[Note: This is just a whiff of the horror awesomeness that’s going to consume this blog as Halloween gets closer. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you!]
I recently revisited a less-appreciated member of the Universal horror canon: James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). Based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, the film tracks the invisible exploits of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who slowly turns from disgruntled scientist to rampaging, psychotic mass murderer. That’s basically all there is to the story, too, and it’s pretty much a one-man show – or should I say, a one-voice show, since Rains’ snarling, cackling, bodyless performance steals the whole movie. His intensity, coupled with Whale’s very British brand of black comedy, make this a damn enjoyable 70 minutes.
This movie’s first act takes place at the Lion’s Head, a small inn located in the wintry countryside. There, a gauze-wrapped Griffin tries to set up an improvised laboratory and develop an antidote for his condition. But alas, he must reckon with small-minded townsfolk… including the shrillest of all small-minded townsfolk, the innkeeper’s wife as played by Una O’Connor. O’Connor would later star in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and in both films, she’s a hyperactive, thick-brogued scream queen. She’s bitchy, nosy, gossipy, inane, infuriating, and gives a great performance. You’d have to be a great actress to play such a deeply intolerable character.
With her as their matriarch, the denizens of the Lion’s Head form a tight-knit community of fools – usually inebriated, easily frightened, and suspicious of strangers. When Griffin becomes physically abusive toward the innkeeper and his wife, a gang of the pub’s patrons and a local constable charge up to his room, only for him to remove his goggles and bandages and reveal his true face. This prompts one of the film’s great lines, from the incredulous constable: ” ‘E’s all eaten away!”
The movie’s big joke is that we’re solidly on Griffin’s side. He’s the lone, rugged intellectual face to face with a mob of drunken yokels; of course we want him to win out. But then he moves in with his old coworker Dr. Kemp and starts going on long, megalomaniacal rants, and it becomes clear that Whale is playing with us (in the best possible sense). Just as in Bride of Frankenstein, where the gloriously evil Dr. Pretorious is the most compelling character, Griffin attracts our interest through just through his abundant charisma. Whale’s horror movies are gleefully amoral, and this is a great example: even if Griffin is a monstrous, deranged psychopath, that’s no reason he can’t also be our favorite character.
Speaking of “gleefully amoral,” one of the reasons we enjoy Griffin’s reign of terror is because he’s having so much fun. While tricking dozens of police officers, he manages to steal a pair of pants and skips off down the road (pictured above), singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May…” (Later, he robs a bank to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”) This is leagues away from film noir images of scowling, pessimistic career criminals; in Whale’s world, crime does pay, at least in terms of raw joy.
In the end, sure, Griffin insists that he “meddled in things which man must leave alone,” but this moral is savagely undercut by all of the film’s delightfully perverse moments earlier on. Sure, The Invisible Man has a token love story between Griffin and Flora, played by a none-too-convincing Gloria Stuart, but it stays mostly in the background. The real story here is the passionate affair between Griffin and his own limitless power. These two lovers are separated by death in the end, but we get plenty of steamy love scenes in the meantime – like when Griffin convinces Kemp that he’s always watching. This is genuinely terrifying: Griffin is more or less a one-man panopticon.
Overall, The Invisible Man is a somewhat weaker film than Bride of Frankenstein or The Old Dark House; it lacks Bride‘s ultra-snappy script or House‘s unbeatable ensemble. What it does have, however, is Rains’ voiceover, which reminds me of Lionel Stander’s in Blast of Silence with its relentless aggression. His words are like daggers, and when he threatens violence – against the townsfolk, Kemp, or the entire world – he means it. Even while he’s sleeping, he maintains his single-handed grip of terror on the whole countryside.
That’s what makes this a horror classic: Rains’ performance as Griffin is fierce, alive, and overflowing with energy, yet also dangerous and truly frightening. In short, he’s exactly what a monster should be. Consumed by obsession and madness, he’s exactly the kind of extraordinary man who could alter the course of history. Final note: The Invisible Man was released in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany…