeeper's wife introduced early on in the film. Played to high levels of camp by the hilarious Una O'Connor, her exaggerated scream is the stuff of legend. Whale thought she was the funniest thing on two legs so it only makes sense that he'd work with her again when Bride of Frankenstein would go into production two years later.
A massive box office success at the time, The Invisible Man has become a personal favorite of mine over the years. This is due in large part to James Whale’s assured direction and the masterfully evil performance by Claude Rains. Hired for his voice, Rains imbues Griffin with the type of malice that’s rarely seen in motion pictures of the time. Insane by any estimation, he begins a reign of terror across the English countryside, murdering anyone that stands in his way with reckless abandon. From local police to an entire train of passengers, his menace knows no bounds. That train sequence, brought to life via the use of miniatures is a spectacle that was also ahead of it’s time. It still looks great and instilled a true sense of horror on my recent revisit. This is Rains’ picture as much as it is Whale’s and it’s all the more memorable for it.
It's been a long time coming, with multiple remakes and reboots over the years, but this Friday with the release of The Mummy, Universal Studios will begin in earnest their ‘Dark Universe.’ A franchise of interconnected films (following the Marvel vein) based on their classic Monsters series, will bring these classic characters of film and literature to new audiences around the world. Time will tell if they’re at all successful, as their last attempt at kickstarting this new franchise, 2014’s Dracula Untold, was by all accounts an abysmal failure, fans would be smart to adopt a wait and see attitude. Obviously The Invisible Man will be a part of this universe, this time played by Johnny Depp, but with the film still so early in development, it’ll be interesting to see what direction they eventually take this classic story of scientific hubris.
Shocking and poignant, but also grand spectacle and entertainment, The Invisible Man is often overlooked in the director’s career in favor of the Frankenstein pictures, but is essential in understanding his style as a filmmaker. That said, it’s high point for the original Universal Monsters films and one that deserves a viewing by anyone with the least bit of interest in the history of horror films as a whole.