James Whale is the most feted of the monster movie directors, even getting a movie about his life (or the end of it) with the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, and this is probably deserved (though Tod Browning of Dracula and Freaks is certainly a contender). And he’s certainly the most successful early director to mix comedy and horror, as with Bride of Frankenstein and this movie, The Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man opens on an English Inn/Pub where a bunch of rowdies are having a good time. In from the snow barges a man, all wrapped in bandages and wearing dark glasses, demanding a room. It’s a boss entrance, right there, and one of the best moments of the classic Universal horror pantheon. The irascible Griffith holes up in a room at the Lionhead Inn trying to “find his way back”, by which we of course learn he means, “Find his way back to being visible.”
The nosey and parochial villagers won’t leave him be and he snaps, revealing himself to be not just invisible but quite unhinged. He decides to embrace his invisibility, which apparently means conquering the world!
I’ve written about this one extensively in the past: Going back to ancient Greece and the ring of Gyges, invisibility as meant something akin to unlimited power (as seen in the Lord of the Rings, e.g.) which doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you realize it’s not literal invisibility, but the ability to escape consequences for any action. (In a shame-based culture, if no one sees you do it, no shame can come from it.)
Here, however, the invisibility is literal and even 85 years later, pretty good to look at. You can see the edges of course: Some of the composites don’t work well, and some blue-screen magic (it was blue back then, I think, not green) clearly indicates a thing-you-can’t-see-but-is-still-blocking-your-vision, and a little of the wire work is unnatural or obvious (like the lines steering the bicycle).
But still it’s pretty amazing how much works. Probably the thing most hurt by the old technology was the mono-recording. A good sound designer could’ve made Claude Raines’ voice seem more integrated into the scene.
Whale’s comedy plays out big as everyone has ideas of how to catch Griffin, but nobody actually wants to get near him or incur his wrath. The Boy felt this aspect of the movie was rather realistic. The comedy bits come sharply into relief as Griffin grows more mad and more murderous, at one point derailing a train for the fun of it.
Trying to save him is the heroine (’30s starlet Gloria Stuart, whose last days were boosted by her Oscar-nominated performance in Titanic) and her father, Griffin’s employer, played by Henry Travers (Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life). These parts are well done, as is Griffin’s rivalry with the wormy William Harrigan, and keep a nice mix between the near-Keystone level of the attempts to catch Griffin and the melodrama of a scientist who “meddled where he shouldn’t have”.
It may be the best of the classic Universal monster movies. The Boy enjoyed it, though he felt it needed more suspense. At the same time, he allowed as how you came into the movie expecting some invisible man action so there’s no reason to delay that. The Flower was not impressed. Although she liked both films (Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein more than this) she found herself restless and didn’t think she’d want to see them again.
At 70 minutes, though, that’s not a ringing endorsement.