Basically flawless. This film is so solid that I had to rewatch it to find enough to say for a review, because on first viewing it successfully repulsed all my nitpicking powers. It's a 1933 Universal horror film directed by James Whale. What more do you need to know?
I should end the review here, really.
I wouldn't call it brilliant, mind you. "Solid" is the word I chose. James Whale does impressive work, but in a more naturalistic milieu than his more famous Frankensteins. Its most memorable visuals are the special effects, despite some lovely sets and remarkably well executed big action scenes. It's the Invisible Man himself who's a marvel to look at. There's something extraordinary about seeing good effects work in an old black-and-white film. You just don't expect to see it there. You'll be wondering how on Earth they did that, a question which has been rendered moot these days by computers. Still more surprisingly, the effects are actually more convincing than most of the other attempts I've seen from later decades. When the Invisible Man lifts something, it moves through the air as it should. It never looks as if it's just floating on strings.
The "car over a cliff" effect also deserves singling out for praise, but I particularly liked the skull shot at the end. Nice.
The story is solid too. They make some marked changes from H.G. Wells's original novel, which as far as I'm concerned can't be bad. To tell the truth, I'm not a huge fan of Wells. I can see his influence on other writers like John Wyndham, but I find him more important as a pioneer than actually fun to read. War of the Worlds? Get outta here. Here they update the story to 1933 instead of keeping it in the 1890s, although in fairness most people today would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. They keep its English setting, which is good, but Griffin himself is completely different. He has a fiancee and it's implied that it was the drugs that drove him mad, whereas the novel assumes that he'd been bad from the start. H.G. Wells himself said that "while he liked the picture he had one grave fault to find with it. It had taken his brilliant scientist and changed him into a lunatic, a liberty he could not condone."
Whale's version has more of a human dimension than Wells's, even if it's clear from the beginning that the man's a psycho. We first see him coming from a howling snowstorm into a crowded inn... and he doesn't even bother to close the door after him. He's so peremptory to the innkeepers that he should have counted himself lucky they gave him a room in the first place. Needless to say, they soon fall out. The Invisible Man is bitter and angry about their behaviour, but he's brought it all upon himself. Before too long he's attacking his landlord, throwing him down the stairs and throttling policemen. "All right, you fools. You've brought it on yourselves. Everything would have been all right if you'd left me alone!"
As for his threat to Kemp... brrrr. "At 10 o'clock tomorrow night, I shall kill you." That's another improvement on the novel, incidentally.
Claude Rains has a lot of fun playing this psychopath. "I'm afraid I need this bicycle. Ha ha." Mind you, look at how his physicality changes when he meets his fiancee. Respect is due. This was a breakout role for him, in which he's instantly recognisable just through his voice. This was his first American film appearance, but he'd go on to be Oscar-nominated in four movies including Casablanca. This film has an interesting cast, incidentally. Dwight Frye, Walter Brennan and John Carradine (then acting under the name of Peter Richmond) all appear in uncredited minor roles. You might also recognise the actor playing Dr Cranley. It's Henry Travers, who'd go on to play Clarence in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Yes, he's adorable here too.
It's remarkable how happily the film absorbs a couple of extraordinarily broad performances, by the way. Una O'Connor shrieks the house down as Mrs Hall, while E.E.Clive starts off practically playing his policeman for laughs. "Hoooo." It all fits into the style, though.
The only performance I didn't like was Gloria Stuart's as the fiancee. She'd be Oscar-nominated for playing a wrinkly Kate Winslet in James Cameron's Titanic, by the way. Here she's giving it plenty of power and she'd knock 'em dead on the stage, but it falls down from time to time when you can see her eyes.
What I particularly like about the story is that it seems so straightforward, but it's also incomparably better than something like, say, Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man. He's invisible. He's bad. He gets worse. It's simple, but it works. This is to all intents and purposes another Universal monster movie, even though both the movie and the original novel take pains to ground themselves in scientific rationalism. They could have just called it magic. They don't. Instead they've thought through the effects of rain, fog and eating a meal. I like the police's tactics for catching him, which make complete sense even when they're unsuccessful. The result is a film that feels completely real. One could argue that invisible eyeballs wouldn't catch any light and so an Invisible Man should be blind, but you'd have to be a spoilsport to take it that far.
The film has two oddities of geography, though. They're in Dr Cranley's house. There's one shot where James Whale blithely rolls the camera from one room to another, not going through the door but instead straight through what should be a wall and thus demonstrating that the studio set is indeed a studio set. It's such an extraordinary thing to do that he gets away with it. You just accept that there's a door in a wall that only juts out a few feet. Then later on we discover that a door from the doctor's laboratory leads outside. Not so bad, you'd think, except that it's clearly an internal door. It's got no window or lock or anything. They simply built the set and then decided to plonk an exterior backdrop outside one of its doors. Again sheer bravado makes it work. That's another "did I just see that?" moment.
I never knew this film had four sequels. Leaving aside the inevitable remake, supposedly due in 2010, there's The Invisible Man Returns
(1940), The Invisible Woman
(1940), Invisible Agent
(1942) and The Invisible Man's Revenge
(1944). Don't expect them all to be up to the standard of the original, but I'm impressed by their cast lists. John Barrymore, John Carradine, Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke and, sharp intake of breath, Peter Lorre. I might have to pick these up.
This is a fine film. It's not the flashiest Universal horror, but it's completely solid in every way that matters. At the end Griffin admits that he "meddled in things that man must leave alone", but in fairness that's better than "was not meant to understand". There's the traditional "Invisible Man turns visible" shot at the end, which has never really made sense to me but at least it's true to the book. That'll do me for now. Good film. Buy it.