I’ve never considered myself a science person, partially because I have no natural aptitude for it, partially because the science you learn in high school isn’t the kind of shit that interests me. (Well, mostly. We did get to learn forensics my freshman year, and I do remember enjoying it, even if I couldn’t tell a single fucking fingerprint apart.) But I am a science-fiction person, one who’s generally drawn to pro-science stories. We’ve talked about a couple of these already during our Year of Monsters: Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance, and It Came From Outer Space.
Alas, we’re now heading back to the 1930’s, where science is generally not our path to enlightenment but to our downfall and destruction. Science is the method we foolishly use to try and control what mankind was never meant to master. Clearly, this is a pretty familiar theme: if Frankenstein is about trying to master death, then Jurassic Park is about trying to control life, and Deep Blue Sea is about trying to defeat dementia. Or sharks. The point is, progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged.
Enter . . . The Invisible Man.
Director: James Whale
First Watch or Re-Watch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Very much so
What might be most striking about The Invisible Man is that, unlike some of the other Universal films I’ve been watching recently, it’s intentionally comedic. I wouldn’t necessarily say that all the humor totally works, mind. Jenny (Una O’Connor), for instance, is, uh. A lot. And there are tonal downsides to the comedy: on one hand, I’m a sucker for a good maniacal laugh–boy, is there a lot of it–and I do genuinely love some of the Invisible Man’s funnier lines, like his super casual plans to commit “a few murders here or there” during his proposed reign of terror. (His reign may be short-lived, but his kill count is impressive: 122 people, I think, most of them on a train.)
OTOH, Dr. Jack Griffin is actually a tragic character. His experiment went catastrophically wrong, yes, but not because he irresponsibly ignored significant findings or refused to do any research. His mistake seems understandable (well, mostly), and his madness is a direct byproduct of that one mistake. His homicidal mania is also curable, which makes it even more tragic when the police fatally shoot him instead. By making the Invisible Man’s villainy so cartoonish, though, it’s often hard to take the tragic parts seriously, particularly because we don’t get any real sense of Griffin as a character prior to his transformation. We only see Griffin’s face for the first (and last) time at the end of the movie, which, to be fair, is a striking shot. But it also means that the emotional weight of this story falls to Griffin’s fiancée, Flora, and his boss/almost-father-in-law, Dr. Cranley. Sadly, neither character is up to the task, as both have little to no personality and could easily be cut from the film, especially Flora. Cranley, at least, offers up exposition. Flora is so insignificant that she’s not even a damsel. She just drops right out of the movie until the very end, where it’s like, Oh, right. You exist. As far as I can tell, Flora’s only around because villains aren’t considered sympathetic if they aren’t in love with a pretty girl. (Love being an iffy term, of course, considering how abduction is often the way this “love” is depicted.)
Dr. Kemp, though, is a bit more interesting. Kemp is another scientist under Dr. Cranley’s employ, and basically, he’s a little asshole, making a play for Flora while she’s completely distraught over her missing fiancé. Said play goes like this: look, sweets, your boy was messing with forces beyond him and probably got whatever he deserved, but it’s okay because I’m here and I love you. Won’t you be with me? Thankfully, Flora rebuffs him (in the most weepy and flailing manner possible, of course), but I admit, I initially assumed Kemp would end up becoming more heroic later, so that he might manfully hold Flora when Griffin inevitably died. Instead, Kemp’s pretty much always a coward. That’s not really a knock; in fact, I did end up feeling sorry for the dude, if only because it’s clear that literally no one gives a shit if this guy dies or not. See, Griffin pays Kemp a visit and is all, “I’m about to take over the world, and you’ll be my Chief Henchman! You’re on board, aren’t you? Remember: I’ll kill you if you say no.” Kemp, understandably freaked out by this, first seeks help from his boss. It’s . . . less than effective:
Kemp: Remember how you told me not to warn anyone that our missing friend might be invisible and quite possibly insane? Well, he’s both, and he’s in my house, and he’s seeking literal world domination. Come. Save. Me.
Cranley: Sure, sure. Play it cool, man. I’ll come by in the morning.
Kemp: Fuck you, you’ll come by in the morning. There is a murderer in my house. Get your ass over here!
Cranley: Fine, but only because my daughter’s making me.
The police aren’t much better. When Griffin does threaten to kill Kemp (by 10:00 o’clock the next night), the cops are pretty dismissive. Kemp’s all, “Hey! HEY! I’m literally scheduled to be murdered here!” And the cops are like, “Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on, we’ll get to you.” Of course, they do come up with a protection plan/Invisible Man trap, but it kind of sucks and ultimately fails on both counts. Griffin traps Kemp in his car and lets it roll off a cliff, and pretty much no one ever mentions him again. So long, my dude.
In an Invisible Man remake–that is, one divorced from the Elisabeth Moss movie coming out later this year–I think you might need to do one of the following: either cut Flora and her father from the story and focus primarily on Griffin’s partnership with Kemp, or cut Kemp from the story and focus primarily on Griffin’s relationship with the Cranley family. Or, if you’re going to keep all three, then you need to do some serious rewriting so that each character actually contributes something to the plot. I will say, though, that despite the tonal and plot imbalances, I generally found this movie enjoyable enough. It’s never going to be a favorite, but doesn’t seem likely to hit bottom of the pack, either.
Some random notes:
1. Specific bits that work for me include a) everybody calling the tip line with absolutely worthless tips, b) Constable Jaffers–hilariously nonchalant about the reality of invisible people–asking, “How can I handcuff a bloomin’ shirt?”, and c) this bit of dialogue right before Kemp bites it:
Kemp: Griffin, I’ll do anything! Everything you ask me.
Griffin: You will? That’s fine. Just sit where you are.
2. I don’t know much about special effects in the 1930’s, but I have to imagine that the ones on display here–where a shirt runs around the room and the like–were pretty awesome for their time. So, that’s neat.
3. Lot of people in this one. Claude Rains, of course, plays the Invisible Man. It was only his second film role ever, and–holy shit, he’s Louis Renault in Casablanca? How did I not know that? Then, of course, we have Gloria Stuart of Titanic fame as our requisite love interest. Dr. Cranley is played by Henry Travers, who you might know better as Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Dwight Frye, who we’ll be seeing more of in Frankenstein and Dracula, has a tiny part in this. Hell, even John Carradine has a bit role.
4. The ending itself is a bit anticlimactic, probably because none of our major players are involved in capturing Griffin. Like, I don’t care about this dude and his barn–and apparently neither do the cops because holy shit, they just burned it down. Okay, now I do care a little. Like, I know dude’s getting a reward for providing valuable information and all, but Jesus. 9-11 calls are not supposed to go this way:
Citizen: Hello, police? Come quick. There’s a serial murderer in my barn.
Police: Huh. Well, it’s too hard, getting him to come out. Afraid there’s no other option but to burn the whole thing to the ground.
Citizen: Wait, what?
Like, this is not how you want cops to solve crime.
5. And, of course, at the very, very end, Griffin spends his dying breath lamenting that he played God, messed with forces he shouldn’t have messed with, blah blah, woof woof. There are times when that’s certainly arguable; this, however, really isn’t one of them. 122 people didn’t die because humanity was never meant to know the divine secrets of invisibility; 122 people died because Griffin was a secretive asshole and didn’t get a second opinion on his research. Cranley would’ve been able to tell him about the side effects of monocane; alas, Griffin never consulted his own boss and thus doomed everyone.
Mad scientists of the world, take note: at least get the second opinion before you disregard it entirely.
The Current Ranking
1. The Black Cat
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon
3. The Mummy
4. The Invisible Man
5. It Came From Outer Space