The Invisible Man
“If you could have any super power, what would it be?” It’s a question that’s been a mainstay of my idle conversations with people since I was but a wee child. Perhaps as I grow older and my friends grow older too, questions about idle dreams and like hypothetical situations will give way to weightier and more practical issues. While I’m young and still foolish though, I’ll tell you what power I would want if I could choose any. It’s cliché, but I’d want invulnerability. If I could withstand any force, I could rescue people from burning buildings without any fear of injuring myself. I could rush into gunfire to shield people or in battle drag the wounded back to safety without armor. I could be a hero, but I could also do crazy stuff like jump of buildings sans parachute or go through tornadoes for the hell of it. As a kid, I entertained having the power of invulnerability as well as others, but there’s one power that never appealed to me, invisibility. I think I never took to the idea because it involves sneaking about, which is not my strong suit, and its biggest advantage was that you could watch naked ladies when invisible; that sounded cool until I realized that it’s the creepiest kind of stalker voyeurism, made all the worse by the fact that I would have to be naked to be completely invisible. Consequently, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching The Invisible Man. I was expecting it to be the redheaded stepchild of the Universal monster movies, but it’s actually quite good. The invisible man is a sinister character and the special effects are pretty slick, especially considering the time this movie came out.
The Invisible Man starts with a mysterious stranger completely wrapped in bandages coming to an inn during a snowstorm. He rents a room and desperately experiments to “change back.” When the innkeepers make a fuss because he’s behind on the rent, he goes into a rage and removes his bandages, revealing that he’s completely invisible before he runs off. We learn that the invisible man is Dr. Jack Griffin, an assistant chemist to Dr. Cranley. Jack was performing his own experiments on the side, working on an invisibility formula using a chemical called monocane, which incidentally makes people go crazy. Dr. Cranley, his daughter Flora, and Dr. Kemp don’t know where Jack went, but Kemp’s suspicions are confirmed when Jack returns and forces Kemp to be his assistant. Jack explains that he wants to dominate the world with his power by murdering various people to cause a panic. Dr. Kemp is reluctant, but helps Jack retrieve his formulas from the inn. While at the inn, Jack attacks the patrons and kills a police officer, starting a panic. When they get back to the house, Dr. Kemp calls Dr. Cranley and Flora, as well as the police, to come get Jack. Jack has a brief reconciliation with Flora, but he has to escape when the police surround the house. He vows to kill Dr. Kemp for betraying him. In spite of the police’s best efforts, Jack eludes capture and manages to murder many people; he even derails a train, killing all the passengers. Furthermore, he kills Dr. Kemp by cleverly avoiding various traps the police have set for him. However, Jack is ultimately undone when a farmer discovers him sleeping in a barn. The police surround the barn and set fire to it then shoot Jack as soon as they see him making footprints in the snow. In the hospital, Jack tells Flora that he was meddling in matters no human should meddle with before he dies and becomes visible again.
Largely what sold the movie for me was the performance of Claude Rains, the actor who plays Dr. Jack Griffin, the invisible man. Although he really chews the scenery, I have a soft spot for dramatic villains. The acting is not subtle, but it creates a memorable character and emphasizes the depth of madness the monocane is causing. It also helps bury the question of motivation; we might be inclined to wonder why the doctor wants to take over the world if not for how crazy and evil he acts. Once we get past the pesky questions of motivation however, Jack is a creepy character. He’s the textbook definition of a terrorist, since he intends to gain power by randomly murdering people to drive everyone into a panic. This is scary enough as it is without Jack being able to carry out those murders covertly and hide in plain sight; on numerous occasions, policemen and civilians remark that Jack could be in the room with them and they would know. Although Jack is just one man and remarkably vulnerable, he has a kind of horrible omnipresence because he’s invisible; he could be anywhere and attack at anytime. He’s technically human, but he makes a good monster.
I was surprised at how well done the special effects were in this film. I know that most of the objects that move or float without human interference are just tricks with wires, but I saw nary a string. The illusion that the objects were moving of their own accord was maintained. Most stunning were the shots where Jack removed the bandages from his face to reveal that he had no head or the shots when clothes that are clearly filled by a human move of their own accord. I couldn’t figure out how they made it work and so I had to look it up online. According to Wikipedia, they used a process similar to the modern day green screen. They would shoot the background footage of the room first. Next, Claude Rains would dress in all black with his visible clothes over them and would move around in front of a black background. The two could be matted together to create the image of the clothes moving on their own in a room. The best special effects are like magic. Even if you know they aren’t real, you still feel a sense of joy and wonder because you want to know how it worked.
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