1933 boasts perhaps the most groundbreaking year for special effects in cinema history. Elevating the level of pathos from Frankenstein just two years before and placing it on a grander scope, RKO’s King Kong ushered in a new possibility of combining larger-than-life creatures amidst a world of humans. Meanwhile, Universal’s own triumph, The Invisible Man, featured a string of optical trickery, the likes of which moviegoers hadn’t seen since the work of George Méliès around the turn of the century.
Inventing the narrative formula that would eventually be used in later films like The Fly and other ‘50s B pictures, reorganizing the mad scientist tropes first established in Frankenstein and fusing them with the procedural manhunts from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Invisible Man took the studio’s nascent horror genre and sprouted an entirely new one: American sci-fi.
Sure, science fiction had been sprinkled throughout cinema for decades (SEE: Metropolis), but here, the special effects finally caught up with what the stories were capable of telling. While King Kong, like Germany’s Metropolis before it, dealt with effects on a massive scale, meant to bring behemoth ideas to reality, The Invisible Man featured mind-boggling illusions on a granular level. And this was arguably the point in which the American sci-fi palette was defined, if not born.
Based on the H. G. Wells novel of the same name, the film stars Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist who goes mad with power after realizing the possibilities of what he can accomplish with his successful invisibility drug. Wrapped in bandages from head to toe, the invisible Griffin takes residence at a local inn where he aims to spend time finding a cure for his condition. However, the fellow patrons won’t stop spying through his keyhole and the employees won’t stop barging into his room. After a fit of rage, Griffin winds up injuring the innkeeper badly.
This sparks a nation-wide search for the Invisible Man, soon resulting in the murder of a police officer, which sends Griffin down a path of destruction.
The plot never becomes about searching for a cure for Griffin’s invisibility, since he no longer wants one himself. However, director James Whale, using a script by R. C. Sherriff, instead focuses on the logic surrounding the scientist’s condition and has fun with the what-if scenarios that play out because of this unusual premise. Griffin is shown derailing trains, robbing banks, and even playing ghost at a town meeting. No trick is used more than once. And with each effect, we can hardly believe this movie came out during a time when Hollywood was still adjusting to its ever-changing filmic landscape and often learning on the fly.
You could make a case that The Invisible Man wouldn’t have been such a great film had it not been for its magnificent effects. We clamor for the next sequence just to see what will happen and how it will play out. Even when ideas don’t have logic to back them up, we’re still impressed by how they’re executed.
On the other hand, we’re never made to have much empathy for the titular monster, and it takes an absurdly long time for the police to come up with a solution to defeat Griffin.
One could argue that The Invisible Man’s biggest mistake is inviting the audience to chime in on the brainstorming, yet never taking them up on their ideas. The cops are so perplexed by the underlying predicament that it’s made to feel more impossible to solve than it actually is, and we’re constantly reminded of that fact. Whale uses cinematic conventions to breach logistical reasoning, assuming we won’t notice or care. Perhaps if the technology were even better, the filmmakers would’ve taken the plot into a different, more sensible direction, simply because they wouldn’t have been able to justify doing it any other way.
Of course, very few films from the 1930s are perfect. We can sit here and yell at the characters for not just reaching out and grabbing Griffin while he was twisting their noses and flipping their caps, but also that would completely disregard the massive achievements made by Whale and company. The Invisible Man is the magic of cinema realized in its most literal form.