Hi there, friends! Editor and showrunner Markus here, just wanting to make a quick introduction before we move on. As you probably understood from the title and header image, today’s words come courtesy of a special guest instead of being the usual ramblings of yours truly. And said guest is my dear friend Mary, who you actually saw some words from last year as well. So if you enjoyed her pieces last year, then you are in for a treat. So without further ado, let’s see what she has to say about “The Invisible Man”.
The 1930s were a time of great fear across the Western world. There was so much poverty, brought on by the Great Depression (and the mass exodus from the American “dust bowl” or hyperinflation in Europe). Fascism was on the rise across many US towns and, most notable of course, in Germany and Italy. There was no joy; no escapism. Every day was a fight to survive.
So it makes sense that cinema capitalised on this experience by directing this fear and trauma at the “other”. Monster movies – be it The Mummy or Dracula – gave cinema goers the chance to be on the side of good. To place themselves in the “mob” with their pitchforks and questions, cinema goers (those who could afford the admission price) had the chance at catharsis. There was somewhere to direct all of their worries and prejudices – whether that was a man who had suddenly become too powerful and murderous or a man who simply didn’t look like everyone else. And that is the backdrop for James Whale’s 1933 movie, The Invisible Man. Whale directed three films after bringing Frankenstein to the big screen in 1931 before returning to the “monster movie”. Indeed, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive were both considered for the titular role, here, before the purring, snarling Claude Rains was cast. There are plenty of crossover elements between Whale’s two films, as even casual viewers would no doubt pick up on.
The film, loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, centres around Jack Griffin (Rains), a scientist who has been conducting invisibility experiments on himself. His latest concoction of tinctures has worked – he is now fully invisible to the naked eye. Wrapped in bandages and heavy clothing, he approaches a small inn in order to finish his experiments. What he doesn’t realise is the very potion that is keeping him invisible is also turning him murderously insane.
The film opens with bombastic brass screaming over the title credits, whilst the whistling sound of heavy wind and snow permeates the entire film. Griffin is the quintessential outsider or “other”. He dresses strangely and he repeats his desire to be left alone upon securing a room at The Lion’s Head inn. There is immediate speculation from the regular patrons as to who he is, where he has come from and why he is covered in bandages. “Bumped his head on the prison wall on the way over,” one astute Cockney remarks.
A viewer warning should be presented with this film. Una O’Connor, the howling banshee who appeared in The Bride of Frankenstein, has a far more prominent role, here. If you can suffer through the first twenty minutes of her shrieking and screaming (seriously, adjust your volume here because it is awful), you’ll be rewarded with far more entertaining performances. The cast includes the likes of Henry Travers (Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life) as Dr. Cranley and Gloria Stuart (the elderly Rose in Titanic) as his daughter, Flora. B-movie regular, William Harrigan, stars as Dr. Arthur Kemp, whom Griffin is intent on murdering. The acting often veers into melodrama territory, but Rains and Harrigan keep things grounded and suspenseful. Because whilst this film might not carry all of the thrills and spills of the Leigh Whannel remake, there is plenty of tension and well executed special effects. Griffin is often shot from below, giving him this huge frame that fills the screen. Claude Rains vocal performance is so powerful and commanding. He purrs and slithers his way through maniacal speech after speech, at one point raising his fist and yelling, “The whole world is frightened to death!” Kemp’s paranoia at his former colleague’s nefarious plans is palpable. He is a man who spends the entire film, quite literally, looking over his shoulder.
The “floating” effects really must have frightened cinema goers back in 1933. On the most part, they still stand up to this day. Watching no one strike a match and light a cigarette, mid-air, is rather fun and impressive. There are opening doors, floating beer glasses and creaking windows, too, which must have seemed so delightful and beyond technical comprehension at the time. However, these effects quickly descend into vicious chaos as men are strangled or pushed down flights of stairs by “no one”. The scene featuring the derailing of the passenger train is extremely shocking and a clear indicator of Griffin’s murderous intentions. It really grounds the viewer in terror – much more so than a few invisible slaps.
The two “big reveals” of the film are also really well done. First, we see Griffin unravel his bandages only to realise that we can see right through him. This is built up beautifully – a few cuts between each roll of the bandage coming off – until the moment of shock itself. In contrast to this, within the last twenty seconds, we also get to see Claude Rains, fully, for the first time. It’s a strangely humanising moment for a character who has been anything but.
And that’s where The Invisible Man really stands in contrast to Whale’s previous monster movie. In Frankenstein’s monster we had a creature who longed to be loved; to be part of a community. Griffin’s invisible alter ego earns no such empathy from viewers. He is cold and maniacal, with no hint of who he was before he started messing around with science. His character is power hungry and violent, with no care for who he uses or hurts. Despite Flora and Dr. Cranley’s pleas about Jack being a good man, we just get no sense of this. We get a straightforward villain who is easy to dislike. When the police and villagers are rounding up their (metaphorical) pitchforks to look for him, here, you will them on in their quest. Whale and Rains present and out and out “baddie”, a pantomime-esque villain who exists simply to be loathed and feared.
The Invisible Man is such an icon of horror and an enjoyable addition to the Universal Monsters family. Whilst it’s lacking in bloodshed in comparison to its contemporary renderings, Claude Rains vocal performance (and the fun special effects) make it well worth the watch this spooky season.
Written by Mary Muñoz