Premise: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.
A man enters an inn, demands privacy, and works tirelessly at mysterious experiments. He’s isolated, agitated, and slowly growing more and more insane. Also, he’s invisible. The Invisible Man is the mind-blowing journey of a man overcome with the conflicting feelings of the power he has gained and the longing to come back to the one he loves. It’s a mad scientist motif that drives a narrative more and more toward an ending that may not be as redemptive or emotionally satisfying as one might expect. With a powerful lead performance by Claude Rains and spectacular visual effects, The Invisible Man leans into its mad scientist’s descent as it leads to a thrilling conclusion.
The level of pathos that’s given to Jack Griffin’s (Claude Rains) tortured soul is remarkable and goes far beyond his love for Flora (Gloria Stuart). Whether he’s exasperated at a failed experiment in solitude or he shares more collected thoughts with Flora, Claude Rains’ exasperation throughout the film makes the tension surrounding him all the more palpable. When someone has lost everything and is desperate to “come back” to the world and life they’ve left behind, the possibility they may lose their humanity becomes very real. This is what is at stake for Dr. Jack Griffin and Rains’ performance exemplifies this dilemma in an extremely satisfying and suspenseful way.
Griffin’s descent into madness and the concessions he makes to his morality paint The Invisible Man with a brush of characterization that’s more nuanced than any of the previous Universal Monsters. His inner conflict is what draws out the monster within him. Throughout the film, Griffin is erratic and violent but it’s in the way the story builds upon his behavior that makes The Invisible Man so special. He doesn’t become more tame as the film progresses. Instead, Griffin begins in a place of desperation and reaches his apex in a place of pure madness and destruction.
The special effects and choreography are still impressive today, considering the film is nearly a century old. The bread and butter of The Invisible Man is in the depictions of his invisibility. The film does not shy away from showing his invisibility. It’s impressive to see Griffin take his clothing and disguises off to reveal nothing beneath. It’s a visual flair that simply does not get old. Those visuals make his spurts of violence throughout the film even more remarkable and terrifying as well.
When it comes to the public and the authorities’ reaction to the Invisible Man, the film showcases some surprising cleverness. At one point, a radio reports on a shared delusion among a town of witnesses. It’s a simple moment that speaks volumes to the mental gymnastics the public would jump through to truly believe an invisible man walks among them. The ways in which the authorities adapt their search methods in their manhunt for Griffin offer some spectacular shots. One scene in particular shows dozens of police circling a house where Griffin is holed up, locking arms to ensure he doesn’t slip through their line. Little touches like this make all the difference in creating a worthwhile world around a remarkable anti-hero turned outright villain.
Still, the movie wouldn’t work so well if not for Claude Rains’ spectacular performance. Even when the film puts Griffin into too deep a comedic level of insanity, Rains makes it work well and doesn’t let it deter from the greater characterization. As such, The Invisible Man is a phenomenal debut for arguably the most tragic and nuanced of the Universal Monsters thus far.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.