There’s a real shock right at the start of Universal’s “The Invisible Man” as it proudly proclaims its membership of the NRA. Thankfully, it’s a reference to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration of 1933 and not the politicised mass murder apologists of today. Good job too, because “The Invisible Man” needs no help in piling up the victims. He’s by far the deadliest of Universal’s original monster menagerie, with a death toll rising about 120 in his first movie alone.
On a snowy night, a mysterious masked stranger arrives at the Lion’s Head Inn in Sussex, demanding room and board. TH stranger is Dr Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), desperately seeking the formula to reverse his invisibility. But the longer he remains invisible, the more toxic the effects of his original formula become, driving him into a murderous, megalomaniacal rage.
Adapted by R C Sherriff from H G Wells’ original novel, the film is fairly faithful to the source novel, only making a few tweaks to better fit it into the Universal formula. Now it’s the invisibility serum that causes Griffin’s madness rather than him being a nasty piece of work to begin with but otherwise how would we be able to accept the standard Universal trope of a loving and lovely fiancée and her mentor-like father? It’s not surprising that, apart from that, the film sticks quite closely to the book as H G Wells’ contract gave him final script approval. That didn’t stop Universal from commissioning a myriad of scripts which strayed further and further away from Well’s story. During this point, producer Carl Laemmle Jr was courting Boris Karloff to play the part but after prolonged disputes over payment, the actor left the project and, when James Whale was brought in to replace yet another director, his first choice was Claude Raines. James Whale also brought a puckish streak of black humour to the film, mining the subject matter for both its horrific and humorous potential.
Some of the performances may feel a little too broadly comic at first for a horror movie; as if the hospital orderly from “Dracula” had been given a whole movie to himself. This is especially true of the scenes in The Lion’s Head Inn featuring its shrill landlady (Una O’Connor). Thankfully the comedic farce is balanced by a superbly sinister vocal performance from Raines and special effects work which remains breathtaking to this day.
The entire film is an utter delight for fans of practical and in-camera special effects work. The groundbreaking techniques developed for this film by John P Fulton, John J Mescall and Frank D Williams continue to provide hours of fun some 80-odd years later trying to figure out just how they pulled off some of the more ingenious shots. Whale makes sure to keep the story rattling along at a fair old pace, ensuring the special effects are always in service of advancing the narrative and not the other way around. Griffin’s journey from troubled anti-hero to arch-villain is well explored and his ingenious use of his invisibility to advance his agenda creates a real sense of panic and paranoia, touching on concerns of privacy and security which remain pertinent to today. Perhaps more supervillain than monster, “The Invisible Man” ultimately meets his end thanks to the wintry conditions (let’s all salute his courage not to…ahem…shrink from his task in the cold) and it’s only in the film’s final moments, on his deathbed, that star Claude Raines actually appears on screen. It’s a sad farewell for his fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) but at least we the audience have the reassurance that she’ll eventually cheer herself up with a nice sea voyage to return the Heart Of The Ocean to the resting place of the RMS Titanic.
It’s another slice of prime spooky entertainment from Universal and the first one to really feel as if it were set in the contemporary period of its production (as opposed to the vaguely 19th century feel of its predecessors). The black humour on display in this film would go on to become one of the hallmarks of James Whale’s next, last and perhaps best horror film of his career: “The Bride Of Frankenstein”.