“He’s invisible, and mad!” Those four short words from the classic Universal horror The Invisible Man sum up the film more than any plot synopsis ever could. Directed by James Whale in between 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Brideof Frankenstein, the movie is often overshadowed by its monstrous companions but The Invisible Man should not be overlooked. The movie features some astounding and groundbreaking special effects which seem years ahead of their time. These are combined with H.G. Wells’ classic story to form a memorable if not at times slightly formulaic horror movie.
Production on The Invisible Man was fraught with difficulty and set backs and the story went through several incarnations before it was decided to follow Wells’ own novel closely. Alternative versions featured invisible rats or even foregoing Wells’ novel altogether but it was finally decided to use the source text much more closely than originally intended. Casting for the central role was also difficult with a number of actors including Whale favourites Boris Karloff and Colin Clive coming and going before an unknown English stage actor was given the part on the merit of a rather disastrous screen test. Claude Rains had just one Hollywood screen test, years before the film was made and it didn’t go particularly well. It was said that his acting was stiff but forced and the test lead nowhere. When James Whale was looking for an actor whose voice would be doing the acting though, Rains’ test screamed out to him and he was offered the part.
It is Claude Rains’ performance (along with the special effects) which really makes the film the success that it is. For almost every shot his face is invisible, either hidden behind bandages or actually see through. Because of this the actor had to do all of his acting by way of his voice, and what a voice. When disembodied his voice is eerily haunting but there is menace when hidden behind clothes and bandages too. The character is much more sadistic and violent that I had imagined beforehand and Rains’ voice really helps to highlight this. While the supporting cast around him over act and mug at the camera, Rains’ gives a terrifying but natural performance. Una O’Connor, one of my least favourite things about Bride of Frankenstein is on hand here to once again prove what I hate about her acting style and many of the cast seem to follow her lead with overly dramatic interpretations of fear coupled with ridiculous faux English accents. Gloria Stuart is one of the few besides Rains to shine. She would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination over sixty-five years later for her performance in Titanic.
The special effects, as I already mentioned, are simply incredible. When you consider that this film was made in the same year that construction began on The Golden Gate Bridge or that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, you begin to understand just how old it is. Despite its age, the effects are still capable of astounding the viewer. To create the illusion of invisibility, special effects designer John Fulton masked the ‘invisible’ area of skin in black velvet and set the actor against a black velvet background. By then shooting the background separately and combining the images, the director was able to create the desired invisibility effect. This method is very much the precursor to blue screen and today’s green screen. It was slightly simpler to give the effect of the invisible man moving inanimate objects. This was done through the use of wires but the effect still looks excellent. I noticed the wires in only one shot. For some of the dramatic action scenes, miniatures were used. John Fulton would use his mastery of special effects in other Universal horror pictures of the time but like actor Claude Rains would work with Alfred Hitchcock where he did some of his most memorable work in the likes of Saboteur, Rear Window and Vertigo.
If I’m perfectly honest, I was a little bored by the story of The Invisible Man. I’m a fan of H.G. Wells writing but felt like this one didn’t really go anywhere. The idea of invisibility being a metaphor for the outsider was interesting but it got stuck in amongst the hunt for the man himself. The mad scientist element also feels like a bit of a cliché these days, even if this was one of the first examples. Overall though, the central performance and effects make up for the stories failings and culminate in producing some incredible sights and sounds which will remain with me.
- The movie would spawn four sequels made between 1940-44 and numerous remakes and re-imaginings have been produced over the years.
- Boris Karloff turned down the role because the character isn't seen on screen until the very end.