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November 9, 2018

‘The Invisible Man’ and the Joy of Mid-Tier Classics

There are many degrees of classic film.

There are obscure classics—those films the average moviegoer has never heard of before, but are nonetheless deemed classic for this historical reason or that technological achievement or simply because the Criterion Collection said so.

On the other end of the spectrum are the icons, the 0.001%. Those films that are so endemic to our culture, their legacies so extensive, that you feel like you have seen them before, even if you haven’t. Films like CasablancaCitizen Kane, and The Godfather. Knowing that Sam plays “As Time Goes By,” Rosebud is a sled, and that Marlon Brando’s “offer he can’t refuse” is waking up next to a severed horse head, for example, is practically common knowledge, thanks to the numerous homages, spoofs, and other tributes these three films have inspired.

However, there is a downside to reaching this level of prestige. With their towering legacies, these films become effectively overshadowed by their own success. Unless you should happen to see them particularly early, before encountering their imitators and adulatory admirers, the experience of viewing those most iconic films is unavoidably underwhelming, preceded by towering reputations no reality could ever hope to match.

Between the two extremes of obscure and iconic classics is a third category I like to call “mid-tier” classics—a truly underappreciated ranking. Unlike obscure classics, which are, generally speaking, intriguing outliers, the influence of mid-tier classics on later works and general cinematic trends is quite often profound. And yet, they lack the bold-faced imitators and gushing admirers of that most iconic 0.001%. From the perspective of someone who wants to enjoy watching a film, this is actually a great thing, because it means that watching a mid-tier classic for the first time still feels like watching a movie for the first time.

Which brings us to The Invisible Man. Directed by James Whale, perhaps the original auteur of Hollywood horror, it was released in 1933, equidistant from Whale’s two greatest claims to fame, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—perhaps the most influential horror film ever made, and a rare sequel generally acknowledged to be even better than the original.

The technical genius of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein cannot be denied, but for all the reasons described above, for my money, the moderately less famous The Invisible Man is the most enjoyable James Whale film to watch in 2018. Every scene, shot, and line of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is haunted by imitators, but The Invisible Man, a first-rate mid-tier classic, can still be experienced and enjoyed first and foremost on its own merits. And there are many, many merits.

Invisible Man

Adapted from the 1897 H. G. Wells novel of the same name, The Invisible Man recounts the tale of Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a renegade young chemist who renders himself invisible through experimentation with a plant-derived compound known as monocaine. What Dr. Griffin apparently did not know prior to these experiments, however, is that monocaine exposure can also cause insanity. That said, considering when we meet Griffin he’s already taken the monocaine, the influence of the compound on his personality versus what was there to begin with remains a mystery. After all, the average person probably wouldn’t jump straight to testing unknown chemical compounds on themselves, but I digress.

The Invisible Man features all the hallmarks of James Whale as a filmmaker that has made Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein so iconic, from innovative visual effects to memorable characters to sumptuous mise-en-scene that speaks to Whale’s career origins in theatrical set design. Most important of all, though, is the way in which the film leans into its own campiness with delicious aplomb. It is this panache that has allowed The Invisible Man to age like fine wine. Since the film mixes horror with comedy, the fact that some elements that might have been frightening in 1933 are comical in 2018 does not undermine the film or disturb its tone—that was the tone anyway. 

Invisible Man

The crowning glory of The Invisible Man, unlike the aforementioned merits, does not really have an equivalent in either of Whale’s Frankenstein films, and that is the Invisible Man himself. While the popular imagination has long conflated Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—arguably at least in part because Boris Karloff’s tragic-eyed creature so overshadows Colin Clive’s performance as his maker in both Whale films—in The Invisible Man the misguided creator and out-of-control creation are truly one and the same.

The character of Jack Griffin, in his mixture of gleeful egomania punctuated by a desperate desire to find “a way back” through the development of an antidote, presents an incredible acting challenge, only made more difficult by the fact that Griffin is either wrapped in enough bandages to make a mummy jealous or not visible at all. It is easy to imagine the performance, and consequentially the entire film, turning into a jumbled mess in the wrong hands. But the performance of Claude Rains—his American film debut—is a wonder to behold, invisible though his character may be. From his gleeful instigation of chaos and destruction to his deliciously evil cackle, Rains as Dr. Griffin could easily be seen as a cinematic precursor to the Joker, who would not make his first comic book appearance for another seven years.

