Some horror films nowadays come and go with little fanfare. With the influx of movies hitting theaters, VOD and streaming platforms, it’s hard to determine which of these films will stand the test of time. Which will live on well beyond their initial run and become iconic? What will resonate? Is there a winning formula? It hinges on many things but none more than this – the antagonist. In recent years we have characters like Michael Myers, Pinhead, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees that have stood the test of time and continue to frighten and terrorize the audience. In fact – Myers and Halloween (1978) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this very year! However these don’t hold a candle to those original icons of horror from Universal. One of which is celebrating its 85th year this year: The Invisible Man (1933).
The Chemistry Of Terror
Based off the classic 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name The Invisible Man debuted on November 13, 1933. After the commercial success of fellow Universal Classic Monsters Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) director James Whale (Frankenstein) was brought on board to bring the adaptation to life.
More Science Fiction possibly than Horror, The Invisible Man (1933) tells the tale of a scientist gone mad in the quest for fame and fortune. Hoping to make a discovery the likes of which has never been seen Dr. Jack Griffin played by Claude Raines in his first American film appearance, goes to drastic lengths to accomplish just that. Experimenting with a drug called Monocane has rendered his blood, flesh and bone invisible.
This is all revealed through dialogue and exposition throughout the film however. His horrifying transformation is not actually seen on-screen. Instead the movie opens with an already changed Griffin attempting to hide out in the quiet English village of Iping, hoping to find a way back to the land of the seen. Without fully knowing just who has landed on their doorstep, the townsfolk are more curious than anything else. Curiosity soon turns to terror as they learn just what has come to their sleepy town.
Claude’s portrayal of the Invisible Man is captivating and all the more so for the fact that his face is never seen. At least, not until the final moments of the film. His performance rests largely on the emotion and increasing madness of his faceless voice. Yes, it is him beneath the costume but the fear that he commands is delivered in this powerful vocal performance.
Raines, interestingly enough, was not the first in line to play the Invisible Man. Originally the role was to go to Hollywood horror icon Boris Karloff (Frankentstein, The Mummy)! Financial disagreements forced Karloff to step back. Even fellow Frankenstein (1931) actor Colin Clive was considered for the part. Eventually the role would be Claude’s and the success of the film comfortably rests with him.
Griffin has been driven mad by the experiment but the drug merely amplified who he was before the accident. It was no altruistic experiment but rather a means to become rich and powerful that has led him here. It plays on the sturdy trope that mankind’s arrogance usually ends with disastrous results.
Often a films antagonist has the ability to generate sympathy with the viewer. Whether it is the result of tragic circumstances or something else they are, themselves, a victim. Not the case here. All evidence points to the fact that he may not have been the most benevolent individual before that fateful moment he became the Invisible Man. Not evil per se, but he was certainly no angel.
The Invisible Man’s humanity is mostly fleshed out by the cast of supporting characters. Jack’s fiancée, Flora, is played by actress Gloria Stuart (Titanic) and is living proof that this murderous man was once capable of love. She is also the daughter of Griffin’s boss Dr. Cranley. Cranley is played by Henry Travers who is most notably remembered as playing the guardian angel Clarence to James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Through them is seen the only signs that this psychotic monster was once a somewhat respected individual. All of that has now vanished.
Naked In The Snow
The horror of a man-made invisible is pretty apparent. Horror villains are commonly unseen until it is too late and this one even more so. He could be in the room with you right now. Watching. Waiting.
The effect of Raine’s Invisible Man was groundbreaking at the time. Instead of a blue or green screen that is used today, Claude was dressed in a black velvet suit and filmed in front of a black velvet screen to achieve the desired effect. These scenes were then combined with others by a matte process. The end results are the memorable shots of Jack Griffin only partially disguised. Seeing through his bandages in his very first reveal to the patrons of The Lion’s Head Inn is a truly haunting sequence that is just as impressive today as it was then.
Dealing with an invisible menace in this film led to some unintentional comedic sequences. A naked Jack rampaging through the village, throwing rocks and glasses at the villagers and swinging people around by their feet are hilarious. Even more so are the few scenes where he is only partially dressed, strings pulling and moving his limbs around like a marionette doll. Not so funny are the murders involving a good old-fashioned throttling of a Police Officer or the derailment of a train killing hundreds.
To be fair, the moments in The Invisible Man (1933) that seem slapstick and over-the-top are only seen that way in context with modern horror. Viewed through the lens of the time in which the movie premiered is not easily done but necessary to fully appreciate that it did scare at the time. In fact that is why this film, and many like it, have indelibly stuck around. They do not continue to scare but rather continue to charm.
Still Visible After All These Years
The raving and mustachio-twirling – sans mustache – Invisible Man earned his place in history alongside creatures like The Mummy and The Wolf-man and is still beloved today. He is true Hollywood Horror royalty.
“[The Invisible Man] is true Hollywood Horror royalty.”
The Invisible Man (1933) holds a special place in cinema after all these years. In 2008 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It also sparked several sequels and spin-offs like The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Even Hollow Man (2000) starring Kevin Bacon (Tremors, Stir of Echoes) was inspired by the original Wells novel and drew on the 1933 original.
More recently, Universal Pictures had plans to reboot many of the classics in a shared “Dark Universe” starting with The Mummy (2017). It had been announced that Johnny Depp (Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepy Hollow) was to play the star role, but due to the mixed reaction to The Mummy (2017) these films have seemingly been put on hiatus.
The reasons that The Invisible Man (1933) is still relevant are, unlike the man himself, plain to see. It’s a gripping story of how one man’s quest for power leads to a reign of terror in the English countryside. Producing a classically demented villain in the process and cementing its place in horror history.
Happy 85th anniversary, you fools!