The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (1933)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Una O’Connor
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Photo Gallery, Production Notes, Cast & Crew Biographies

No one could ask for a better university than the classic Universal monster movies. All the great themes are there: unrequited love, intolerance, jealousy, sin, pride, obsession, and the beast within. Point to any of the original monster films and a map of the mortal heart unfolds before us. From a modern perspective, their technical quaintness is more than made up for with an eye towards mood, atmosphere and, ultimately, humanity.

Universal Studios Home Video releases yet another meticulous chapter in the preservation of their cultural legacy. James Whale’s 1933 film adaptation of the H.G. Wells science fiction classic "The Invisible Man" materializes on DVD with a wealth of features including a very thorough <$commentary,commentary track> by historian Rudy Behlmer, a documentary chronicling the "invisible" phenomenon throughout the movies, anchored by a very respectful audio and video presentation. Gaze into the heart of "The Invisible Man" and journey into the mechanics of ego itself.

Claude Rains, in his star-making debut, plays Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist meddling "where man shouldn’t." Through a mixture of chemicals that renders him invisible, Griffin’s discovery both empowers and imprisons him. Forced to continue his experiments on the road, Griffin rents a room at a local pub, hoping to find a means to control his new discovery.

His disappearance distresses his colleague Dr. Cranley (Henry Traverse, better known as Clarence the angel from "It’s A Wonderful Life") and his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart, last seen as the senior Rose in James Cameron’s "Titanic"). Both suspect that his secret experiments have something to do with the strange reports of an "invisible man" wreaking havoc in a nearby town. Meanwhile, another associate, Dr. Kemp (William Harridan), seizes the opportunity to make advances towards Flora, although she declares her love for Jack.

Jack’s increasing frustration with his inability to find an antidote paradoxically liberates his id. Cackling madly as he taunts villagers and constables alike, Jack feeds his newfound thirst for power and seeks out his old lab pal Dr. Kemp to realize his plans for nothing less than world conquest.

Kemp tips the police to Griffin’s desires. Methodical dragnets attempt his capture. Griffin retaliates by tormenting bystanders as well as delivering comeuppance for those whom he believes have betrayed him. The police slowly close in, eventually bringing Griffin to a reckoning with himself, his loved ones and the unseen forces he sought to conquer.

Combining travelling mattes, wire work and floor effects, Whale and technical crew (including visual effects wizard John P. Fulton, who really parted the Red Sea in the 1956 "Ten Commandments") effectively realize Wells’ extrapolation of how mass without refraction might exist in space. Griffin’s interplay with the real world is convincingly depicted, whether its books flying across a room, chair cushions contracting or having a simple smoke.

Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff adapts Wells’ cautionary tale with compassion and economy. The film is a lean 71 minutes in running time, but quite muscular in terms of thematic exploration. We recognize Griffin’s desires (who wouldn’t want complete control over their destiny?), but shudder at how it destroys his ability to grasp reality. His life becomes a series of contradictions. He’s intoxicated with his newfound power, but longs for a return to his former visible self. He uses his condition to steal money from banks and give to the poor, but thinks nothing of sending a train full of commuters to a fiery end. In his quest for knowledge, he used elixirs that render the user insane.

The film also greatly benefits from Whale’s macabre sense of humor. The scenes of policemen chasing a men’s shirt running around a room or an old woman chased by a men’s pair of pants force a smile, albeit a wicked one. Especially amusing are the scenes with the great character actress Una O’Connor. Her constant bug-eyed bewilderment and screechy Cockney (she was actually Irish) delivery evoke a commensurate feebleness just as Griffin exudes invulnerability when announcing the precise hour that he plans to kill a man.

What makes "The Invisible Man" (and the other great monster films for that matter) so compelling is that it speaks to that disenfranchised part of our psyches. We all have moments of displacement, of feeling separate. The image of the bandaged Griffin, his hands clasping his head in frustration is an archetypal picture that we all have painted ourselves. In those moments of fear and anger, we wait for some kind of transformation or reinvigoration that will remove our impotence. Metaphorically, it might be from man to wolf, from living to undead, from visible to invisible. Like the great myths, the odysseys of Jack Griffin or Dr. Frankenstein or Lawrence Talbot continue through the ages and we never seem to learn from their mistakes.

