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Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

The Invisible Man (1933)

"Catch me if you can!"


Jack Griffen is a scientist who has developed a way of making himself invisible but he does not know how to reverse the process. As the drugs he had experimented with slowly make him go insane, he recruits a visible partner in the shape of Arthur Kemp. But the invisibility has granted him unlimited power and he begins a reign of terror unlike anything seen before. As the authorities close in and Kemp becomes an unwilling co-conspirator, Griffin must struggle with his sanity and find a cure before its too late.


After scoring a hit with the ultimate landmark horror film, Frankenstein, director James Whale was called upon to helm this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel and it was highly anticipated after his earlier success. Using a similar template to Frankenstein, with a triangle of main characters and a lead character who suddenly acquires God-like powers which corrupt them, Whale sets out to tell one of literature’s most famous stories in what has now become one of cinema’s most famous films. The Invisible Man is, if you’ll pardon the pun, like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The film opens with a gripping introduction – the shadowy figure of Griffen, all gauze-bandaged and waterproof-coated up, trudges through the snow towards a guest house before opening the door to the busy bar area and demanding a room in front of the shell-shocked regulars. There is no gradual transformation – we arrive in mid-story as Griffin has already transformed into the Invisible Man. Everything is much more interesting to the audience at first, not knowing who Griffin is, how he came to be and why he wants to be left alone to continue his experiments. The rudeness and aggression in his voice instantly singles him out as unlikeable but there is something utterly compelling about the character. The assuredness that he commands those around him with and the brash confidence that he has in his own abilities is too hard not to like, or at least respect.

As the film progresses and Griffin descends into total insanity, the horror of the chilling events that unfold comes to life. He has no qualms about taking life to prove a point. By the end of the film, Griffin is responsible for the deaths of over one hundred people, with his most heinous act being the derailment of a train. A far cry from the physical monstrosities associated with Frankenstein and Dracula, the Invisible Man is a monster for the new age – human, corrupted with the thoughts of absolute power. But running concurrently alongside the terror, there is a distinct comic tone with supporting characters, particularly the townspeople, playing up the comic relief. From bumbling police constables to a landlady who does nothing but incessantly scream, the comedy aspects shouldn’t work alongside the absolute horror but bizarrely enough, they make them seem worse.

The effects work in The Invisible Man is nothing short of outstanding, near flawless at times. Even in today’s CGI cinematic world, these practical effects from the 30s look believable, bordering on the ridiculous at times for just how hard it must have been to pull them off back in the day. From footprints appearing in the snow to bicycles riding themselves down the street to the sight of the Invisible Man smoking a cigarette or undressing himself in front of a mirror, they are the stuff of science fiction come to life on the screen. The last shot of the film with the reappearance of Griffen on the hospital bed is still fantastic. Granted some of the effects do look a little gimmicky in today’s world – the stuff that you’d see at a ghost train ride or circus haunted house – but put together they have lost none of their magic. Most importantly, the special effects never detract from the quality of the human drama. As good as they are, it is the characters and their conflicts with each other that are the real stars.

Claude Rains is excellent as Jack Griffin, though at times the script does him few favours and forces him to overdo the melodramatic fervour with some grandiose lines of world domination-like intent. You only get to see his face in one shot throughout the duration of the film. For one half of the film, he’s buried beneath a layer of bandages and for the other half, he’s invisible. So Rains must act with his voice alone and that he does admirably. It’s a strong, commanding voice which demands the attention of the viewer. Through his voice alone, Rains turns Griffin into one of cinema’s most evil characters, following this up with his actions later by callously pushing men over cliffs or causing trains to derail. A couple of throwaway lines in the film by his employer, Dr Cranley, states that Griffen never used to be this way and was a kind, caring man before the drugs started to make him go insane. This takes the edge off the character somewhat, softening him up for audiences and getting us on board to sympathise with the character. But this doesn’t detract from the monstrous nature of Griffin when he’s invisible. No remorse. No pity. If you needed further proof, his maniacal laughing after he’s committed a heinous act will leave you disgusted.


Final Verdict

It is the mix of H.G. Wells’ unforgettable story with a wonderful voice-only performance from Claude Rains and a bevy of incredible special effects and technical feats which make The Invisible Man one of the all-time classics. To this day, there hasn’t been a single film about invisibility which has managed to top this one for sheer spectacle – the first and the best.


The Invisible Man

Director(s): James Whale

Writer(s): H.G. Wells (novel), R.C. Sherriff (screenplay)

Actor(s): Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O'Connor, Forrester Harvey, Holmes Herbert

Duration: 71 mins


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