Horror Is Universal: “The Invisible Man” (1933)

Imagine there’s a person sitting right behind you, watching your every move, that you can’t see. You might not be able to prove it to a third party, or even to yourself. But you know that person is there, and that person knows that you know and is relishing every moment of your discomfort. They could do just about anything to you, and you would be powerless to stop them.

When H.G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man in 1897, he was tapping into one of humanity’s deepest and most primal fears. Is it any surprise that horror and sci-fi filmmakers keep coming back to his work for inspiration? The novel has been adapted countless times, with most filmmakers taking the story’s basic premise and veering off in a totally new direction with it. As we’ll see, it can be twisted around in a number of different ways. I find it appropriate that I’m covering this topic now since Universal recently released a trailer for its upcoming Invisible Man reboot, which reimagines the story for the #MeToo era. I think it looks great, and I’ll definitely talk about it in this series when we get to the modern remake period.

For now, however, we’re talking about the studio’s first attempt at telling this story. Today we discuss 1933’s The Invisible Man, in all its messy, disjointed and utterly bonkers glory.

The Plot: Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) is a brilliant and ambitious chemist who has recently gone missing. No one can figure out where he went, since he left no message and destroyed all his notes and research before disappearing. But even if they could locate him, they couldn’t see him — Griffin has turned himself invisible through experimentation with a bleaching substance called monocane, and he hasn’t quite worked out the antidote yet. Using bandages, goggles and thick clothing to hide his condition, Griffin flees to an English village to continue his work. But when the villagers lose patience with his erratic behavior, he exposes his secret and begins terrorizing the town. Monocane, you see, has the tiny side effect of driving you murderously insane, and Griffin is all hopped up on the stuff. Believing he can use his new power to conquer the world, Griffin sets out on a countrywide killing spree. News of his antics eventually reaches his old lab partner Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), who becomes Griffin’s reluctant “accomplice.” It also attracts the attention of Griffin’s employer Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and Cranley’s daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart), who thinks her love for Griffin can guide him back to sanity. Together with the London police, they search for a way to apprehend and cure Griffin. But how do you conduct a manhunt for an invisible man?

Being another tale of what happens when you dabble in unethical science, The Invisible Man is something of a successor to Frankenstein. Griffin’s backstory, which bears little resemblance to what H.G. Wells wrote, is a close imitation of Henry Frankenstein’s: the scientist blinded by his own arrogance who secludes himself from the world, ignoring the concerns of his mentor and loving fiancee. But that’s not the only connection that Invisible Man has to its predecessor. James Whale directed this movie as well, and Frankenstein actors Boris Karloff and Colin Clive were both offered the leading role. The part of Griffin eventually went to British actor Claude Rains, who had only done stage work in London and New York up to that point. The Invisible Man was his first major film role. Of course, that didn’t stop Universal from showing his name before the title in the opening credits: by now, they must have figured out that their horror films were turning unknown leads into major stars. The other behind-the-scenes names you should know for this one are John P. Fulton and John J. Mescall, who were responsible for the film’s visual effects. We’ll discuss those in more detail later.

If you’ve seen Frankenstein, then you’ll immediately recognize Whale’s fingerprints on Invisible Man. Like its predecessor, it’s a film with a quirky, larger-than-life feel running through it. The emotions and the drama just keep getting higher. Another distinctive quality it possesses is what I wrote down in my notes as “aggressive folksiness.” A lot of the film takes place in rural Britain, specifically the village of Iping in West Sussex where Griffin is holed up for the first act of the film. It’s a picturesque little town full of rambunctious, heavily accented characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a Wallace & Gromit short or a Monty Python skit. Chief among them is Una O’Connor’s loudmouthed innkeeper Jenny Hall, who reacts with hysterics to Griffin’s nonsense. It’s all meant to be rather silly and over-the-top.

