After the success of Dracula and even bigger success of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures settled in to making monster features, and the Universal Classic Monsters as we know it took off. Producer Carl Laemle Jr. followed the hits up with Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Old Dark House, The Mummy, and Secret of the Blue Room. It was the theatrical release of The Invisible Man on November 13, 1933, however, that would unleash one of the best and most influential Universal Monsters of them all. Based on H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel of the same name, The Invisible Man has a standout villain and an endearing blend of humor and horror that’s withstood the test of time, even 85 years later.
The breakout star of the film was Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin, a chemist eventually driven mad by his own experiments with injections of a drug that renders him invisible. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, considering Rains’ face is only on screen for a brief half minute at the end of the film; his performance is almost entirely relegated to his voice. It was his first American film role, but Rains wasn’t the studio’s first choice. Laemle Jr. wanted Boris Karloff in the lead, but Karloff walked after Laemle Jr. tried to undercut the actor’s contractual pay. Director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein) was then tasked with hiring the studio’s next choice; Cyril Gardner. Whale really wanted Rains for the role, though, and used Gardner’s planned trip back to Britain as a means of getting his way.
Despite no real experience and rumors of a bad screen test, Rains proved Whale’s hunch correct on his choice of lead. Rains spends most of the film heard and not seen, not in the traditional sense, but the actor still had to contend with tough physical demands. At least for him. The amazing special effects that rendered the character “invisible” was clever camera work. Any part of the character’s exposed skin that was to be invisible was covered in thick black velvet. This was shot against a black backdrop, which would essentially make the black velvet disappear into it, and this shot was overlaid with the normal set to give the illusion of invisibility.
For trickier scenes, like the one in which the Invisible Man looks at his reflection in a mirror, this meant 4 different shots would be combined. Velvet is a heavy, thick material that would be hot for any actor to be covered in, and Rains also happened to be claustrophobic. It added a level of difficulty to an already difficult character to portray.
On the surface, the Invisible Man doesn’t quite seem as fantastical as his monster counterparts. Compared to the blood-sucking Dracula, poor Frankenstein’s monster, the cursed Wolf Man, or even the imposing mummy Imhotep, Dr. Jack Griffin is just a man who successfully pulled off the act of disappearing. Except, Dr. Jack Griffin is the most monstrous of them all. He’s corrupted by the power of being invisible, gleefully killing anyone at whim and taking whatever he wants. Whereas most Universal Classic Monsters find empathetic humanity within their monsters, the Invisible Man proves there’s no monster scarier than man. Or at least a corrupt, amoral man.
Griffin starts out entertaining enough; watching him toy with his victims while maniacally giggling is humorous. But the longer he remains invisible, the more he loses his grip on his sanity. Whale has a knack for balancing the horror with the humor, though, bringing levity when needed. Most of which comes in the form of Una O’Connor’s Jenny Hall, the innkeeper’s wife who has a talent for hysterics. Rains may have been the breakout star, but O’Connor is a scene-stealer as the comedic relief.
Wells famously took issue with the fact that his character was turned into a lunatic, but Whale countered that only a lunatic would want to make themselves invisible. From a cinematic perspective, Whale’s instincts were spot on. The descent into madness from the corruption of power made for a captivating story whose themes still resonate today. The Invisible Man is perhaps the most terrifying monster of all the Universal Classic Monsters. The special effects, performances, and blend of humor with horror still inspires pop culture today, 85 years after initial release.