Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Invisible Man (1933)

Universal’s 1933 The Invisible Man left me decidedly unimpressed when I last saw it some years back. That was on VHS and I thought that seeing it on Blu-Ray might perhaps improve the experience. It didn’t and I will try to explain why.

The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale who established a very high reputation as a horror director with Universal with films such as Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

The adaptation, by R.C. Sherriff, takes some liberties with the plot of the original story by H.G. Wells and even greater liberties with the intent of the original.

The movie opens with the Invisible Man making his appearance, swathed in bandages, seeking shelter in an English country inn. He needs a place to work in secrecy. He is a troublesome lodger and soon finds himself ejected from the inn, a procedure to which he takes violent objection. We gradually learn the reason for his invisibility, and for his apparent instability and violence. He has discovered a cocktail of drugs that renders him invisible but with unfortunate effects on his sanity. An invisible man is potentially dangerous; an unhinged invisible man is a very definite danger.

We also learn his identity. He is Jack Griffin, a promising young scientist who disappeared from his laboratory in mysterious circumstances.

The police are soon on his trial, an undertaking which predictably presents them with extreme difficulties and as their pursuit intensifies Griffin’s behaviour becomes increasingly violent and bizarre. He starts to lose interest in finding an antidote to his invisibility drugs, preferring to daydream about the limitless power that he imagines is going to be his.

There are many many problems with this film. It’s possible that the biggest problem of all is James Whale. His insistence on treating the story mostly as comedy not only removes most of the drama and suspense, it also strips the film of any emotional depth. Whale’s contempt for the horror genre is obvious in all his films in the genre and is perhaps the reason he insisted on adding so much ill-advised comedy.

Another weakness is that the Invisible Man is ready clearly deranged and homicidal when the character is first introduced. We never see him as a presumably dedicated and quite human young scientist but only as a murderous madman. The result is that we simply don’t care what happens to him. The sooner he is hunted down and killed the better. There is no element of tragedy to the story. There is no drama and it’s difficult to build suspense when it’s impossible to care about the fate of the protagonist, and in this film it’s actually impossible to care about the fates of any of the characters.

The extraordinarily annoying performance of Claude Rains in the title role, and the excessive ham-fisted comedy, add to the problems.

We also don’t get to see anything of the relationship between Griffin and his fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart). We don’t get to know Flora at all and Stuart’s performance is lifeless (admittedly the terrible script gives her little to work with). This means there is no effective romance angle to give us a reason to care about either Griffin or Flora. Whale seems to have had zero interest in emotional relationships. This is to an extraordinary degree an emotionally sterile film.

The acting is universally broad, obvious and generally awful. Una O’Connor screeches a lot, which seems to have the limit of her acting talents. She seems to have been one of Whale’s favoured actress and she’s as tiresome here as she is in Bride of Frankenstein.

All of this means that the movie has only one thing going for it, that being the special effects. They are impressive for 1933 and in fact are still pretty impressive today. On the whole though the movie is visually much less interesting than most of Universal’s horror movies of the period, with no real atmosphere.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release looks terrific. Unfortunately it’s let down by a horrifically useless menu system so while there appear to be some tempting extras don’t be surprised if you can’t access them.

Are the flaws of The Invisible Man serious enough to make it not worth seeing? Sadly I’d have to say that the answer is yes. Apart from the invisibility effects I can’t think of a single thing about this movie that works. It’s not just uninteresting, it’s positively irritating.

Avoid this one.

1 comment:

Matthew Clark said...

After reading your review, I realized I was more interested in all the characters in the pub than in any of the principles. The way all the women are drinking by themselves in the back room may have been something Whale had seen for himself when growing up? And, did he cast John Carradine because he could deliver his one line, "I've just seen the Invisible Man." so clearly? Too bad they never thought to do "The Invisible Man Meets Sherlock Holmes". Just imagining the vices of Rathbone, Bruce and Raines together would have been something.