Madmen, Spies, and Lovers: The Invisible Man in the Movies

If you’re anything like me, you are anxiously awaiting the release of Blumhouse and director Leigh Whannell’s new film The Invisible Man at the end of this month (look for it in US theaters beginning this Friday, February 28th). The trailer sent waves of excitement through the horror community when it was released in November and with good reason. From what we’ve seen so far, this is sure to be a unique take on ideas that have been with us for quite some time. Have a look below.

When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

So, to get ready for the new film’s release, let’s take a look back at the movies about invisible men and women that have captured us over the past 87 years. There are many types of invisibility on film: mythical, magical, of the superhero variety; but I will be focusing on films with an element of scientifically-induced invisibility as first seen in the classic science fiction novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

The Invisible Man (1933)-Directed by James Whale

The first of these is, in fact, a direct adaptation of that novel and somewhat closely follows its plot (largely due to the fact that Wells himself had final script approval), though it condenses the timeframe quite a bit. A stranger, who we learn to be Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), comes to town, heavily clothed, his face wrapped in bandages. He soon reveals himself to be invisible and escapes, wreaking havoc along the way, to the home of colleague and friend Arthur Kemp whom he forces, through the threat of death, to come along with him on a crime spree. Most of the rest of the film involves this spree and the police and public attempts to capture Griffin. At times, he is portrayed as something of a Depression-Era Robin Hood, robbing a bank and throwing the money to people on the street. But Jack Griffin is no noble being; he is a madman and a murderer, crazed and hungry for power at any cost. “An invisible man can rule the world” is his cry, and in order to achieve this, he throws several men searching for him off a cliff, derails a train with hundreds aboard, and even murders his own friend, Kemp, tied up inside a car which he sends careening into a ravine to a fiery end. When he is finally captured, he encapsulates the theme of so many mad scientist films of this era by saying, “I meddled in things that man must leave alone;” the fear of technology so often found in science fiction and horror left as the film’s moral.

The Invisible Man is truly one of the greats; a jewel in the crown of the first Universal Monsters cycle. This, along with Bride of Frankenstein (1935), is James Whale at the height of his power as a director. All the humor, visual interest, and storytelling acumen seen in his best work are here. It is also a huge leap forward in special visual effects, which generally hold up extremely well considering the movie is over eighty-five years old. It is filled with colorful characters and wonderful performances from Claude Rains as Griffin, to Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan. Not to mention the wealth of character actors in the film, many of them Whale mainstays, in memorable smaller roles including Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Forrester Harvey, and E.E. Clive; and in very small uncredited roles: Walter Brennan, John Carradine, and Dwight Frye among others. If you have never seen any of the Universal monster movies of the 1930’s, The Invisible Man is a great place to start.

The Universal Cycle: 1940-1951

Despite the success of the original film, the Invisible Man did not return to the screen until 1940 in The Invisible Man Returns. This time, our transparent one is Geoffrey Radcliffe, a man wrongly convicted of murder who consults Dr. Frank Griffin, brother of the original invisible man, to make him invisible in order to escape prison and track down the true murderer. Radcliffe is portrayed as a good man slowly driven insane by the invisibility serum as Griffin labors to find an antidote. Once again, an actor with a rich and distinctive voice was hired to play the invisible man; this time it was the great Vincent Price in an early role. On his tail is Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Richard Cobb, the detective investigating the escape of Radcliffe.

Also in 1940, Universal took a detour from a science fiction/horror invisible person film into screwball comedy with The Invisible Woman. In it, fashion model Kitty Carrol (Virginia Bruce), is given the opportunity to become invisible and hilarity ensues. The film has a terrific supporting cast led by the great John Barrymore as Professor Gibbs who gives our lead the powers of invisibility, John Howard as the love interest Richard Russell, Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges as a gangster, and the Wicked Witch of the West herself Margaret Hamilton as Mrs. Jackson. The film is a fun little diversion and certainly not the last time invisibility would be used for comic effect.

In 1942, invisibility was utilized to fight the Nazis in Invisible Agent. It stars Jon Hall as Frank (Griffin) Raymond, apparently the grandson of the creator of the invisibility serum, Frank Griffin, Senior (though in the original film it is Jack Griffin, Frank is his brother in the sequel). After refusing to give over the formula to a gleefully sinister Peter Lorre as Baron Ikito, a Nazi agent and something of a precursor to Major Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, he decides to use it to help the allies and gains the affections of German double agent Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) in the process. The film is primarily a spy thriller, but several sequences are played for laughs. And though some elements have not aged well (it is a World War II-era propaganda film after all), the film is still quite entertaining.

