Show me a scientist who wanted to change the world, and I'll show you one who tried to rule it. This is the fate that's befallen many men of progress, including the title terror in Universal's 1933 thriller The Invisible Man. Having drawn from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley for their earliest horror hits, the studio turned to sci-fi maestro H.G. Wells for their next genre classic. But even after setting in stone guidelines modern monsters still follow, Universal used The Invisible Man as a great step forward in the realm of technical innovation. Though it leaves one feeling colder than its creepy cohorts, groundbreaking effects work and an unforgettable leading performance ensure that nothing can nudge this flick from its place in horror history.
We begin on a snowy English evening, as a mysterious stranger (Claude Rains) stumbles forth from the darkness. Bandaged from head to toe, he holes up at a cozy inn and commences work on a series of bizarre experiments. Little do the locals know that this reclusive lodger is actually Jack Griffin, a scientist whose dealings with a terrible drug have turned him completely invisible. Unfortunately, while Jack struggles to find a cure and return to normal, the formula's side effects take a nasty toll on his sanity. Day by day, Jack is pushed closer to madness, until he snaps and conducts a reign of terror spanning the entire countryside. But as Jack's rampage continues, his sweetheart Flora (Gloria Stuart) holds onto hope that she can cool his jets long enough for him to devise an antidote.
The work of Wells has always skewed fantastic, but The Invisible Man bears all the markings of a true Universal fright fest. It carries on -- as more movies than stars in the sky have done -- the notion of futzing with nature and suffering the obligatory consequences. But unlike Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein, Jack Griffin is bad to the transparent bone. Essentially, you're watching him self-destruct the whole time, which might have worked for Scarface but not for a movie that wants you to like its walking powder keg. By the time Flora arrives to appease his softer side, Jack has masterminded too many acts of mischief and murder to clinch the sympathy vote. The story is straightforward to a fault, rigid and often overtly blunt in its presentation. This happened a lot with early monster movies, and though Universal eventually ironed out its kinks, some leftover stodginess tends to hang around here.
Still, The Invisible Man wouldn't be the classic it is without those moments that compel viewers to this day. Any schmoe with a green screen and a garage to hang it in can make himself vanish now, but it wasn't so easy a feat in this picture's time. Though they'd be perfected in the sequels (even the inferior ones), The Invisible Man's special effects continue to amaze and astound. So effectively are they employed, you give up trying to spot director James Whale's flubs and just accept that an invisible maniac is flipping out before us. Of course, with as commanding an actor as Rains onboard, persuasion is a given. Rains boasts a presence second to none, convincing us he's onscreen even when he's not (or is he?). It's something of a stacked performance, for as good as Stuart and co-star William Harrigan are, Rains blows them all out of the water without ever showing his face -- well, sort of.
There's not as much to The Invisible Man as you'd think. It can get a little crude and upfront at times, since it's neither as smooth or complex as successors like The Invisible Man's Revenge. But there's precious little pussyfooting involved, which means if you're hungry for havoc, The Invisible Man will have your order up in a jiff.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)