Universal Studio’s Monster Series – The Invisible Man (1933)
You may recall that some time back I remarked that I would be attending a wedding – well, I was getting a little ahead of myself as before we meet that iconic electro haired mannequin we must turn my Universal Monsters series to more intangible matters, and identify the manically screeching Claude Rains as the blink and you’ll miss him The Invisible Man. Now just as a reminder we are following the core texts of this Blu-Ray investment rather than the officially recognised canon as frankly I’ll be in my grave long before I manage to craft reviews of all seventy-odd films in the series, but who knows how many of those other creatures which go bump in the night might be covered through alternate programmes and initiatives in the mist drenched decades to come? In any case I was anxious to get this series up to 1933 so it could dovetail nicely into a big screen event which is part of the BFI’s imminent Gothic season, including a special guest whom hopefully won’t be rising from beyond the grave. But before that let’s get our claws on the next slippery sucubi of this severely serrated series;
In terms of a synopsis I don’t think we need to devote too much time, in an archetypical chilly and winterswept village a gauze garbed stranger arrives at the local Inn and demands a room with complete privacy and to broker no interruptions. Barking order to the frightened locals he doesn’t exactly inherit their sympathy, and the local law enforcement become suspicious that this interloper may be up to no good.The bandage slathered lunatic is Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a chemical genius who has unearthed the miracle compound monocane which when injected into animal turned them insane, as revealed by his compatriot Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) through a rather clumsy cutaway scene. The elixir does produce a rather impressive side-effect however as it renders the subjects partially invisible, and Cranley has further reasons to swiftly unveil the whereabouts of his companion and colleague as his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) happens to be madly in love with Griffin, so the race is on to save the newly anointed megalomaniac from himself and scupper his grandiose plans to clandestinely take over the world…..
The Invisible Man hasn’t quite been etched into popular culture like Frankenstein or Dracula of course perhaps in part due to his inherently intangible nature, but I have very fond memories of seeing this for the first time when these movies were aired in the early evening on BBC2 here in the UK. It’s almost impossible to comprehend but back in those primitive media days there was only four TV channels in the entire country (maybe three if it was pre-1982) and schedules starved of material would populate airtime with movies from across the early Hollywood era as well as Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy shorts, it’s a resource of film history the likes of which is simply incomprehensible these days when we can repeat old game shows, soaps and lifestyle enhancement nonsense – it makes me wanna take over the world. In any case The Invisible Man does have its champions and I kinda like it from a historical perspective, tyrants boasting of their inherent mental and genetic superiority obviously had quite a resonance in 1933, and as a mystery story its one of the better arranged films of the era, setting up an initial question and then skirting around the narrative in a perpendicular fashion – there is one skilfully arranged montage of the terrorized locals which deftly moves throughout the space as our incorporeal anti-hero prowls through the village, lumbering from smashed windows to petrified children, from glum boozehounds to steadfast law officials, in quite freeing and canny fashion in the era of locked down cameras and restrictive sound recording equipment.
The special effects for the period must have been akin to the Avatar of their era, boasting a similar ‘Holy fucking Jesus Christ in a sidecar, how did they do that?’ reaction among impressionable viewers who were hitting their adolescence such as Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen when this invaded screens, not to mention disarming a whole new generation of wide-eyed viewers when these films went into rotation on network TV in the 1950’s, formulating a fascination with the irrational and fantastique in the minds of your Spielberg’s, Zemeicks, Lucas, Landis and Dante’s. It’s obviously primitive in the light of todays CGI hallucinations but those optical printing techniques are envelope pushing for their time, with some imaginative deployment of wire work and other camera tricky, they have really stood the test of time until the 1990’s when of course these effects would be manufactured in a computer rather than manipulating a group of celluloid strips back in the beaker bubbling lab;
There is something captured in popular psychology linking back to Homer of a man invisible being divorced from the rules of society, of becoming in his mind a virtual omnipotent god with access to the secrets places and facts of the world, with access to forbidden . In the film – quite prescient now given recently developments – Rains roars on his ability to pull down the existing power structures, of revealing the clandestine deals and operations conducted by the elites, even of re-distributing wealth and of levelling the social pecking order – clearly this prototype Assange / Snowden is absolutely insane? It’s something Verhoeven also flirted with in his underrated Hollow Man of 2000, turning his good scientist bad when unshackled from the chains of societal constraints, although that film did have to resort to textbook pyrotechnics in its final act rather than plunder the provocative premise. They sure didn’t trust scientists in those days eh? Those pretenders and plundering of gods plateau, manipulating the levers of physics and reality and reaping a biblical whirlwind in response, it’s a contrast to the studious presentation of science in the nuclear nightmare of the 1950’s where they solemn intone back story with exposition laced dialogue, cradling a smouldering pipe and bringing a rational, neutral idiom to the nightmares they have unleashed.
In terms of Hollywood lore you may recognise Dr. Cranley as Clarence the Angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, and Claude Rains only secured the part due to numerous other actors turning it down because of course, yup you guessed it – they would barely be seen on-screen. Nevertheless it boosted Rain’s profile through his persuasive vocal tones, and one imagines his immortality is assured in the annals of screen supremacy given his significant role in a certain North African wartime romance. Also look out for Gloria Stewart which some of you may recognise from some modest disaster movie of 1997, but who cares about that sunken stinker? This film ultimately dissolves into a farce with a Keystone Cops rejoinder, rather than pure sanity shredding terror which might be one of the reasons it doesn’t lurk as effectively as reanimated boltnecked cadavers or aristocratic blood swilling vermin, but it was another hit for Universal as these films were pretty much the lifeline to solvency during the depression, as audiences flocked to the opulent escapism epics of MGM they also loved gazing into the darker recesses of society and psyche. Naturally Universal stripmined the premise for as many sequels as possible, including The Invisible Man Returns, inevitably The Invisible Woman, grappling with the Nazi scourge in The Invisible Agent before claiming vengeance in, erm, The Invisible Man’s Revenge. Now hark, I do hear the sound of ominous distant wedding bells, so let me blow the cobwebs off my tuxedo and pin a decaying boutonnière to my mouldering frame as you are cordially invited to a special BFI hosted union of The Bride and Frankenstein….