“Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies; power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon is frightened of me, frightened to death!”
~The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man
The genre of horror has been with cinema since the early days of movies. The first horror film is credited to Thomas Edison’s (yes, THAT Thomas Edison) silent film adaptation of Frankenstein, made in 1910. While the next two decades were good to the genre, with such notable examples as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, horror didn’t hit its first big boom until 1931, when Universal Studios released Frankenstein (the more well-known version starring Boris Karloff) and Dracula. These two movies were not only critical and commercial successes and remain two of the greatest American films of all time, but also started the golden age of Universal monster movies. For about 15 years, Universal released a series of movies that became iconic with the era and still remain beloved iconic champions of horror, The Wolf Man, The Black Cat, The Raven, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Phantom of the Opera, just to name a few. The movie we are taking a look at today is one of these classics, but doesn’t limit itself to just the horror genre, but also reaches into the science-fiction genre as well. This is James Whale’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man.
A scientist by the name of Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), discovers the secrets to invisibility and, after injecting himself with the formula, becomes invisible. But there is a problem, he doesn’t have an antidote. So Griffin must leave his laboratory and his love, Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart), the daughter of his professor, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), and find solitude to create a drug that would reverse his ailment. But, with a great power in his hands, grand ambitions gradually form as Griffin turns slowly mad and crazed as a side-effect of the invisibility formula.
The main strength of this movie is its cast of brilliant actors. William Harrigan( as Griffin’s reluctant accomplist, Dr. Kemp), Gloria Stuart, and Henry Travers give solid performances as the group of people who know Jack is the Invisible Man and try everything they can to try and talk sense into the now psychotic doctor. The supporting cast is also fantastic and aids the comedic highlights of the movie. Una O’Connor as Jenny Hall, the inn-keeper, plays every scream so over-the-top, that you can’t help but start cracking-up. My personal favorite side character is E.E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. He acts so casual as everything happens, that I don’t know if it makes for a bad performance or a great one.
But the real highlight of the film, in my opinion, is Claude Rains as the Invisible Man. The amazing thing about his performance is that for nearly the entire movie, his face is hidden. He has to rely on his voice to convey emotion. But oh, what a voice it is. There is so much power and command in his performance that you can’t help but become engulfed by it. My favorite scenes of his are when he tries to comfort Flora but ends up spewing insane dreams of impossible grandeur, and when he goes on an invisible rampage through the village, causing mischief, which is the comedic high point of the movie. And one cannot forget his awesome, Joker-like laugh that will haunt you long after you see the movie.
Aside from a great cast, visually, the movie is unbelievable. The special effects used in this movie were groundbreaking in 1933, and still look pretty good by today’s standards. The cinematography and set designs are gorgeous, from the first scene of Griffin walking in an open field, to the final scene in the hospital, the movie is a feast for the eyes indeed. Director James Whale brought his signature style of a foreboding atmosphere, coupled with intense performances, striking shots, and a delightfully dark sense of humor with him on this project that was present on his other works, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House. I could not think of a another director who could have brought all of these elements together better than Whale.
The movie is different from most Universal monster movies at the time, however, which I think effects its inclusion in that circle of horror classics. It doesn’t include a man-made monstrosity or a supernatural demon. In The Invisible Man, the monster is the man. And not just a man, but a brilliant scientist, who “-tampered in God’s domain…” and let his ambitions and madness consume him. There’s a human element to the movie that really warrants re-evaluation after you first watch it, and makes you ask questions about the nature of science, the power we wield because of it, and the ambitions of those who misuse or abuse these powers. Should humans wield a power such as invisibility? Do we trust ourselves to use the power for scientific knowledge or would we use it for personal gain? These questions could make a very interesting debate.
The Invisible Man is a truly enjoyable work of cinematic elegance that warrants revisiting on multiple occasions. With deliciously dark humor, eye-pleasing visuals, and stellar performances, it’s not a movie to miss out on and I urge any horror fans to give it a watch, not only as a great movie, but as a history lesson of horror in cinema. As for recommendations on other films that you may enjoy if you liked The Invisible Man, I point you towards Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera, also staring Claude Rains as the title antagonist. Now, usually, I don’t like to rate classics, but for the purpose of this review, I give H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, a perfect score of four out of four stars, a true champion of cinema