See, The Invisible Man isn’t really a traditional horror film like the other movies we’ve watched so far. It’s more accurate to call it an early example of horror-comedy rather than straightforward horror. There are a lot of visual gags and slapstick sequences going on here, mainly when Griffin and the people chasing him have a direct confrontation. What sets Griffin apart from the previous monsters and antagonists in these movies is that there’s a clear liveliness and playfulness to his character. He’s not a straightforward killer like Dracula or Imhotep, not most of the time — his modus operandi is more about toying with people, freaking them out, delighting in their fear and paranoia. The biggest part of what makes Griffin so fun to watch is the quality of Claude Rains’ performance. For the first twenty or so minutes, when Griffin is still keeping himself wrapped up, he’s subdued and even kind of imposing. But at the end of the first act, when Griffin embraces his invisibility and insanity, all bets are off. Suddenly there’s a tremendous amount of energy to the character, all of which is devoted to the fine art of scenery chewing. Earlier I’d said Henry Frankenstein was the gold standard for mad scientists, but it turns out he’s got nothing on Griffin here. For none can match Griffin’s many eloquent, over-the-top speeches about how he, a dude who is invisible but basically just an average human aside from that, is somehow going to become the evil overlord of the whole planet. With maybe one other person on his team. He is nothing if not optimistic.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking that Griffin is all bark and no bite, for it turns out he is a master at creating mischief. I can think of no better demonstration of his trickster tendencies, and of the film’s comedic atmosphere, than the sequence about twenty minutes in where Griffin unleashes his wrath upon the residents of Iping. They know by now that he’s invisible, not that it matters much — part of the humor comes from several of the characters reacting to this revelation with mild annoyance as opposed to pants-wetting terror. They’ve tried to keep him trapped upstairs (and clothed, therefore somewhat visible), but to no avail. Away he goes, prancing through the village and throwing a wrench into everybody’s morning. See, he’s not causing serious harm to any of them. He’s stealing bicycles, smacking people with brooms, grabbing people’s hats off their heads and throwing them into the river. It is not scary in the least, nor is it meant to be scary. It is, instead, the essence of chaos in its purist form. It could almost be mistaken for a level of Untitled Goose Game, except with a loud, volatile nudist. Which isn’t that different from a goose, really.

This is a good place to briefly segue from discussing the plot and characters to discussing some more behind-the-scenes stuff. Specifically the visual effects, which are probably the biggest star here, if we’re being honest. The Invisible Man is an astounding technical achievement, especially for the time period. Most of them still look pretty great today, 86 years later. And while there are a few moments where I could tell how a certain trick or gag was pulled off — the bicycle Griffin steals being set to roll down a track, for example — there were even more moments where I found myself wondering “Wait, just how did they do that?”

Depicting Griffin when he’s completely invisible is simple, of course: Claude Rains does his lines via voiceover, and the camera films an empty space. What about when invisible Griffin is interacting with visible objects? With props hooked up to wires, you can simulate the effect of said props floating, flying around and otherwise reacting to Griffin’s touch, which is happening almost constantly in the film. But the real conundrum are the scenes where Griffin is partially visible: that is, where Rains is physically present in the shot but you still have to see that he’s invisible. How do you pull off something like that?

This is where John Fulton and John Mescall come in, along with a filmmaking technique called a traveling matte. In terms of filmmaking and photography, a matte is when you combine two different images — say, an actor and a background — into a single image. A traveling matte refers to instances when a moving object is contrasted with a background. It’s basically what filmmakers are doing whenever they use a greenscreen or bluescreen. In the case of Invisible Man, the screen in question was black velvet. Rains performed his scenes against a black velvet background while also wearing a black velvet bodysuit that covered him completely (and remember, he was wearing at least one additional layer of clothing on top of that!). This footage was then combined with the corresponding footage from the film set, placing Rains into the scene proper. And just like that, you’ve created the effect of clothes hanging on a human body that you can’t see. It’s pretty remarkable stuff. So is the fade-in effect used at the very end of the film, where Griffin dies and finally becomes visible again, from the skeleton up to the skin.

Back to the movie itself, which probably sounds like a pretty great time so far. And it is, to a point. The performances are strong, the visual effects are fantastic, and the comedy, while unexpected, is genuinely well done. So what’s the catch? Why did I start out by referring to it as messy and disjointed?

It all has to do with the delicate balancing act that proves necessary when a story is mixing two genres together, as The Invisible Man does with horror and comedy. In order to have both the funny moments and the scary moments be effective, it’s important to make sure that your story doesn’t tip the scales too strongly to one side of that equation. I’m not necessarily talking about which facet of the story gets the most focus: it’s about varying degrees of intensity.

