Monday, October 7, 2013

Monster Serial: THE INVISIBLE MAN, 1933

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Dr. Jack Griffin is one of cinema's great maniacs. While Universal's other monsters tended to lean toward tragedy and angst, Griffin is just balls-out crazy. This is a guy who doesn't fall off the edge of sanity as much as leap with delirious abandon.

It's a familiar story, and has a few parallels with director James Whale's earlier masterpiece, FRANKENSTEIN: A man tinkers with powers beyond his ken, goes mad and pays the price. What sets this movie apart from similar tales, even Whale's other work, is its euphoric nihilism. Whale's horror films could be cartoonish companion pieces to the novels of Ayn Rand, which also featured supermen brought low by small-minded peers. Whale's FRANKENSTEIN films all feature last-act turns toward moral relativity, but THE INVISIBLE MAN remains a fairly misanthropic film until its final frame.

As a character, Griffin is almost constructed in reverse. We know nothing of him upon his snowy arrival to a country inn at the start of the film. Even his face is masked in bandages, robbing us of any traditional connections to him. And while the movie would have you believe that invisibility drives him around the bend, we find out he's always been a bit of an asshole. He's dismissive of the town's locals (who are all presented as a bunch of drunken imbeciles, letting you know whose side Whale is really on) and grows increasingly abusive toward them. This builds into an early crescendo in the film as Griffin throws a temper tantrum for the ages. He tosses the landlord down the stairs, vandalizes his room at the inn and begins the first of many naked rampages. It's like GRAND THEFT AUTO with mad science.

And hoo boy, the naked rampages. It's mostly mischief at first, throwing a bicycle at the local idiots, throttling a constable, the occasional THREE STOOGES-like mauling of passersby. When Griffin realizes the real power he holds over the country -- terror -- he begins to lean on the throttle. His first act is to pressure a former associate, Dr. Arthur Kemp, into service. Griffin's plan? To kill a few people here and there, some of them "important," others not so much, all as an object lesson to the world that nobody is safe. To make his point, he derails a train and kills hundreds.

The way the film handles the problem of an invisible terrorist is clever and delightful. This is a smart movie, one that doesn't wait for the audience to pick holes in the plot. THE INVISIBLE MAN does the job for them, as characters discuss the pros and cons of a transparent lifestyle. Griffin has to reserve his bad behavior for certain times of the day, avoiding rain and fog because the climate has a way of identifying his presence. He also has to wait an hour after eating, so that people don't see half-digested bangers and mash darting through the city streets.

And then the rest of the cast gets in on the fun. When someone asks the police why they don't paint the roads with wet tar and then follow Griffin's footprints to his hiding place, they get a very reasonable response: "Because he's not an idiot." Before long, nobody in the film feels safe, and are denied the basic comforts of even plotting against the villain for fear he might be lurking in the room during their meetings.

It's easy to forget about the contributions of the film's leading man, because he's hardly present on screen during the run of the film. CLAUDE RAINS is one of my favorite actors, the kind of guy who makes any film better by association. He's terrific fun in this movie, and gives the audience 71 solid minutes of indulgent fantasy. Like DOG DAY AFTERNOON, FALLING DOWN and THE DARK KNIGHT, this is a movie for people who are fed up with the petty slings and arrows of day-to-day life. It's easy to associate with Griffin when he's blows a fuse over nosy neighbors at an inn, but not so much when his rage leads him to commit mass murder.

Rains might even deliver the best performance in Universal's early monster movies, at least among the leads. While Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. had many professional ups and downs, none of them really spent much time making A-list movies. Rains was able to move on to films like CASABLANCA, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, possibly avoiding typecasting because his face was rarely on screen in THE INVISIBLE MAN.  (Ditto for his role in 1943's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which also saw him working from behind a mask.)

THE INVISIBLE MAN's great strength is also its only weakness. The film's sympathies are clearly with Griffin (even as his conduct grows increasingly terrifying) which leaves no room for heroes. The characters that serve as protagonists are thinly drawn and forgettable. Years before she spent four hours lying to Bill Paxton in TITANIC, Gloria Stuart played leading lady in a number of Whale's movies. Here, she's playing a riff on Mae Clarke's character in FRANKENSTEIN, and is given nothing more to do than fret over her one-time beau. If you walk away from the film not caring about their relationship, it's because you're not given a reason to do so.

But that's OK, though. Much like Shakespeare's fools, the movie's "squares" are here to occasionally break the tension. If they're vapid, that's just part of the movie's meme.

WALLACE McBRIDE is editor of The Collinsport Historical Society.

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