But the truth was that Trick Photography is still amazing. Today there are tools that exist that make the special effects from the early years of talkies look remarkably out dated and with the internet and the ready availability of just about any data, the tricks of old and the tricks of today leave little to disbelief. If we take a step back and put ourselves back in the blissful unknown, "Trick Photography" can be a thrill again. If you let yourself say "Hell, I don't know, kid!", Star Wars is amazing, The Lost World is still a wonder, 2001 A Space Odyssey still can take your breath away.
The subject of this review is a movie that prominently features a naked man running around, making a mess and taunting the police. Why is this film considered such a Classic of Universal Horror? Trick Photography!
The Invisible Man is so much fun because it's so very amazing to look at. How hard is it really to show an invisible man running around and making mischief? Not very... just have a bunch of actors pantomiming that they're being slapped around or pushed into the snow. The really hard part is showing a partially visible man... or an invisible man wearing visible clothes. The hard part is showing footprints in the snow, when no man is there to make them. The hard part is showing thrown items emanating from nowhere. The hard part is making this believable.
"Believable" this might never be, but it's much more than cool. The great James Whale and his screenwriters Preston Sturges and R.C. Sherriff brought forth from the novel by H.G. Wells (and Philip Gordon Wylie's 1931 novel The Murderer Invisible) a frightening, yet somehow still campy and humorous thriller that fits perfectly into the collection of Universal Studios' Classic Horror films. Departing from both Wells and Wylie, Whale's Invisible Man is a mad scientist who combines the homicidal bends of The Murder Invisible with the Socialist commentary of Wells' The Invisible Man.
In spite of its flaws this movie works, in part, due to the talents of Claude Rains. Rains plays Jack Griffin, a man driven by his need for wealth. His reasons are altruistic enough. He wants to be great so as to become worthy of the affections of his true love Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart). When Griffin succeeds with his breakthrough experiment he disappears... both figuratively and literally. Wrapping himself in gauze, a fake nose, sunglasses, gloves and layers of clothing, Griffin sets about to regain his visibility. Unfortunately, the invisibility potion has also driven him completely insane. Dude must have an invisible psychiatrist too.
As soon as Griffin is discovered, things go from bad to worse. And from worse to... silly. Yes, The Invisible Man is most certainly an early talkie with the over expressive acting and goofy mannerisms. Yes, I love that. But here it's almost too much. Claude Rains has an amazing voice, and his cruel condescension fits the bill perfectly. The same can't be said for poor Gloria Stewart, whose acting comes off as forced and shrill, as beautiful as she is. But hey, though The Invisible Man got his "Revenge" 13 years later in 1944, Gloria Stewart more than one upped him with her Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar Nomination for playing the elder "Rose" in Titanic. Much of this can be wiped away with age, and appreciation of the Zeitgeist, but Whale did have his campy side, and he played up the silliness to a good degree. Clearly Rains' overacting and occasionally farcical delivery can be explained by the fact that Griffin is insane, and is clearly delighting in his unhinged mania. Still, from invisible head to invisible foot, Griffin's not afraid to be melodramatic along with megalomaniacal.
Comic relief is far from superfluous in The Invisible Man, however. As Griffin's sidekick and slave, poor Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) discovers, our unseen villain isn't merely planning to hang out in a ladies' locker room. No, Griffin soon becomes a completely abominable menace. He first becomes a killer, then a mass murderer and terrorist, responsible for the deaths of well over a hundred people. Like a terrorist of yesteryear, Griffin's crimes all lead up to his plan for world domination, with the hint of armies that share his abilities.
The Invisible Man can be as chilling as it is funny, and Whale pulls no punches with either. Nor does Rains who plays the evil, the silly and the sympathetic with equal skill and vigor (if with often heavy acting). But the real WOWZER here is the special effects work by John P. Fulton. As a prototypical Blue Screen, Fulton and friends filmed Rains separately, wrapped him in black felt and shot him against a black background. Then they needed only to mat in his shirt, his bandages, or what ever else might have been needed into another action shot. While it's not easy to tell how they did it (even from over seventy years later) it's safe to say that they did it well. The use of miniatures (thanks to John J. Mescall) and other visual effects (thanks to Frank D. Williams) completed the package. It may not always be seamless, but it's truly amazing, even today. Could it be done today? Sure. Could it be done better? Well, maybe, sure. Could it be done easier? Definitely. But consider that this was 1933, the same year that gave us King Kong. Might I say the fact that this worked so well was a truly amazing feat? Might I add, See It!
Rains' unstable and dangerous performance evokes images of a prototypical Darth Vader. This cunning madman, consumed by evil behind a featureless mask can be truly disturbing, especially when put in the proper context. Rains' character becomes tragic as it explains what a decent fellow he was before the drugs. In contrast to Henry Travers' Dr. Cranley (Flora's Pop), who remains steady and serious the entire time, Griffin becomes a sympathetic monster, like Frankenstein's Creation or The Black Lagoon's Creature! In "seeing" Griffin through the eyes of his friends and girlfriend, he gains our sympathy not in spite of the horrors he commits, but recognizing the contrast, he gains this because of them. Still... we know he has to go, and we root for it.
A weird funny about The Invisible Man is that right after the Universal Studios Globe and Plane logo, the 30's era emblem for the NRA pops up and declares "Doing Our Part". Now that should have been a hint to our man Griffin to duck. Guess he shouldn't have worn his sunglasses at night! Three and One Half Stars out of Five for the Carl Laemmle (and "Junior Laemmle") production The Invisible Man. I've never had so much fun watching a naked man run around. But... uh... I'll bet James Whale had.
In a very DIFFERENT kind of Easter Egg Category, keep a special eye out when you see the Reporters... one of them is none other than Dwight Frye! Guess that means he could've written his own Ballad! Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to go reveal my secret to the world. You see I, yes I, have discovered the true secret to invisibility! Apparently it's the registration of the URL "WorldsGreatestCritic.com"! YES! With this secret I shall RULE THE WORLD. But I'll remain completely sane. Ha Ha Ha! Yes, Yes. I'll see you in the next reel... BUT YOU WON'T SEE ME! Hoo-hoo-ha-ha-ha!!!
Guess I can kiss that goodbye!
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