The Criterion Channel has added a lot of the classic Universal monster movies to its October line-up this year, and my first stop as 1933’s The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains.
The film’s construction is slightly awkward. We’re eventually told that this kind of chemically induced invisibility carries the unfortunate side effect of homicidal mania, as all great scientific advancements inevitably do, but the movie starts with the Invisible Man already invisible and already vicious. We only really learn about the more innocent “Jack Griffin” in retrospect–mostly via his pallidly annoying fiancée–and what we learn isn’t terrifically compelling. It doesn’t help that Rains–who is terrifically compelling–never really gets to play the role. Jack is a rumor; the Invisible Man is the clear and present truth. We’re hooked by him, but it’s hard to feel the sense of tragedy that the film seems to want to evoke.
But though the movie’s drama isn’t involving, its horror is. And from a vantage point in 2021, it’s sometimes shocking how far it pushes that horror: this is a movie with a surprisingly high body count, as the Invisible Man relishes causing utterly random carnage. There’s also a lingering sinister vibe to the invisibility effects, especially when he takes off his plaster nose and reveals a skeletal hole in the center of his bandaged face; it fits with the downright Gothic opening that shows the bandaged man settling into an out-of-the-way pub. But mostly, the film owes its effectiveness to Rains’s performance, which is chilling and manic, a vivid sketch of a cold man who is now beyond all reason.
You can actually see the germs of the 2020 Invisible Man here in the calculated, threatening way Griffin moves into an old colleague’s home and demands control of his life and loyalties; these domestic interrogation scenes really do have disconcerting reminders of real life abuse. Here, though, Griffin’s actual fiancée is meant as a touching reminder of all his now-invisible virtues; she holds the one remaining place in his heart. Since the film–though well-directed by James Whale–never quite makes that romance convincing, it’s tempting to read it all more cynically: he remains fond of her because she never thwarts him. Rains leaves little doubt of how quickly that love could fade if she ever pushed back.