The exceptionally detailed <$PS,fullscreen> transfer pleases in all aspects. The image is bright with accurate contrast levels. Deep black levels provide sharp detail delineation and very dark shadows, extremely important for this film in particular. Speckles and blemishes as well as film grain are present in the source material, but one has to remember that the film was made almost 70 years ago. The transfer is so good that the outline of Rains’ head or limbs in the travelling matte shots is easily discerned. I do not intend this observation as a criticism of the video. While it definitely shows we have come a long way in creating film magic, seeing the "seams" only highlights the necessary suspension of disbelief that all good magicians require. One final word on the video: when DVD first debuted, black and white transfers had that "metallic" or "processed" look, not at all looking natural or fluid. That Universal’s black and white DVD transfers throughout the "Monster Cycle" have been consistently stellar show how far the format has progressed.

The audio, presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, reveals no challenges or surprises. Crackles and pops exist on the soundtrack, but levels are ample and dialogue rarely peaks, with the exception of a few short bursts courtesy of Una’s shrieks. The music displays a tinny quality but not to its detriment; the minimalism in fidelity compliments the low-tech, high-emotion quotient.

An impressive 35 minute documentary "Now You See Him: ’The Invisible Man’ Revealed" spends as much time documenting the career of James Whale as much as examining the genesis of the film as well as other invisibility-themed movies over the last 60 years. An impressive number of on-camera participants add their insights including Ian McKellan, film historians Rudy Behlmer and David J. Skal (THE Universal horror film guru), director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters"), Whale confidant and director Curtis Harrington ("Night Tide") and Claude Rains’ daughter Jessica Rains. Among the revelations: no less than 12 writers, including John Huston and Preston Sturges, and four directors were involved at one point during the book to film translation process. The documentaries for the Universal Monster DVDs have been the most consistently entertaining for me. No doubt due to my affinity for the material, I’ve found them all thoroughly researched, briskly paced and imbued with a genuine love for the material.

Film historian Rudy Behlmer’s <$commentary,commentary track> expands on the information provided in the documentary. Either through careful editing or Behlmer’s inexhaustible energy, the commentary is wall to wall during the entire running time and never flags once. Behlmer comprehensively details the circumstances that surround the making of the film. He quotes from trade journals about how Karloff walked away from Universal and the title role in "Invisible." He cites freely from John P. Fulton’s article in the June 1934 issue of American Cinematographer about the achieving of the invisibility effects. (He even points out how the footprints in the snow are shaped like shoe outlines, not bare feet.) Behlmer also tackles the actors with equal relish, practically affording a mini-biography for practically every cast member. A bit dry, you might think. Not at all. Rudy delivers authoritatively and, again, with much admiration for the material.

A photo gallery of posters, lobby cards and stills run in real time to musical accompaniment of the soundtrack. Cast and crew bios, along with production notes, round out the disc’s supplements.

This review has turned out a little more personal than I intended. One of the reasons I love the movies is because of the group efforts of a bunch of geniuses at a small studio nestled in the San Fernando Valley during the 1930s. Whenever I see horror confused with shock, as in so many monster classic remakes/updates, my dander stirs. Horror lingers in the mind long after the avalanche of zeros and ones abates.

Not only would I encourage everyone to pick up "Invisible Man," but all the DVDs in the classic Universal horror cycle. Like Grave’s "Greek Myths" or Campbell’s "Hero Of A Thousand Faces," they tap into the eternal, whether the dreams of a thousand years ago, 70 years ago or a thousand years hence.

P.S.: I also highly recommend Kevin Brownlow’s marvelous documentary "Universal Horror." Premiered on Turner Classic Movies two years ago, it touches upon some of the themes mentioned in this review as well as other undercurrents in the films including reactions to the carnage of WWI (Griffin’s bandaging and goggles are a clear evocation of that). If I’m not mistaken, TCM re-plays it every Halloween.