The Invisible Man (1933) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 27

by Jovial Jay

Now you see him, now you don’t.

The original The Invisible Man is a marvel for its time combining cutting edge special effects to create a truly terrifying villain. It was one of the original Universal monster films and the final H-Origins review on tonight’s 31 Day of Horror.

Before Viewing

As the title in the trailer suggests, this is a film about an invisible man. He’s a little crazy and being sought by the police, but of course, how do you find someone that can’t be seen? A number of the special effects to make the man seem invisible are shown, or not shown. It seems like a pretty straightforward film.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933) title card.

After Viewing

On a cold, snowy night in Iping, England, a lone traveler enters a pub called The Lion’s Head and asks for a room and a meal. His head is wrapped in bandages, he wears goggles, long sleeves and gloves. He is Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) and his temper is short with the pub owner’s wife Jenny (Una O’Connor) when she interrupts his meal time, which reveal parts of him that are not there. He has some luggage being delivered and wants it brought up as soon as possible.

Back in London, Griffin’s girlfriend Flora (Gloria Stuart) tells her father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), how worried she is for him. He has been missing for a month with no word. Cranley’s other assistant Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) tells Flora that Griffin is no good for her, and that he is not a straightforward scientist. Meanwhile, Griffin’s lab equipment has been delivered and he is conducting experiments in the small room, raving about “finding a way back.”

Jenny is scared by Griffin’s demeanor and tells her husband to throw him out. Mr. Hall (Forrester Harvey) tries to evict the scientist, but is thrown down the stairs by the bandaged man. When a policeman (E.E. Clive) arrives, Griffin strips off his clothes revealing he is invisible, and quite mad. He chokes out the constable and takes off through the town creating havoc as he runs into the countryside. Dr. Cranley is worried that Griffin may have been working with Monocaine powder, a drug derived from a flower in India that bleaches the skin, but also can cause lunacy.

The Invisible Man (1933)

One of the varied special effects depicting the partial invisibility of Griffin.

Kemp is listening to a radio report on the mass hysteria in Iping, when the invisible Griffin enters his house. He threatens Kemp into being his “visible partner,” who will help him in murders, crashes, and other mayhem. He first needs help getting some books he left at the Inn. The Chief of Police (Holmes Herbert) believes that everyone reporting an invisible man is drunk and is about to dismiss the hearing when an invisible force disrupts the meeting, and strangles the Chief to death.

The police gather 1,000 men and 10,000 volunteers to sweep the countryside looking for Griffin, offering a £1,000 reward. All the while Griffin sleeps safely in Kemp’s house. Kemp decides to let Cranley know that Griffin is alive, before calling the police. Flora believes that she can reason with the madman and they go to Kemp’s house. Flora tries to reason with Griffin to give up and go to the police, but he just wanted to be rich so Flora would accept him. When the police arrive, Griffin takes off evading the dragnet. He vows to kill Kemp the next night at 10pm.

Griffin pushes several members of the search party off a cliff before knocking out a train switchman and launching a locomotive off its tracks. The Chief Detective (Dudley Digges) comes up with a wild plan to keep Kemp safe involving taking him to the police station publicly and sneaking him back home. Unfortunately Griffin follows Kemp the entire time and forces his car off a cliff exactly at 10pm. On the run and sleeping in a barn, Griffin is discovered by a farmer. The police set the barn on fire waiting for the invisible man’s footprints to appear in the snow. When they do, the Detective shoots him. Griffin dies in the hospital the next, realizing on his deathbed, he meddled in things he should not have. He becomes visible after he passes away.

An invisible man can rule the world! Nobody will see him come. Nobody will see him go.” – Jack Griffin

The Invisible Man (1933)

Griffin threatens Kemp, and shares with him all the horrible things he is planning to do.

Based on the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, the 1933 adaptation of The Invisible Man stands as an important origin point for horror and sci-fi film, making this the final H-Origins article of the month. Directed by James Whale, the English director responsible for the 1931 Frankenstein film also from Universal Pictures, the film not only creates a horrific atmosphere with the lunacy of Griffin, but also creates some stunning special effects in order to believably sell the main character’s invisibility.

While the idea of making oneself invisible may seem like an interesting proposition, the idea that others may be invisible around you is chilling. The potential for horror is even greater when that invisible person is amoral and a sociopath. The Invisible Man addresses the latter, showcasing Griffin’s mania, presumably exaggerated by the formula he takes. It shows him plotting to murder people, not just affluent, but ordinary–to show he has no bias, and later carries out his plan to crash a train (which kills at least 100 people). And why does he do this? All for the love of a woman. He incorrectly assumes that his acts, even after discovering the invisibility formula, will make Flora fall further in love with him. Rains communicates this madness with a chilling effect.

The Invisible Man crafted the necessary elements to accurately portray this story of an invisible man, and thus created the filmic language necessary to depict this situation. These ideas were adapted by other filmmakers for their portrayal of invisibility. Since no one can actually be invisible, special effects were necessary to portray Claude Rains in various states where parts of his skin would be exposed, and therefore invisible. In the decades before computer assisted imagery, on-set methods were needed to create the reality that an invisible man was moving various objects. Wires and strings were used to move objects when Griffin was totally invisible, while superimposition of film images were used to show the partially clothed man. The actor would dress in black velvet for the parts that would be exposed, and be filmed in front of a black background. When combined with the imagery of the background plate, it would appear that a partially visible character existed.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Dr. Cranley and his daughter Flora worry about what Griffin may be capable of doing.

As a contemporary film of the 30s, there is some attempt to explain the scientific nature of the invisibility. A formula derived from a rare plant which bleaches the skin–and also causes madness–creates the effect that he is invisible. Griffin explains that he must not be seen until at least an hour after he eats, since the food would be visible in his stomach. Though by that idea, the smoke from his cigarette should be visible in his lungs, which it’s not. The film does not address the oft-cited criticism that he should be unable to see due to his retinas being unable to absorb the light. These are all very nit-picky elements overall. The film is able to stand on its portrayal of general invisibility and the effects it has on the recipient. Other films about invisibility addressed these issues to one extent or another (or sometimes not at all).

The success of The Invisible Man spawned numerous other films trying to recapture the popularity, including two films in 1940 and one more in both1942 and 1944. The Invisible Man Returns and Invisible Woman, released 11 months apart in 1940 furthered stories about invisible people, while Invisible Agent and The Invisible Man’s Revenge followed over the next few years. But films about invisibility have continued to be popular entertainment. Some others include The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (Disney-1972), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), and Hollow Man (2000). A humorous spoof of the 1933 original occurred in Amazon Women on the Moon with Ed Begley Jr as a man who believes he’s invisible, but is actually just running around naked. A 2020 remake of the film will be tomorrow’s focus comparing a modern version of the story to this almost 90-year-old film.

As with the other H-Origins films reviewed this year (Dracula and The Wolf Man) it’s interesting to see how much of these characters mythos was actually created in these early films. Modern renditions of any of these classic monsters derives so much from the original films. It’s always fascinating to revisit the original versions to affirm the best parts of the monsters and what might improve them.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Flora tries to get through to Griffin and it seems as if it may work, but only for a moment.

Assorted Musings

  • The farmer that provided the location of Griffin had his barn burned down by the police without even asking. Hopefully the  £1,000 reward is enough to help rebuild that!
  • Between the train crash and the few men the audience see being killed by Griffin, The Invisible Man has the most deaths of any of the classic Universal monster films with 122.
  • The extras for the film should all be commended as their reactions and pantomime when “attacked” by the invisible man helps sell the believability of a real invisible actor amongst them.

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