The Invisible Man (1932)
Written by R.C. Sherriff
Directed by James Whale
As early as 1931, Universal was developing The Invisible Man as a film. It was based on the novel by H.G. Wells and was seen as an excellent follow-up to Dracula. Other projects sidetracked this one, but by 1933 the film debuted. Wells was alive at the time and demanded script approval while Universal incorporated elements from another invisible man short story they had also purchased the rights to. After Frankenstein’s fantastic performance and critical reception, James Whale seemed like the perfect fit for this project. It became a film that showed even more of the director’s wry, macabre sense of humor.
One snowy night in rural England, a bandaged stranger (Claude Rains) wanders into an inn. He demands a room and to be left alone, which draws interest and suspicion from the customers and owners. Mrs. Hall (Una O’Connor) stumbles into the room while he’s engaged in a scientific experiment while angers the man. He begins stripping off his bandages and clothes, revealing he is entirely invisible. We quickly learn the man is Jack Griffin, a chemist who discovered invisibility while experimenting with the drug monocane. He’s on the run from his employer Dr. Cranley who simply wants to help Griffin. Griffin is also in a relationship with Cranley’s daughter. Unfortunately, Griffin’s mind is warped by the drug, and he becomes megalomaniacal, forcing Kemp, a coworker, to aid him in his reign of terror.
The Invisible Man is quite a lot, especially if you enjoy a dark comedy. Whale is clearly a pioneer in special effects (something we see more of in The Bride of Frankenstein), and some of the feats pulled off here are remarkable for the time. The film isn’t what I would necessarily call a horror movie; I never found Griffin particularly scary. Instead, he is hilarious, losing his mind throughout the story but constantly quipping and shitting all over Kemp. There’s also an emphasis put on giving supporting and minor characters a lot to do. It’s the same sort of thing you might see in a Judd Apatow movie or, closer to the period, the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges. Talented character actors might have a scene or two, but they really add to the picture’s humor.
Claude Rains is a remarkable voice actor, as that is how he performs for the majority of the picture. He’s a good mix of dangerous and witty to the point you are rooting for the guy. My favorite part of the film is when Kemp goes to the police about Griffin, and the invisible man informs his former henchman he can guarantee he’ll be back to kill him. Rains delivers his lines with such arrogant confidence that he has no doubt that he’ll throttle the life of the traitorous Kemp with his unique ability. Rains also plays Griffin’s insanity not as anything wholly dark or depressing but as a murderous prankster. He suddenly snaps when disturbed one too many times and wreaks havoc on the inn and the surrounding town.
Having seen this original picture puts the subsequent reboots and remakes to shame. While they lean into digital technology, they lose the humor and personality that Whale brought to the movie. I thought of Kevin Bacon’s The Hollow Man and what a dour, humorless affair that was. It seemed to be a dollar store version of Cronenberg’s The Fly, which I just don’t think is the right take for this property. The more recent reboot starring Elizabeth Moss is okay, and it is a very different film, focusing on her character and making Griffin a more brutal, nasty antagonist. Personally, I will go with this original version as my preferred take.
The film also introduced me to Una O’Connor, an Irish actress who steals the show as the innkeeper’s wife. She has no compunctions going over the top and gives such a hilarious performance. Whale was also a fan of hers as she’ll show back up in The Bride of Frankenstein with an even more prominent, while still supporting, role. The big lesson from viewing this picture is that going dark & gritty is not always the best choice. However, when it comes to a ridiculous concept like The Invisible Man, making it fun and laughing when it gets overly melodramatic is a good thing.