Seeing The Invisible Man, chapter 1: The Invisible Man (1933)


Let’s starts our journey through The Invisible Man film/TV franchise at a logical place — the original film, The Invisible Man. Makes sense, right?

Based on H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel of the same name, James Whale’s The Invisible Man further cemented his place in horror film history. Previously, Whale directed Frankenstein (1931) and the less-cited (yet still well-known) The Old Dark House (1932). However, The Invisible Man must have really wowed audiences back in 1933 with its impressive special effects, unique villain concept and bleak outlook.

The film centers mostly around chemist Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who has discovered an invisibility formula. Although much of the story is implied by its very title, it offers many interesting questions. What would you do if you had this kind of power?

Would you not use it to play pranks on people, to get away with crimes, to spy on people like a pervert? Or, in contrast, would you merely wish to be left alone and work on a cure for your unusual condition?  The temptations are inherent.  It almost begs an internal moral dilemma.

When the film begins, it seems Griffin modestly wants to be left alone, and that maybe he won’t be a deviant. However, when married innkeepers badger him about being behind in rent, and about his irritable behavior, Griffin ultimately throws one of them (played by Forrester Harvey) down a staircase. Griffin then freaks out, reveals himself to be invisible to a crowd, then strips down to be undetectable and wreaks havoc on people!

Motive for Madness?

Soon after Griffin’s initial outburst and escape, his employer, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) mentions how the invisibility formula is also an insanity formula. Still, I can’t help but wonder if it’s that or the power itself which perverts his mind. Sure, we get to see a gentler side of the madman when he speaks to Dr. Cranley’s daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart), but he can’t resist the joy of feeling free of societal restraints.

Indeed, invisibility would let one become unhinged. It would likely be harder to resist dark impulses if one felt he/she could completely get away with random misdeeds.

Admittedly I haven’t read the original book, but it’s said that H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man character was more mysterious and sort of crazy even before developing the formula. Honestly, though, I prefer the idea of the power driving him mad, rather than the formula doing so, or especially the idea that he was already deviant beforehand.

In the film, some of Griffin’s behavior is relatively forgivable, but much of it is not. For example, when Griffin targets Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), there is no doubt that The Invisible Man is indeed like a monster.

The Invisible Man – FPG-Getty Images – © 2010 Getty Images

At the same time, he is undeniably human. We see he has the capacity for good, but loses control. To anyone who has lost control of themselves before, they might see some of themselves in this character. If left totally unchecked, only impending death can constrain such power, and inevitably will.

The point isn’t that he’s all-powerful, but that his own ego make him believe so.  The ultimate lesson? Power fades, but the effects of our behavior will live on and haunt our legacy. Remember that!

The Performances and Effects

Quite obviously, Claude Rains not only steals the show, but he basically is the show. Ironic then that, technically, his face has very little screen time (he’s usually either bandaged or invisible). Much like Brad Dourif in Child’s Play, we overwhelmingly know The Invisible Man by his voice.

Yes, I have to say it: Claude Rains holds the reins. That being said, Una O’Connor is quite memorable as shrieking innkeeper Jenny Hall, who is truly freaked out by her tenant.

Of course, there would technically be little “performance” of the invisible man without John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams, who were behind the visual effects. The effects were understandably considered groundbreaking at the time, and are actually better than plenty of special effects you’ll see even today.

James Whale

This review merits a brief mention of James Whale himself. As mentioned, Whale previously directed Frankenstein, and would go on to direct another well-loved horror classic, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale was ahead of his time not only as a director, but he lived as a rather openly gay man in the 1920s and 1930s.

Pretty unique, right?  So, if anyone makes homophobic claims about gay men having no place in horror, go ahead and tell them about James Whale, one of the horror genre’s greatest and earliest successful directors.

dark. Next. Leigh Whannell & Blumhouse take the reins on The Invisible Man

That wraps up this review of the original Invisible Man! Keep an eye out for The Invisible Man Returns.

Is The Invisible Man your favorite Universal monster? Feel free to share your answer in the comments!