Just two years after James Whale changed the landscape of horror cinema with Frankenstein, he directed The Invisible Man for Universal in 1933, where he would focus on revolutionary special effects and subtle psychological horror to tell the story of a man driven to madness after becoming invisible. The Invisible Man is far different in tone and pacing than any of the preceding Universal “monsters, but is no less effective, and is one of the most important horror films of its time.
While not much shorter than its contemporaries, The Invisible Man earns points for excluding any sort of backstory and jumping right into the thick of it with tortured scientist Jack Griffin arriving at a bar/inn in rural England, where he hopes to continue his scientific research in seclusion. Why he would choose a bustling inn full of curious “country bumpkins” to study in peace is anyone’s guess, but one look at Griffin, who is wrapped in bandages and wearing straight-up steampunk goggles in the dead of night, and it’s clear that his research is very important to his well being. It’s not long before Griffin runs afoul of the bumpkins and rashly unravels his bandages, revealing that his body is entirely invisible before going on a manic spree of mayhem.
Much of the film’s running time is devoted to Griffin’s antics, which bounce between comedic and murderous, but there are a few precious moments of downtime that are spent contemplating his humanity, or whatever is left of it. It is revealed that the specific chemical used to make Griffin invisible has been known to make living creatures go insane, but it is also implied that Griffin had a bit of a god complex before ever injecting himself with it. The vagueness of Griffin’s backstory makes it difficult to fully sympathize with him, especially when he seems to be able to conveniently come to his senses when talking to his fiancee, Flora.
Visually, the film is near-perfect, with ambitious set design and cinematography that complements the multi-toned narrative. The invisibility effects are far from perfect, but must have been an absolute marvel in 1931. They hold up well enough, though I enjoy the scenes with Griffin in his iconic wraps more than anything else. Still, there’s something simultaneously hilarious and terrifying about the image of a pair of pants skipping through the snow as a crazy voice sings a children’s song.
While Claude Rains never became the horror icon that Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff did, much of what makes The Invisible Man hold up as a classic is due to his phenomenal vocal performance as Jack Griffin. The character feels threatening in a terrifyingly realistic way compared to other horror villains from the same era because he is a normal man who becomes twisted by his sky-high ambitions once he finds out that his success comes at a price. The film might be a little on the blunt side overall, but Rains’ voice acting is nuanced and affecting when necessary.
The Invisible Man has very few notable flaws to point out, but it is by no means perfect. The biggest flaw, by far, is the general inconsistency of tone. Things start out solemnly enough, but Griffin’s rampages quickly veer into cartoonish territory, and he goes full-on “Daffy Duck” crazy at some points. The cheesy one-liners that accompany some of his shenanigans don’t help at all, and it’s never clear why he randomly chooses to murder some of his victims while simply poking fun at others. One moment, Griffin is depantsing an imbecilic constable; the next, he’s literally derailing a train.
Fortunately, the schizophrenic tone does little to detract from the film’s overall quality, and The Invisible Man easily holds up as one of the all-time horror classics. The unique special effects and brisk pacing help it to stand out amongst its deliberately slow-moving brethren, and Claude Rains provides a different sort of monster for Universal’s stable. The Invisible Man is definitely the most action-packed of the older Universal monster movies, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Memorable Moment: The moment when Jack Griffin reveals his invisible body to an angry mob is a great showcase for both the film’s innovative effects and Claude Rains’ manic voice acting.
Fun Fact: Jack Griffin has one of the highest body counts of any cinematic madman, murdering 122 people over the course of the film.