The Invisible Man: Why James Whale's 1933 thriller remains my favourite of the classic Universal
Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man hits UK screens this week and let me tell you I am incredibly excited about it. Not only am I a fan of Whannell’s previous output (including the absolutely excellent but incredibly under seen and underappreciated Upgrade, which… like, you should definitely seek out and watch), but I’m also a big fan of The Invisible Man as a whole. I love the concept, and always have done. And it’s a fascination that began with the original 1933 thriller, directed by James Whale, who was arguably the father of the monster movie as we now recognise it.
If I remember rightly, I was around 14 years old the first time I saw Whale’s film. I had recorded it off the TV during a period when BBC2 were showing loads of classic monster movies. It was during this time that also discovered the other classic Universal horror films, including Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, but Whale’s The Invisible Man was the one that always stuck out for me. Not much because of the style, although it is exceptional, since Whales’ Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are both far more interesting films to look at, but more because of the titular character himself.
For me, while film itself was never all that scary (truth be told I was never scared of any of the classic monster movies, simply because they were so dated by the time I came to them, that I was never going to find them scary anyway), it was the character, or at least the idea of the character, that frightened. And not only because an invisible threat is one that is next to impossible to fend off, since you’re never going to be able to see them coming, but, arguably more so, because he was so f**king unpredictably mad, that it didn’t even matter what you did.
As played by Claude Rains, James Whale’s The Invisible Man is quite literally a cackling maniac. He has the highest body count of any of the Universal Monsters, and perhaps still one of the highest body counts of any monster that isn’t a giant, fire breathing lizard. At one point he, just for shits and giggles, causes a train to come hurtling off the tracks and crashing down into a ravine, killing everybody on board.
As far as villains go, he’s bloody horrifying. He seems to want nothing but to wreak total havoc and destruction for his own amusement. Whether he’s murdering the passengers on the aforementioned train, or stripping naked and skipping down the road singing “Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush”, he’s delight in his own malicious and downright cruel actions is what makes him far more villainous than any Vampire, Wolf Man or reanimated corpse could be.
Also, despite the films attempts to explain away his madness as a side-effect of the same serum that turned him invisible to begin with, Whale’s The Invisible Man lacks the same sense of tragedy and sorrow the other classic Universal Monster movies have.
We don’t really feel all that bad for Claude Rains’ scientist come killer because, ultimately, he chose his path and seems to genuinely delight in the terror he inflicts upon others.
Of course, there are other elements of the film that standout and make it one of my favorites. The incredibly visual effects, including a wonderful sequence in which Rains removes his bandages to reveal nothing underneath, or the previously commented on Mulberry bush sequence, are genuinely outstanding, especially when one considers the time period in which this was made.
But it is the central performance by Rains and the sheer glee by which he delivers his carnage that made me fall in love with it. Ever since that first watch the film has stuck in my head, and I’ve returned to it many times since then. It was even the first film I stuck on when I bought the blu-ray release of the classic Universal Monster films.
Whannell’s approach looks to take a far more serious, far more contemporary approach to the material, and that’s partly why I’m so keen to see it. Whannell, at this point, has proven he has the talent and skill to be one of our best filmmakers, and I’m genuinely intrigued by what he seems to have done with the material. It’s a smart move, because no one would even capture the utter insanity, the complete and total unhinged villainy of Whale and Rains’ monster.