James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN set the bar high for horror, and his follow-up THE OLD DARK HOUSE is one of the blackest comedies ever made. But with THE INVISIBLE MAN, Whale raises that bar by combining gruesome terror with his macabre sense of humor. THE INVISIBLE MAN doesn’t get the respect of other icons in the First Horror Cycle (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Imhotep), but Claude Rains’s outstanding performance as the mad scientist Jack Griffin, driven to insanity by the chemicals he’s pumped into his veins, is as sick and deranged as any you’ll find in the genre… and the fact Rains does much of his acting using only his voice is an amazing feat, and a testament to the man’s acting genius.
Whale’s opening shot sets the eerie tone, as a solitary figure, his face swaddled in bandages, trudges through a snowstorm and enters the Lion’s Head Inn seeking solitude. The patrons seem freaked out by the man’s visage, but the mercenary Mrs. Hall (Una O’Connor , far less annoying than in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) sets him up with a room. We soon learn the man is Jack Griffin, a scientist whose dabbling with an exotic drug called monocaine has rendered him invisible. He’s searching for an antidote, unaware the drug has a side effect that causes madness. But Griffin’s far too late, as the insanity has begun to consume him, and he causes chaos at the Inn, terrorizing the locals.
Griffin coerces his former colleague Kemp (William Harrigan) into doing his bidding, and here Rains, covered in bandaging, uses his vocal talents to convey the madness within: “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men – well, just to show we’ll make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers on a signalman’s throat, that’s all.” A manhunt has begun to capture The Invisible Man, and the frightened citizenry, listening to radio reports of his misdeeds, lock their doors and bolt their windows in fear. Kemp calls in Griffin’s fiancé Flora (Gloria Stuart ) and her scientist father (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’s Henry Travers), and also betrays Griffin to the police, causing the madman to vow to murder him the next night at ten o’clock. Griffin makes good on his promise, despite the police protection surrounding Kemp, and commits mass murder and havoc on a grand scale, before a fortuitous snowstorm, like the one which began the film, leads to his ultimate demise.
Rains is brilliant as the mad Jack Griffin, even wrapped in bandages or not on screen at all save his voice. One of my favorite parts occurs when we see Mary Gordon (Sherlock Holmes’s future landlady) screaming down the road in terror as a pair of pants chases her down singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May”, another example of Whale’s bizarre black humor. Rains is aided by the special effects wizardry of John P. Fulton, who uses early “black screen” technology to make us believe an invisible man exists. The effects hold up surprisingly well 85 years later… well, maybe not so surprising, as Fulton was one of Hollywood’s pioneer effects men, sought after by everyone from Alfred Hitchcock (REAR WINDOW , VERTIGO) to Cecil B. DeMille (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ), and won three Oscars over the years for his work.
Though THE INVISIBLE MAN is one of the best films in the First Horror Cycle, the character itself doesn’t get the respect it should because each subsequent film has a different Invisible Man. The 1940 sequel THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS has Vincent Price made invisible by the brother of Jack Grifffin, and later films in the series all feature other characters as Invisible Men. The sequels are all well made, with Fulton Oscar nominated for three of them, but can’t hold a candle to James Whale’s original, with a star-making performance by the great Claude Rains.