The Invisible Man (1933)

Film Title: The Invisible Man

Year: 1933

Studio: Universal Pictures

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Starring:

  • Claude Rains
  • Gloria Stuart

Review

For fans of classic horror or early science fiction, the title The Invisible Man might still call the story by H.G. Wells to mind. This was an 1897 novel that did as much as, say, Dracula or Frankenstein to establish some of the basic vibes of 19th and early-20th century horror fiction. The film was a direct adaptation of the novel, written for the screen by R.C. Sherriff and Philip Wylie (with help from Preston Sturges, though he is not believed to have been as vital to the writing process). Originally meant by Universal to be directed by Cyril Gardner, it ultimately fell into the hands of James Whale, who also directed Frankenstein (1931) and Bride Of Frankenstein (1935).

As part of a spattering of iconic Universal horror films that came out around this time, The Invisible Man has earned a certain level of prestige in classic film lore. While not quite on the level of the other Whale films mentioned above, or of the original Dracula picture, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the U.S. for its cultural and historical significance in 2008. Really, it’s quite a nice honor for a film to earn nearly 100 years after its production. Even so, however, far too many horror and science fiction lovers today are likely unfamiliar with this particular tale.

The team of writers and Whale had an excellent vision for how to adapt the original story by Wells, making small but significant changes to condense the narrative and make it more suitable for a Hollywood audience. It’s been said by at least one critic that Wells’s book doesn’t really retain its power – that the science seems silly and the fiction old-fashioned when it’s read today. This is perhaps somewhat harsh by this writer’s estimation, but the general point is well taken. Oddly, for a classic Hollywood exhibition, the film is actually less dated (thanks in large part to surprisingly strong special effects, which are by no means modern but which are not distracting).

The film tells the story of Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains), beginning with that age-old Hollywood setup of a stranger coming to town. Specifically, Griffin arrives in a small English village and takes a room at an inn, ultimately getting in an argument with the innkeeper Mr. Hall (Forrester Harvey) and personally injuring him. Pursued by police, Griffin removes hefty bandaging and sunglasses, as well as his clothes, to reveal that he is invisible – and, naturally, escapes.

Meanwhile, we also meet Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart), Griffin’s fiancé and the daughter of his employer. This is one of the aforementioned changes Whale made to the story, injecting a love interest where one isn’t really present in the book. Cranley grows concerned about Griffin’s absence ultimately leading her father to grow suspicious of some of the experiments Griffin had been doing in his lab.

From this point on the film depicts the story of a mad genius on the loose, and the efforts of those around him to stop him. In the movie, Griffin has gone insane because of a particular chemical used in his experiments with invisibility (as Cranley’s father discovers) – in the book, however, he’s insane from the beginning. This is another change made by Whale, and adds a certain neatness to the tale that is less present in the book.

As stated, the special effects of all of this hold up well, and The Invisible Man is perhaps most noteworthy as a creatively handled and masterfully performed debut by Claude Rains. Rains would go on to enjoy a spectacular career including roles in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Wolf Man, Casablanca, and Phantom Of The Opera, among many other films. He was a late choice made by Whale after the studio failed to come to acceptable terms with Boris Karloff, who at the time was the de facto king of Hollywood horror (though in retrospect would have seemed an odd choice for this specific role).

Only a few years ago this seemed like a forgotten project, but now it’s tough to label it that way. Just a couple years ago Universal partnered with an online software provider to release a slot arcade taking its style cues from the movie and ultimately capturing the aesthetic fairly well. It was one of a few Universal monster-related games to appear online, reaching huge numbers of people who play casino games on a regular basis. Additionally, Universal planned a reboot starring Johnny Depp in the role of Jack Griffin – though that reboot appears to be in flux, with Universal having issues getting its planned monster franchise off the ground.

Whether or not it’s rebooted, however, the classic 1933 film is worth watching once more. It holds up surprisingly well, it’s a wonderful glimpse of a renowned actor in one of his earliest projects (though we barely see Rains’s face), and it played a role in defining multiple genres.

On Video

Universal Studios Home Entertainment presents multiple versions of an Invisible Man DVD. Black and white visuals and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio are available on all visions, while special features vary. The basic “Classic Monster Collection” DVD includes still photographs, production notes, and a feature commentary with film historian Rudy Beholder. The special edition DVD (available via Netflix) also includes cast and crew interviews and a brief featurette. And the Complete Legacy Collection box set includes all five sequels to the original film.

Conclusion

This is a classic gothic horror tale that deserves every bit as prominent a place in cinematic history as Dracula and Frankenstein. While its source material isn’t quite as famous as that of Dracula or Frankenstein, it arguably does more to set the stage for modern thrillers and scare films. This is because it’s effectively a monster movie without a monster – a terrific early exploration of how to spook an audience through human interaction and science fiction, rather than wholly fantastical creatures.

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