The Invisible Man
1933. Directed by James Whale.
The Universal Monsters pantheon has a central theme of loss, with all of the stories focusing on a creature’s bereavement, be it from an errant loved one or surrendering to the murderous side of their nature. James Whale’s The Invisible Man breaks this trend by focusing on the narcissistic aftermath of the protagonist’s transition from mild mannered scientist to preternatural madman. A groundbreaking display of special effects enhances a sordid tale of discover gone awry, departing from traditional romantic Gothic themes and delving into the realm of criminal mayhem.
Claude Rains stars as the titular villain, a promising scientist whose experimentation with pharmaceuticals renders him invisible and unhinged. R. C. Sheriff’s script weaves a farcical tale of madness and murder, with Rains’ interpretation of the material hearkening back to Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films, foreshadowing the eventualities of a certain Clown Prince. The Invisible Man works best when the serious and slapstick combine, keeping the horror and pitch black comedy in harmony while never taking itself too seriously, but also never submitting completely to the satire.
John Fulton’s special effects are vintage wizardry of the highest form. The Invisible Man’s presentation and the use of wires to simulate obfuscated hijinks are jaw dropping considering the time. While other films had the luxury of a visible monster, Fulton capitalized on the lack of a physical being, allowing the viewer’s mind to conjure the wickedness, making the film’s first act an unforgettable sequence of smoke and mirrors not often replicated to this day. Una O’Conner’s squeamish innkeeper contrasts the underscored menace of Rains’ mysterious patron, leading to one of the film’s best, and absolutely hilarious scenes. Despite the laughs, the film maintains an edge, staying loyal to the blackness that pulses through the heart of the story.
Murder is a complex undertaking. Pre-code Hollywood was unrestricted, allowing Whale to take H. G. Wells’ novel into a realm of anarchy that continues to inspire cinematic villainy to this day. This is reflected in several monologues that highlight Rains’ sinister transition by way of his relationship with an unwilling colleague, expounding upon the nebulous morality at the heart of Wells’ classic novel. While it is the experiment that fractures the Invisible Man’s mind, it is the absence of identity, the unfettered freedom of true anonymity which calls to the dark heart of indulgence.
Available now for digital rental, The Invisible Man is one of the strongest entries among the Universal Monster films. A maniacal central performance, a layered script, and cutting edge special effects work in tandem to allow Whale’s directorial prowess to deviate from narrative conventions to produce a chilling film that explores greed and mental duress, both of which are bathed in the shadow of gallows humor that infuses every scene of this essential film.