“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill!”
–The Invisible Man (1933)
The Invisible Man first hit theatres on the 13th of November, 1933. Directed by James Whale, starring Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart, based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells. Like many of Whale’s films, it has a strong undercurrent of absurdist humour, which only serves to amplify the horror. Too, Whale allows the characters to guide the plot, rather than the reverse. While the structure of Wells’ novel is there, Whale and screenwriter R.C. Sherriff breathe a raw vitality into the characters that is otherwise lacking in the source material.
It’s one of my favourites, for a lot of reasons. The humour, for one. Whale delighted in injecting the absurd into the horrible – brief moments of the ridiculous, to leaven the darkness. Praetorius’ mausoleum picnic, or Una O’Connor, shrieking forever, into a void, for instance. The Invisible Man could be considered the ancestor of such ghoulish comedians as Freddy Krueger, mocking his victims with a dry wit, even as he throttles them. He laughs, he chortles, he capers – he’s having fun, you see. It sets him apart from Larry Talbot’s dolorous moaning or Dracula’s arrogant pomposity, though he’s no less deadly than his fellow Universal Horrors.
Rains’ Dr. Jack Griffin is manic monster, alternating between oily menace and brutal savagery, save when confronted by his fiancee, Flora, as played by Stuart. In those moments, Griffin’s natural decency shines through – here is the man he was, the man he should be. Inevitably, however, those moments of lucidity crumble, leaving behind a ruin of a human being, rotten with hatred and desire.
As with later horrors, Griffin is no supernatural menace, arising from antiquity. Instead, he is a scientific abomination, a thing of test tubes and beakers, rather than tombs and gypsy curses. But like Frankenstein’s creation, there is an element of the eldritch to him – monocane might as well be an alchemical concoction, after all, and its effects are as much magical as they are scientific. As his affliction progresses, Griffin descends into monstrosity, as if being rendered invisible has given him license to revel in every secret thought and ugly desire that afflicts mankind.
And it is a revel. Griffin’s rampage through Sussex is positively bacchanalian. A drunken riot – violent, noisy, and humiliating. He engages in lewd behaviour and spiteful acts, amidst the more mundane carnage. Unlike the Wolfman, Griffin is in this for the giggles. He relishes the power that comes with his new abilities, even as he loses his grip on his humanity.
Griffin’s later murderous rampage is made all the more horrific by the tattered remnants of that very humanity. He is no golem of dead flesh, or blood-drinking night walker, seeking victims out of anger or to satisfy an unholy need. Instead, he is simply a man, with a man’s strength and a man’s cunning, but cursed with a freedom no man has ever known. His crimes are a man’s crimes, committed for the deranged joy of it. He wishes to crash trains and murder great men, because he wants to be feared.
Griffin is a maniac who becomes a monster, thanks to his invisibility.
Worse, he is a man who becomes a maniac, thanks to an accident.
And that is the true horror of Griffin’s story. That, under the right (or wrong) influence, anyone might lose all sense of self, and become someone else. Someone relentless and predatory, capable of anything.
“Here I am. Aren’t you pleased you found me?”
–The Invisible Man (1933)