Here comes May! When the sun shines, the birds sing, the flowers bloom, and the pollen counts SKYROCKET! Yep, not to sound like a broken record, but although I enjoy the spring, it too comes with its own challenges to someone for which is more of a luxury instead of a way of life. Mainly, my hay fever can create many a sleepless night, filled with stuffed noses and itchy throats.
Luckily for all of you out there, as many might guess, when Andy doesn’t get rest, he seeks solace in a never ending torrent of cult movies from Hollywood’s dim past. Some of these happen to be grade “A” schlock, but once in a while, I dish up a real treat. Yes, just to disprove to some that my lack of sleep is a sure sign of deep untreated mental illness and my selection of movies even more so, I decided to review one of my favorite classic horror movies on today’s blog. A real cinematic gem from the glorious age of the Universal Classic Monsters.
For those of you not familiar with the term, this is the collection of films made by Universal between the years of 1923 with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and 1960 with “The Leech Woman”, which starred all manner of vampires, giant bugs, walking cadavers, and half human/half “fill in the blank” style creatures. Some of these pictures happen to be some of my favorite films of all time, with several being listed in my Top 50 movies I’ve ever seen.
In previous movie reviews, I’ve touched upon some of the films from this canon already such as “The Creature of the Black Lagoon”, “The Black Cat”, and probably the best of the best in this regard “Bride of Frankenstein”. However, with today’s entry, I’m going to talk about one that nearly rivals “Bride” in its overall greatness.
I’m talking about the classic tale of science and addiction gone horribly wrong: “The Invisible Man” starring Claude Rains.
The Invisible Man
Made in 1933, this movie is the third of four insanely wonderful horror movies directed by the late great James Whale which the original Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and the aforementioned Bride of Frankenstein. All Pre Hays Code films, they capitalize on the lack of the strict controls and censorship that would plague later monster movies from this era, by delivering an dark, atmospheric and all together terrifying windows into worlds where science goes horribly wrong and terrors lurk in every shadow.
I think the thing I like most about James Whale’s particular entries into the Universal Monster canon is his use of German Expressionism to create very stark, harsh, and unnatural scenes that tend to ratchet up the tension naturally and tends to keep the audience on edge. For more modern movie goers, Tim Burton is also big proponent of its influence so many of his films, even the more benign ones, tend to also use these cinematic techniques. However, for me, whether it’s this film or Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, nothing is better for unnerving your viewers than opposing contrast and fierce angles.
In any case, The Invisible Man is obviously the first film adaptation of the world renowned HG Wells novel of the same name, with some slight alterations. Mainly the changes deal with the character of Griffin, the Invisible Man himself, and his relationship to others. In the books, Griffin doesn’t really have much of a backstory, just kind of an insane nobody that just happened to get these fantastic powers.
In the movie though, Griffin is a respected chemist who falls in love with his boss’s daughter and in wanting to make something of himself to prove himself worthy of her affections, starts dangerous experiments with the substance Monocane, which after repeated injections renders him invisible. It also renders him homicidal and megalomaniac, although it could be a combination of the drug’s influence, the shock of losing his identity through not being able to see himself any longer, the frustration over not finding a cure for his condition, and the total lack of sleep (he really seems never to have a moment of peace in this entire movie).
However, regardless of how you slice it, in the end the movie is a shared journey into the depths of Griffin’s madness, going from a charming gentleman to a completely unhinged psychopath that kills for the sake of killing until he too meets his own bloody end at the hands of the police.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
Having mentioned the overall them of this film being a decent man’s fall from grace, the important symbolism of drug addiction was not lost on this cowboy. the Invisible Man is the story of a man who dares experiment on himself with unknown untested substances and the aftereffect of such as it begins to alienate him from his fellow man is manifested in increasingly severe paranoia and delusions of invincibility.
Through the repeated injections of Monocane (cough…insert drug here…) Griffin begins to fade away from his fellow man, turning from a brilliant man of science to an increasingly violent predator. There’s even an intervention by his fiancée, Flora, who pleads with him to come with her and get help. The similarities to the drug problem that we as a society have wrestled with for decades is palatable, and I feel whether you enjoy science fiction or not, you should watch the film just for that engaging metaphor.
It doesn’t hurt that viewers can bask in the magnificent way Claude Rains plays the part that drives home why even modern audiences should sit up and take notice. Claude Rains, in his first American screen appearance, plays an Invisible Man that is the perfect mix of manic energy, cultured sophistication, and devilish malice. You can hear in his voice an air of superiority and confidence that has been eaten away by the illness of invisibility to the point that its a strange hollow shell of itself.
Its a man trying desperately to struggle against the freight train of insanity that’s about to make a beeline for his front door, but with every passing moment and the realization that he may be stuck like this forever, he slowly slips away from reality into a world of his own fantasy. A world where he has the power to take what he wants without repercussions without empathy or remorse. A world where he has been cheated and scorned to the point he feels completely separate from his fellow man.
But through it all Mr. Rains never plays it without that underlying dignity so that it never seems campy or over the top. Even at its most absurd where the Invisible man is skipping down the road in just a pair of trousers singing “Here we go gathering nuts in May!” looking very much like a scene from one of my daughter’s favorite Dr. Seuss’ short stories “What was I Scared of?, It never feels over the top or played for laughs. There’s a level of menace and unhinged ferocity, somewhat like when really good authors write the Joker properly in Batman. It’s like he’s laughing but he’d snap your neck at any moment. Definitely not a character to mess around with.
Not that it’s surprising, I’m a pretty huge fan of a ton of great movies where Claude Rains plays slick, sophisticated baddies such as Prince John in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, the corrupt senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or the former Nazi slowly poisoning his wife in Notorious. Even his most famous role as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, although he ends up being a stand up guy, he’s more that capable of dirty deeds and machinations.
Yes, for all of you that might not have seen any of these films, climb out from under your rock and check them out. However if you fail to heed my words, just think of Claude as the perfect guy to play an admiral in the Imperial Fleet from Star Wars, that overly British classy type of villain…although again…that’s not doing him justice. Oh just watch some of his movies, DAMN IT!
Final Grade: A++
C’mon was there ever a doubt about this grade? One of the best of the best. Second only to Bride of Frankenstein in terms of these classic Monster movies.
Not surprising either given it was the same director, same overall theme of science gone terribly wrong, and it used most of the same actors/actresses. A personal favorite from the supporting cast is Una O’Connor who played the Inn keepers wife. She also played Frankenstein’s housekeeper in Bride and in both she’s insanely over the top, gaping and gawing, chewing up the scenery…just terrific.
However you don’t have to take my word for it. The Library of Congress has put this film in its national film preservation archives back in 2008 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Not only that but it’s also among the list of films with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is definitely not an easy thing to do.
In closing, I do want to give credit for the ingenious and groundbreaking visual effects work by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams. Done all without CGI obviously, it also strikes me of how incredible some artists can be with practical effects to the point where I wish it would embolden more modern film makers to choose real life special effects instead of simply resorting to computers. whose work is often credited for the success of the film.
My personal favorite is the effect at the end of the film where Griffin is walking out of a barn in the snow to meet the police. The footprints effect was done simply by having footprint sized trap doors in the studio floor, which would be activated dropping those sections lower than the rest of the floor, hence looking like the footprint.
I mean…that seems simple until you really think about it! I just ask you…would you have thought of that…?