It’s difficult to get this point across by just describing what happens in the movie, so I need to show it to you instead. Here’s a clip from late into the film where Griffin evades capture after having his location revealed to the police by his “accomplice” Kemp:

And this is what comes immediately after that sequence:

That’s right, the disembodied pair of pants singing to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush” is a bloodthirsty terrorist with a body count that the previous Universal monsters could only dream of.

I think that these two clips, the second one especially, demonstrate the problem that this movie has with tone and intensity. It’s not an example of going too far in the comedy direction. Instead it’s going so far in both the comedy and the horror directions that you get mental whiplash when you see them next to each other.

Here’s the thing: while a lot of this movie is pretty funny, it’s also pretty scary when it starts getting into the danger and paranoia that an antagonist like Griffin would actually cause. If Griffin spends most of his time living in a slapstick comedy, then Kemp is the character who’s stuck in a horror story. I wasn’t sure at first what the movie would do with Kemp. In a lot of early horror films like this where the main character is the antagonist, the story will give them a friend or coworker whose only reason for being there is so the love interest has a backup guy or girl when the lead inevitably kicks the bucket. There are definitely examples of this trope in Universal horror (we’re coming up on one pretty soon, actually), but Kemp doesn’t really fit into this box, even though his first scene may suggest otherwise. His story begins when Griffin shows up to hold him hostage in his own house and force him to help carry out Griffin’s plans for world domination. Some pretty good drama and creepiness comes out of Kemp’s efforts to try and warn someone about the dangerous criminal threatening him while dealing with the constant possibility that said criminal could be watching him without his knowledge. It cuts right to the heart of what makes The Invisible Man as a concept so frightening. There’s a pretty lengthy and tension-filled sequence where, after Griffin makes his promise to kill Kemp at 10 PM, the police enact an elaborate scheme to get him safely out of the city. Does it work? Well, let’s just say Griffin is determined to make good on his promise. And in a manner that’s surprisingly graphic for 1933, at that.

There have been moments of violence in the previous Universal movies, but in a way that sort of detaches you from the act itself. The worst of it happens offscreen, or it’s artificial in a way that takes the shock out of it. The Invisible Man is different. Violence is peppered throughout the film, and when it happens, it’s quick and intense and in your face. There’s a scene early on where you see a guy get thrown down some stairs, and it’s actually kind of disturbing because of how it’s shot and staged and how the other characters react to it. And then there’s the train sequence, which is so dark compared to everything before that point that it catches you off-guard even though Griffin had talked about doing it in an earlier scene. None of the violent moments are that bad by today’s standards, but the power of the storytelling here is able to make them feel a lot worse than they might be otherwise.

And therein lies the problem with The Invisible Man: it’s difficult to reconcile the two halves of the film with each other. On one hand, you have an unsettling horror film about paranoia and domestic terrorism. On the other hand, you’ve also got slapstick sequences out of a Three Stooges movie and a cartoonish villain that you love to hate until he starts doing stuff that’s genuinely monstrous. The film goes back and forth between these two modes like a yo-yo, which ultimately does a disservice to them both. Let me get one thing clear: I enjoy both halves of this movie. When it wants to be a comedy, it’s a great comedy. When it wants to be horror, it’s just as great at being horror. But they can’t coexist without the whole movie feeling somewhat off as a result. It’s like two great tastes that don’t go great together.

The Invisible Man is more easily watchable than The Mummy, but still not on the same level as Dracula or Frankenstein. Claude Rains gives an incredible lead performance and the supporting cast is strong as well, but the film’s indecisve tone results in a disorienting experience for the viewer. The script twists and turns from quirky comedy to startling horror and back again, and it fails to create a natural flow between them. However, the script’s flaws are offset not only by the film’s acting but by its special effects, which still hold up in 2019 and stand out as a groundbreaking triumph of 1930s cinema. Once you know what you’re in for, it’s the kind of movie you can have a lot of fun with and enjoy more each time you watch it.

Final Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

As Universal approached the middle of the 1930s, they had four successful horror films under their belt and several characters and actors who were quickly becoming icons. It was time to forge new territory — not by finding another novel to adapt, but by building up from the foundations they’d created.

Up Next: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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