In The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Jon Hall once again takes on the role of the invisible; this time as Robert Griffin, an escaped criminal on the run who finds himself at the home of Dr. Drury (John Carradine), who just so happens to have created an invisibility serum with which he has treated several animals. He now seeks a willing human subject. Griffin sees this as an opportunity to hide from his pursuers and, as the title suggests, take revenge on those who have wronged him. The film is a return to the dark side of invisibility not seen since the original film, making it a true monster movie. By the final act, it even turns into a kind of unique vampire film and culminates once again in the moral of not meddling with the natural order.

As was inevitable in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the Invisible Man met up with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). It features Bud and Lou as recent graduates of Dugan’s Detective Training who take on the case of boxer Tommy Nelson who has been wrongly accused of murder. He opts to risk madness from the invisibility formula created by the original invisible man, Jack Griffin, in order to find the real murderer (if the plot sounds familiar, it is quite similar to The Invisible Man Returns and even reuses some footage from that film). As is to be expected, there is a lot of funny stuff here, culminating in a boxing match involving Lou, the reigning champ, and the invisible man. Though perhaps not as strong as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the inaugural film in the “meet the monsters” series (in which Vincent Price briefly voices the Invisible Man in the closing scene), it still provides plenty of laughs and tons of fun.

Other Notable “Appearances”

The number of Invisible Man movies from around the world is practically endless. Some are serious adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel, some are very loose retellings only drawing minor inspiration from it, and many are comedies. A few examples are the Japanese film Invisible Avenger from 1954 (which is rather difficult to find, unfortunately), Orloff and the Invisible Man (1970) from France, and Adam Rifkin’s 1990 sex comedy The Invisible Maniac. But there are two films, in particular, that stand out in the modern era as important films in the history of the Invisible Man: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and Hollow Man (2000). Neither are adaptations of Wells, but they certainly take some inspiration from that seminal work.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is one of a handful of big-budget studio productions made by John Carpenter, though one he has never been shy about saying he made for the paycheck. It stars Chevy Chase as Nick Holloway who, through an accident apparently involving magnetism, is rendered invisible. Unique to this film is the fact that inanimate objects including the clothing Holloway is wearing (as well as parts of the building he was in) during the accident are also made invisible. Therefore, since nudity is no longer an issue in his invisibility, he is often seen on screen by the audience even when invisible to the characters in the film. This is primarily during times the story is being told from Holloway’s point of view, sometimes to the detriment of the film. Carpenter does his best to make it work and most of the time, I think he succeeds. The film is well shot and acted with performances from Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Michael McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky, and many other notable actors.

This was one of the early films to utilize computer-generated visual effects and they hold up quite well for the most part. A sequence with Chase’s floating face made visible by make-up and another in which his form is essentially floating rainwater are particularly effective. The film was primarily marketed as a romantic comedy but is much more of a neo-noir with science fiction elements. Though it has many humorous moments, it is far from the laugh riot that audiences were likely expecting. It is far from a great film but is better than its reputation suggests. It may well be due for some reconsideration for what it is rather than what people expected it to be.

In Hollow Man, we encounter a team of scientists, led by Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue), Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) and Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin), who have discovered a DNA process to shift animals “out of phase” with the visible world just as Caine has cracked “reversion,” the process of restoring visibility. This then paves the way for human trials of their invisibility serum and Caine is eager to be the first to go through the process. When he is made invisible, he begins to take advantage of it beginning with small pranks, but quickly escalating to much more disturbing acts including voyeurism, animal cruelty, sexual assault, and murder.

Director Paul Verhoeven has never been one to shy away from pushing the envelope in the realms of filmmaking technique and visual effects as well as content areas, particularly sex and violence. Though not a satire like his films RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997), Hollow Man does plumb the depths of human nature as those films do. Sebastian Caine is not driven mad by a serum, but by his own lust for power amplified by what he refers to as his “gift” of invisibility. His evil is an internal rather than external force. Once he becomes invisible, he feels free to act upon his darkest fantasies and impulses. As the title suggests, Caine is more than just physically invisible; he is morally and spiritually empty, truly a hollow man. The film works as science fiction, a film about power struggles in the workplace, a dark drama about love and jealousy, and frighteningly captures that feeling we’ve all had that we are being watched by unseen eyes. Until returning to it for this article, I had not seen Hollow Man since it’s original home video release. I found it to be much better than I remembered it to be. If you have never seen it or have not seen it in a long time, I highly recommend taking a look, it may well surprise you.

So, there is a quick crash course to get you ready for The Invisible Man. And if the track record of Blumhouse, writer Ed Solomon, and director Leigh Whannell are any indication, we are in for an exciting new addition to this great film legacy.



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