Saturday, October 19, 2019
Halloween Horror Watch: The Invisible Man (1933)
It's been years since I watched James Whale's Universal Monsters classic The Invisible Man (1933), but it's not because I don't like the film, I just don't always make time for it the way I do Dracula and the Frankenstein films.
James Whale most famously directed Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with The Old Dark House (1932) released prior to this entry. I'm unsure if most folks know the impact of Whale on horror, even if they've seen the terrific Gods and Monsters, but he, Tod Browning and a few others were busily defining a genre for decades to come, interleaving their horror work with more traditional films.
In many ways, The Invisible Man feels positively modern. The pacing of the movie is extremely fast for the era, and the narrative highly economical. I've not yet read HG Welles' book, but if there was any fat, it's not showing up here.
If you need evidence that camp existed before 1961, I point you to any of the four Whale horror films listed here. Look - we have an idea of what "horror" is, and it's usually a single note played over and over, louder and louder until we break the tension. In some ways, part of why I don't like a lot of Horror films is that I find them kinda dull, in their own way. "I think the thing will kill us. Yep, it's killing us." is not much a story, except when it is. But you don't make a movie with Una O'Connor in it and not know exactly what you're doing. You don't have a scene with pants running down a country lane and play it totally straight. Those are not mistakes, modern viewer. I'm not saying the audiences of 1933 universally got what Whale was putting down, but I am sure someone got it. And, again, by today's standards, it still works like a charm.
That Whale had no problem mixing the ridiculous with the dark (I mean, the Invisible Man kills hundreds before he's stopped), is a sign of a master craftsman at the dawn of a genre.
The FX are phenomenal for 1933, and while it's easy to say "green screen" in 2019 - kids, they only had rear projection back then, so... yeah. Someone really figured out some super tricky stuff in the lab and on set. I heard no one knew how they did the invisible bits til the 1970's or so.
The moral lessons are far less complex than those of the Frankenstein movies and less obtuse than those of The Old Dark House. "Don't play God, scientists!" is a sentiment we now withhold for comic relief, well past the point of being able to destroy ourselves 10,000 different ways if something goes poorly.
It's all helped by Claude Rains in high form - likely delivering 90% of his lines in ADR as he was speaking through bandages, utterly unseen from head to toe til the final moments of the film. But it took a Claude Rains to act through the bandages, false nose and sunglasses and make one of the most memorable characters in cinema history (and how many of those does he own, just himself? Remarkable guy, Claude Rains.).
The movie also features Gloria Stuart as Rains' love interest and anchor. She's good enough in the thankless role of "concerned girlfriend". William Harrigan gets a more daunting task as the professional and personal rival to Rains' character, Griffin. And Henry Travers plays Henry Travers as a scientist. Much of the rest of the cast is the ensemble of faces and types beloved by Whale, it seems, who rivals Gary Larson in his quest for a very specific take on old people he applies over and over. But for color, look for EE Clive, Una O'Connor and Dwight Frye.
The movie has some tremendous photography by Arthur Edeson, who also worked on Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon and other films, including silents going back to 1914. But, yeah, this thing has some great stuff, in addition to the FX photography, building a world of steep angles, deep shadows and the open spaces where an Invisible Man might suddenly knock you down.
If you've never seen it, do check it out. It's a fun, quick blast of spooky thrills and a villain you can't help but like, surrounded by a terrific cast.