Film Reviews:

The Invisible Man

(James Whale, US, 1933)

Having directed the hit Frankenstein for Universal two years previously, the studio tempted English director James Whale back onto their lot with a script that promised a classic rendition of the HG Wells novel. From the opening set of a snow-covered English country lane, the film's memorably 'quaint' atmosphere is immediately established as is its cracking pace. With a plot that shares much with Frankenstein, it tells the tale of obsessive scientist, Dr Jack Griffin, who forsakes his lover, family and colleagues to pursue his quest for an invisibility serum. Griffin first takes up residency at The Lion's Head pub. In a scene that was to be reprised in John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, as soon as he enters the lively local, everyone stops dead what they are doing to look at this stranger in their midst. And well they should, for it isn't too long that due to his irascible behaviour he is asked to leave. This he does but not before terrorising the village in his invisible state with mischievous behaviour (causing a local 'copper' to ask "'ere, what's all this?").

Going further than ever before, director Whale relishes in producing a delirious film that (successfully) exists somewhere between pantomime farce and sadistic violence. As Claude Rains' character quickly looses his grasp on sanity, his attacks on innocent bystanders become more and more frequent and more and more brutal. When (in invisible mode) he escapes police attention at The Lion's Head, his first actions are like the Halloween pranks of a brutal child - throwing someone's hat into the river, stealing a bike, smashing windows and, most shockingly, pushing over a woman's pram. During the course of the film, over 120 people are reported to have been killed! The script delights in portraying the police as inept idiots and when Griffin taunts them declaring his intellectual superiority the audience can do nothing but agree. With the supporting characters very much in the background and with Rains' character 'on screen' as it were for most of the film, you realise that there are no sympathetic characters with whom to side with. Audiences are forced into being unwitting witnesses, almost accomplices, in Griffin's insane actions. Once more, James Whale displays his mastery over dialogue with some lines laden with menace such as when Griffin warns his would be captors: "Everyone deserves what's coming to them... death... and things worse than death!" and "I killed a stupid little policeman - smacked his head in."

The design of the film is marvellous, and in its portrayal of all things English Whale never misses a chance to exploit people's perceptions of England and play up to them in the most ludicrous manner - everything is overplayed to the point of camp. Being gay, Whales must have delighted in delivering such an over-the-top portrayal of his native England for the American studio. At the same time it should be said that the script is, at times thoughtful and intelligent but never 'serious' and always tempered with Whales' trademark black humour. The invisibility special effects remain remarkable, with some still leaving the viewer wondering just how they were achieved. Universal's brilliant supporting actor Dwight Frye crops up fleetingly in an unbilled cameo as a reporter. The Invisible Man remains a landmark entry in the horror/science fiction genres that delivers nonstop drama and action with an acidic sense of humour that still has the ability to shock. A classic. 9/10

Rob Dyer

See also:

Bride of Frankenstein
Hollow Man
Invisible Agent
Invisible Man Returns, The
Invisible Man's Revenge, The
Invisible Woman, The
Memoirs of An Invisible Man

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