"I meddled in things that Man must leave alone." - Well, now we know where that quote came from.
I recently read H. G. Wells' book for the first time (click on the 'hg wells' tag for a review) and if I were even a little bit organized, I would have watched the classic Universal movie at the same time. But no, so I'm just getting to viewing it now. To be honest, I think it improves on the source material, which is pretty rare for films based on books. (Well, there's GOLDFINGER...)
We have the same basic story going on here. A mysterious bandaged stranger turns up at a rural British inn and proceeds to conduct some experiments there. His difficult attitude leads to an attempt to throw him out, at which point he reveals that he is literally invisible. Looking for a normal accomplice, the Invisible Man confides to an old colleague he is in fact Griffin, an ingenious chemist who had devised a serum that made him so transparent he's completely undetectable to the human eye. Griffin starts an insane rant about his plans for a reign of terror, commits some murders to show his power and soon he's being pursued by both the police and a jittery populace.
Where the movie improves on the Wells book is that it adds an element of pathos and tragedy. In the original, Griffin was originally an albino (which is the serum worked so well on him) and a heartless sociopath who felt no remorse after leaving his own father to take the rap for theft; the father committed suicide in disgrace but the Invisible Man just shrugs that off as no concern of his. Griffin also has a very short fuse and flies into a violent rage with little provocation (I think we've all worked with people like that.) There is no hint of a love interest. (Instead, there is a "colorful" tramp named Mr Marvel, who is taken as a sidekick by the Invisible Man.)
In the movie, Jack Griffin was a struggling chemist with no money, and he experimented on himself so that he could become well-off enough propose to his heartthrob Flora (Gloria Stuart, not half bad at all; catch her in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, also directed by Whale). It's the movie which introduces the idea that Monocaine (Universal's name) has mood-altering properties and its users quickly develop homicidal mania. (Imagine the side-effects warnings if your doctor prescribed this.) Monocaine is described as a bleaching agent made from a plant grown in India. It draws all color from cloth but the fabric soon disintegratesl Monocaine was once injected into a dog, which turned dead white and went frothing mad. Doesn't sound promising, think I'll pass on a dose, thanks anyway.
At the inn, the Invisible Man is mostly just mischievous, playing pranks like dancing around in only his shirt or riding a bicycle with no rider to beseen. But he quickly starts getting murderous. By the time Griffin ends up with Dr Kemp, he's already thinking about a wave of assassinations to soften up the nation and pave the way for a takeover by "Invisible Man the First" (I guess this means he plans on giving the serum to a chosen successor so that Britain will be ruled by a dynasty of invisible madmen.)
Kemp arranges for Flora to come over (she has been worried sick about the missing Griffin) and meet with his lunatic guest. For a few minutes, the Invisible Man comes back to normal; his voice softens and he reassures Gloria that everything will turn out for the best. But the Monocaine kicks in and soon he's raving about how 'the nation that buys my secret will sweep the world with invisible armies" and how even the Moon is frightened of him. Claude Rains does some wonderful pantomime here, breathing heavily and touching his head as if feverish, and then raising his clenched fist in gestures that Darth Vader seems later to have swiped. Just this little glimpse into Griffin's past, the fact that he had a girl and other friends who are shocked at the changes in him, give the story much more emotional impact.
Enough has been written in various reference books about this movie that I don't think I need to elaborate what many others feel. THE INVISIBLE MAN is a fine film, directed by James Whale with his usual audacious blend of horror and slapstick. Claude Rains had one of the great speaking voices of his era, right up there for expressiveness with Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and a few others. His body language (even with his face completely covered) is so emphatic and melodramatic that the character really has personality. The Invisible Man seems genuinely menacing, and not just because of his strange condition. The others in the cast are all various British veterans of various degrees of eccentricity. I don't know what Whale saw in Una O'Connor or why he thought her grimaces and shrieking were so hilarious but there's no explaining taste in comedy.
As for the special effects by John Fulton, well yes, they have dated a bit. It's been over seventy years, after all. As startling and jaw-dropping as they must have been to audiences back in 1933, some of the visual tricks are not quite as convincing when seen today. Even as a kid sitting up at night watching CHILLER THEATRE, I noticed that I should be able to see the inside of the Invisible Man's shirt collar or cuffs but instead there was an odd area showing the background behind him. And even as ten-year-old, something looked funny about the thin shimmering line around the character in some scenes. I may not have known what a traveling matte was but I could catch when something looked off.
But all that's just minor misgivings about a film that is otherwise immense fun from the snowstorm in the first scene to the snowfall that fatally gives our protagonist away at the end (symbolism! cool). Any fan of horror or science fiction or just movies in general should set aside an hour and eleven minutes to sit through this one, it'll be time well spent.