Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale is best known as the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but in between those two classics, he directed The Invisible Man (1933) based on the novel by H.G. Wells. At its heart, the film is about the corrupting influence of power and a how man acts when he believes he is immune from consequences, but as we see, it's only so long before a man's character catches up with him, even if nobody can see him.

A mysterious tenant (Claude Rains) has rented a room at the Lions Head Inn in the English country side. His face remains hidden by bandages and a pair of black sunglasses, and he is always working on some sort of chemistry experiments. His odd and disruptive behavior angers the locals, and when the police arrive to arrest him, he pulls off the bandages to reveal nothing there. We eventually learn his name is Jack Griffin, a brilliant scientist who experimented with chemicals to make himself invisible, but the side effects include insanity and megalomania, and Griffin can't reverse the effects. Soon, he goes on a murderous rampage, believing himself to be beyond morality.

For a movie made nearly 80 years ago, The Invisible Man contains remarkably ambitious special effects, and for this part, modern audiences should be able to accept them. Granted there are a few minor flaws, but overall, Whale really sells the invisible man aspect, using several little tricks and visual guides to suggest the mad man's presence: empty clothing shaped like a man, a pair of pants running down a road, a bicycle riding by itself, people getting shoved and tossed around, etc. The moment Griffin unmasks, peeling away the layers of bandages to reveal the emptiness beneath the visage (both physically and morally), is a classic moment. There's always that sense he could be anywhere, ready to strike. In addition to sneaking up on people, Griffin also causes chaos in other ways that make him a terrifying mass murderer. At one point, he kills a railroad worker and then flips the tricks, causing a train full of people to crash. He also knocks several people to their deaths off cliffs.

Helping the film tremendously is the performance of Claude Rains. I don't know how often he was under the bandages for the physical parts, but his voice alone is enough to carry the role: obsessive, ruthless, maniacal, dangerous, pompous, and yet containing a great intelligence and malicious sense of humor. "The drugs I took seemed to light up my brain. Suddenly I realized the power I held, the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet," he declares. He also says, "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's frightened of me, frightened to death!" Like Freddy Kruger years later, Griffin is a man who enjoys instilling terror in people. During the aforementioned pants scene, a terrified woman runs away screaming as he sings, "Here we go gathering nuts in May."

That dark humor works very well. Other more broadly comic scenes involving the bumbling police and the innkeeper's wife not so much, mainly due to such campy and shrill performances that are irritating and distracting. The invisible man story is also one of the hardest to do because strict adherence to logic can push the tone into unintended silliness. For example, we're expected to believe Griffin is able to run around naked in the middle of winter. But these are mostly nitpicks in an otherwise effective chiller, fitting nicely with Whale's other masterpieces.

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