Friday, November 22, 2013

"Why, an Invisible Man Could Rule the World!"

Claude Rains in The Invisible Man

James Whale's adaptation of The Invisible Man (1933) is candy, pure and simple. Appropriate for Halloween, I think. It's the apotheosis of the classic horror film's formulation of the tragic hero/villain, it's one of the drollest black comedies, and it's a film that embraces the fantastic possibilities of the cinema. It's a true inheritor of the legacy of Georges Méliès.

A bandaged figure appears out of a blizzard at a boarding house in rural England. He demands a room and a fire. The locals are suspicious of him and his odd appearance and his secretive ways. He's Jack Griffin, and he claims to have been disfigured by a scientific experiment gone awry. But the experiment has, instead, rendered him invisible, and unbeknownst to him, one of the chemicals in the serum that rendered him so is driving him mad. Soon the secret is out, and The Invisible Man embarks on a campaign of vengeance against a world that has no place for him. Soon, he's public enemy number one, a terrorist who must be caught before he topples civilization. Meanwhile, Griffin's friends and colleagues search for him in order to cure him. But the net is closing...

The story is based on the novel by H. G. Wells, of course, and it works better as a movie than it does as a book. The conceit of an invisible man is a challenge that's still being taken by filmmakers eighty years later, with ever more elaborate means of creating invisible characters. This is one of the great special effects movies of the classic Hollywood era, and John P. Fulton's effects by themselves are a justification for the film. If some of the effects seem less good than they once did--the state of the art in special effects is a moving target, after all--some of them are still miraculous. When he unwinds his bandages and begins to interact with the world, this film takes off like a shot. My favorite effect in this film is the scene where Griffin rides a bicycle (an effect later employed by The Muppet Movie in order to have Kermit the Frog ride a bike), but the desperate footsteps in the snow at the end of the film are an indelible image, too. Fulton's best effect is one that he saved for this film's sequel, in which The Invisible Man takes a drag on a cigarette and the smoke briefly defines the shape of his lungs, but that's beyond the scope of this film. In any event, one wishes we could see some of the effects elided by Griffins catalog of the limitations of visibility--The Invisible Man in the rain, The Invisible Man before taking a bath--but this is a case where the film offers a challenge to later filmmakers. The Invisible Man in the rain, for instance, eventually shows up in The Hollow Man. This is a generous film that offers loads of fodder for later generations of filmmakers.

The role of Jack Griffin was offered to Boris Karloff, who balked at it. It was another role where his own face would not be seen, and after Frankenstein and The Mummy, he was tired of the visual anonymity they created. The role went, instead, to Claude Rains, and it made a star out of him. Rains was too large a talent to be confined to the horror genre, as Karloff had been content to do, and his performance as Griffin first as a bandaged scientist and then as a voice on the soundtrack is one that I can't imagine Karloff bettering. No disrespect to Karloff intended. Rains was a great and self-effacing actor.

The Invisible Man

James Whale approached horror movies as a lark--Frankenstein is really the only horror film he ever made with a straight face. The Invisible Man himself is the ultimate prankster, and his initial mischief seems like the director himself is tweaking the nose of the audience's expectations of a thriller. Certainly, his choice of comic relief in the shrieking Una O'Connor is bound to try the patience of some viewers. This is the sort of film that Ealing Studios would make two decades on, with its gentle lampoon of quaint English people. Carlos Clarens, in his Illustrated History of the Horror Film, opined that this is the film where the influence of England began to overtake the influence of the Germans inside the horror genre. Frankenstein was still beholden to the legacy of German Expressionism (boy, howdy, was it!), but this film is not.

It's weird watching horror movies of this vintage and trying to connect the lineage of horror to them. The horror films of the the classic era weren't really interested in the things valued by the contemporary genre. Oh, there's still a desire to transgress, but cultural norms were so much more restrictive back then that it was easier to cross them. Just the idea that there are some things with which man was not meant to meddle, and that those things are so relatively tame, seems quaint in the wake of the disaster of the Twentieth Century. What is an invisible man next to an atomic bomb or a concentration camp or a thalidomide baby or a Fukashima power plant?

Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in The Invisible Man

The classic horror films work better as melodramas than as shockers, with their transgressions abstracted into their tragic monsters, many of whom become monsters through hubris, though others are simply made that way by fate. Griffin is an ideal example of this, conflating Frankenstein and his monster into one character, giving him a love that he can no longer attain, and setting him against the world with a colossal hubris. Griffin is positively Shakespearean, one of the most charismatic of monsters thanks to Rains's delivery of the Invisible Man's soliloquies. And, of course, we know that he's out of his mind through no fault of his own, which makes his fall tragic rather than cathartic. His speeches are as grandiloquent as they are mad:

"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!"


"We'll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. "

This last seems like a tweak at the fascism rising in Europe (something that Frankenstein also seems to anticipate), but it's a mistake to read deep political meanings into The Invisible Man. It's just as easy to see in The Invisible Man the contemporary boogeyman of Osama Bin Laden. Like most great monsters, Griffin is a Rorschach test, in which you see what you bring to him.

In any event, The Invisible Man remains one of my very favorite movies, and it was fun watching it while serving the trick or treaters on Halloween. The tide of the children had subsided a bit by the end of the film and I was down to the bottom of the candy bowl, so as the credits rolled, I turned off the porch light, peeled out of my costume and put on some comfy clothes, then settled in for one last horror movie for October.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 32

First Time Viewings: 23

Note: One more and then I'm done.

October Horror Movie Challenge Banner


Jose Cruz said...

This is a spectacular film, one that tickles in its sense of naughtiness and by-today's-standards tame taboo-smashing. How could someone not crack a smile seeing those pants skip down the avenue singing "Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May"?

I was just saying in a post from last month that Griffin is the most megalomaniac of the Universal Monsters, yet he still carries a very potent note of tragedy. Whereas Lionel Atwill or Vincent Price as a mad scientist might sound cold and calculated, Rains manages to make him sound like a little guy with dreams to big for his invisible head.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Also, it's easy to forget that the Invisible Man is easily the most deadly of the Universal Monsters--or at least the most death-dealing. Frankenstein's Monster knocked off maybe a dozen in his film and sequels, the Mummy and Wolf Man few more, but Griffin sends a passenger train into a ravine! Hundreds dead! He really IS a monster! :)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Indeed. He's a much more ideological monster. More contemporary. He's the one who fits into a post-WWII/post Atomic Age world. He might be the perfect boogeyman for a post-9/11 world.