“Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the holy of holies, power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon's frightened of me, frightened to death!“
This famed Universal horror from producer Carl Laemmle and director James Whale features an aggressive and unhinged central performance from the criminally underrated Claude Rains that is as eerie as the film itself is disappointing. Rains, whose face we only see for the first time in death in the final shot, brings considerable physical and vocal menace to his role as Dr Jack Griffin, the renegade chemist and fugitive who pitches up at the Lion’s Head pub in Iping one dark and snowy night demanding room and board, his face mysteriously concealed behind a mask of bandages. It soon becomes clear that Griffin’s obsession with finding a cure for his self-inflicted condition is only the first step towards much more megalomaniacal ambitions. This tainted ghoul, his mind addled by the prospect of power, plans to achieve world domination by perfecting his formula and selling it to the highest bidding government so that they can weaponise it and conquer all comers with invisible armies. A nightmarish thought that ominously anticipated events in Europe at the end of the decade in which Whale’s film was made.
An uncredited Preston Sturges and Philip Wylie apparently helped R.C. Sherriff adapt H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel for the big screen but Whale’s film of their script largely falls flat because of its small scale, provincial trappings and uncertainty of tone. Rains’ performance, aided by an iconic costume and some ingenious special effects (especially when Griffin lights a cigarette unseen), makes for a truly great horror character but a grotesque landlady (Una O’Connor) and a squad of comic policemen puncture the tension with their respective shrieking and bumbling and undo much of the star’s good work. Griffin’s proposed terror campaign also never really seems likely given the obvious budgetary limitations and a love story subplot with Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart), the daughter of a former colleague, helps shade Griffin’s madness with poignancy but isn’t given the time it needs to really matter. However, legendary genre director Whale does squeeze in a couple of stylish tracking shots and the liberating thrills of invisibility are tantalisingly conveyed. Among the supporting players, Henry Travers is the biggest surprise but there are also cameos for versatile veterans Dudley Digges, Walter Brennan, John Carradine and Dwight Frye.
The Invisible Man has of course been resurrected a thousand times for remakes, crossovers and TV series since, most notably for a 1940 sequel to this film starring Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke and Cecil Kellaway and most recently by Alan Moore for his ingenious graphic novel serial The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-). Another interesting spin on Wells’ story is Paul Verhoeven’s pervy mad scientist thriller Hollow Man (2000), which makes the most of the conceit’s lewder possibilities as a voyeur’s fantasy. Griffin, after all, is one of fiction’s foremost naturists, spending much of his time cackling mischievously in the buff.