Friday, January 11, 2013


(November 1933, U.S.)

If you were a kid growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, you very likely got your first exposure to the classic Universal monster horror films through late night television broadcasts like "Fright Night" or "Chiller Theater" or something similarly-themed depending on where you grew up. The first time I was ever exposed to THE INVISIBLE MAN was a startling black and white image that I saw in an elementary school book on famous monsters of the movies that looked like this...

The great Claude Rains (in his first American film role) portrays the Invisible Man (Dr. Jack Griffin) mostly only as a disembodied voice. Rains is only shown clearly for a brief time at the end of the film, spending most of his on-screen time covered by bandages and his eyes obscured by dark glasses. From the moment the film opens to a howling, manacing winter wind with no musical soundtrack, we see the mysterious stranger making his way through the snow storm to an isolated English inn. During an enraged encounter with the villagers, Griffin takes off his clothes, making himself completely undetectable, and drives off his tormenters before fleeing into the countryside. By comparison, the effects of invisibility are justifiably incomparible to the computer-generated effects of today's movie industry. But take a moment to open your mind and remember that this is the year 1933 and the technical achievement is all the more viable and impressive. As much as the premise of being invisible, the film focuses as much attention to the insane madness Griffin experiences as a side effect to the drug that caused his invisibility. This strange, new power and homicidal intention clearly don't mix. Stealing money from a bank, derailing a train, strangling a man's throat, sending a man to his fiery death in a car over a cliff seem only a fraction of the damage Griffin could cause with his extraordinary abilities. The train derailment scene, by the way, is shocking in its own worth, even for the year 1933.

Like all seemingly powerful men, the Invisible Man has his weakness in the woman he loves Flora (played by Gloria Stewart - today's generation will know her as the very old woman Rose in James Cameron's TITANIC). The genuine humanity he feels toward her, like any film cliche, doesn't come through until he's on his death bed when his physical being is finally revealed in a film effect that, again, one should take close notice of as impressive for it's time.

Speaking of the film's effects in a little more detail, it's interesting to know that when the Invisible Man is without his clothes, the effect was achieved through the use of wires, but when he had some of his clothes on or was taking his clothes off, the effect was achieved by shooting Claude Rains in a completely black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining this shot with another shot of the location the scene took place in using a matte process. Simple, yet complicated for its time, the effect presumably unimaginable to the film viewer who witnessed it way back when, or to the young kid who got to watch it on late night television when his parents weren't around to stop him.

I must confess an extremely corny weakness for watching many of these Universal horror films real late at night alone in the dark, particularly at Halloween time. You'd have to experience it for yourself, as well as appreciate this classic type of black and white cinema, to really understand where I'm coming from. Try it the next time you can't sleep.

Favorite line or dialogue:

The Invisible Man: "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!"

1 comment:

  1. The black on black technique was an old time magic effect that worked really well on stage. I suspect it was introduced to film by Georges Milier, of "Hugo" fame. Remember he was a stage magician before inventing most special effects for film in the first two decades of the last century.