Quite like the Joker, Dr. Griffin is the sort of evildoer you can’t help but cheer on in a certain regard, and for the same reasons—namely, he’s entertaining, wickedly clever, and got all the good lines. And there are some great lines in The Invisible Man, courtesy of R. C. Sherriff’s screenplay. In terms of dialogue, I think The Invisible Man is actually stronger than either of Whale’s Frankenstein films. It features, for example, one of the best villain “this is my evil plan” monologues of all time, delivered calmly from a rocking chair. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror,” Griffin tells the captive Dr. Kemp, “a few murders here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men… just to show we make no distinction. We might even wreck a train or two.” It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s to the point—it’s practically Thanos’s whole M.O. but with all the pseudo-scientific B.S. left out, and generally better. Sure, plenty of supervillains have said “reign of terror,” but few, if any, have said the words with such a deliciously rolled “r.”

Invisible Man

The supporting players do their jobs admirably, though the film is undeniably Claude Rain’s show. Hollywood-mandated love interest Flora Cranley gives Gloria Stuart very little to do, but she makes the most she can with an incurably anemic role. Henry Travers plays her father, the affable if forgettable Dr. Cranley, mentor to both Griffin and Dr. Kemp, Griffin’s rival in all things. As Kemp, William Harrigan is admittedly bland as the vaguely irritating gentleman scientist who appears to have minimal interest in either science or anything that could be deemed work, but this is actually ideal, as it means you can enjoy Griffin’s eventual torture of Kemp without feeling guilty. Of the supporting players, it is easily Una O’Connor’s hysterical innkeeper Mrs. Hall who is most memorable. It seems James Whale must have realized this too because O’Connor went on to fill a similar role in Bride of Frankenstein.

But if anyone can claim to rival Claude Rains as the superstar of The Invisible Man, it would be John P. Fulton’s special effects. Could you scrutinize screenshots and say that it’s not quite as believable as CGI? Of course, you could, being a human being with free will, but it would also make you a definite killjoy and just a generally bitter person, because the matte-based techniques used in the film have held up remarkably well, aided by skillful cinematographic choices.

Invisible Man
Invisible Man

One other key difference between The Invisible Man and Frankenstein is the mandatory moral disclaimer—in the 1930s, the struggle to make cinemagoing be considered a respectable pastime by the general public was still fresh in Hollywood’s memory (and arguably still ongoing). As such, movie studios got somewhat nervous about showing people doing decidedly immoral things, like making creatures out of stolen corpses or going on drug-induced crime sprees. Therefore, when films did show off such villainy, they had to be in service of an ultimate moral lesson. When it comes to mad scientists, that lesson was always, and frequently still is, the same: overstep into the realm of God’s power and God will cut you down like a tree. In Frankenstein, this message is introduced before the film, in a monologue delivered by a solemn-faced Edward van Sloan—”We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God”—which then just sort of looms over the whole thing. But in The Invisible Man, it’s tacked on as a “mea culpa” moment in the last minute of the film, so you can just enjoy watching an invisible man taunt the police and scare the bejeezus out of the villagers while singing nursery rhymes without all that “reckoning upon God” stuff hanging over you like a wet blanket. That said, there is depth to the film, particularly regarding its commentary on social class—Griffin comes from a lower class background while both Kemp and Cranley come from wealth, inspiring his obsession with “bettering” himself. If you just want to enjoy The Invisible Man on the merits of its wonderful absurdity, that is absolutely an option, but if you would like food for thought, that is also on offer.

Invisible Man
Invisible Man

Roy Edwards, reflecting on James Whale’s career in Sight and Sound magazine following Whale’s death in 1957, even argued that the “mythical possibilities” of the Invisible Man “seem potentially as rich” as those as Frankenstein’s monster, though the Invisible Man remains relatively obscure in comparison to the former.  While there have been numerous other film and television adaptations of The Invisible Man throughout the years, most have been terrible and none of them have “stuck,” so to speak—and there are ways in which that works in the film’s favor.

Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are responsible for a huge portion of the existing Frankenstein myth that continues on to this day, from what we imagine the creature to look like to the “criminal brain” switch-up, which was not a part of Mary Shelley’s novel. But it’s impossible to go back and watch those films now without successors like the Hammer Frankenstein cycle or Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and countless others intruding on the experience.  They’re valuable to watch for edification, but in terms of simple movie-watching pleasure, the less accoladed but equally well-made The Invisible Man has better stood the test of time.

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