Of all the Universal classics, The Invisible Man was one of the few I’d never taken the time to watch. This past weekend, I alleviated my curiosity and found myself, as you’ll note from the below review written by the fantastically talented Duncan Ralston, surprised how different the pace is from the other Universal films. This is a tale about a mad scientist, but instead of boring audiences with the details of his experiment gone awry, we delve into a sprawling story of madness and revenge. Some other notes I found interesting were the references to disfigurement, as The Great War was not far from the minds of screenwriters, becoming part of the cinematic landscape in the form of mangled images. The “disguise” of Jack in the opening of the film reminded me very much of some of the images from early silent pictures, such as 1928’s The Hands of Orlac or even 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera staring the Man of a Thousand Faces. Beyond here, there story for The Invisible Man takes on its own linage, more than about vengeance, and perhaps more in terms of madness and the things we (humanity) mettle in. Without further adieu, lets see what Mr. Ralston has in store for us.
The Invisible Man: Dabbling in Things Better Left Alone
By: Duncan Ralston
Something I’ve heard a lot these days is that old movies are too slow, too boring. This is sometimes a fair criticism. In modern movies, it’s argued, the viewer is shown only the scenes they need. Countless movies prior to the 1980s give us scenes and dialogue unnecessary to move the story forward.
The Invisible Man is not that movie.
Smoke swirls in a howling wind as the credits play, introducing the main character as “the Invisible One,” rather than the Invisible Man. He blows into the Lion’s Head Inn on a snow storm, wrapped for the cold in a long trench coat, full face wrap, dark goggles and gloves. The tavern regulars gape at him. While the housemistress takes him upstairs, the regulars theorize about him, small town gossip: he’s an escaped convict, or he’s snow blind, or he’s disfigured. She catches him with the lower part of his wrap off his face, and tells people he’s been in a horrible accident.
From here, we discover what happened to the Invisible One. Jack, a scientist, has been missing for a month. His fiance and partners are worried about him, as he left a note saying he would return when he’s solved his predicament. The scene with the scientists is a bit of an info dump, but it’s not very long before we’re back with the Invisible Man we now know as “Jack.” He’s working on an antidote at the Lion’s Head Inn, but he keeps getting interrupted. He finally reveals his invisibility, pushing her husband down the stairs, throwing things and knocking stuff over during his escape. He steals someone’s bike and peddles off on it, fully invisible.
The thing that struck me most about this movie is how fast-paced it is. There’s a remarkable amount of story and character thrown into its hour and ten minute runtime, and yet it doesn’t feel rushed. Some scenes play out quickly, others are allowed to linger.
Another great bit is all the “poltergeist”-type wire gags, where Invisible Jack moves objects, has tantrums, beats people up, and prances around laughing like Scrooge on Christmas morning. These scenes are great fun, and look surprisingly good for the era. The effects don’t work quite so well when Jack is clothed while invisible, a black outline around his clothing unable to be removed during rotoscoping. These scenes were at first considered “unfilmable,” and effects work took up four months of production. Effects guru John Fulton said when he was given the script in 1933, “It bristled with difficult special process scenes, and I wondered if, even with our modern process techniques we could possibly make all the amazing scenes called for.”
Once Jack’s evil plan is unveiled–which amounts to causing general mayhem, such as murder (“small at first”), and derailing trains–the police are hot on his trail. The montages of the police plotting and executing his capture are brilliantly paced, and the police don’t lose him due to Keystone Cop shenanigans, as one might expect in an older movie. They’ve conceived a decent plan, and only fail initially because of an accident of fate. Something I thought while watching these scenes is that they might have formed the foundation for every Authority Against the Vigilante sequence in almost every modern superhero movie.
I haven’t read H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man in maybe 20 years, but from what I remember of it, it differs a lot from this adaptation. For one thing, I remember a lot of Jack dealing with his predicament, where in the 1933 Universal film most of that is cut in favor of action. But maybe I’m mixing this up with Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. I do recall he was seeking revenge at one point on the partner who betrayed him? Stole his work? I don’t recall. Revenge is only briefly touched on in the movie, but for a different reason.
All in all, Universal’s The Invisible Man is an entertaining film that suffers slightly from a few corny lines, female roles that border on the “hysterical” (not hysterical ha ha, hysterical as in screaming at every opportunity), and by starting in media res, with Jack already a maniac, it doesn’t quite work as a tragedy.
Those few flaws aside, The Invisible Man is well worth a watch. It must have been a Herculean undertaking to put this film together using the practical effects at the time, and for audiences to have believed they’d actually seen an invisible man, as some critics mentioned, is something few modern movies with effects costing multiple millions can manage.
Duncan Ralston is not just a wonderful human being, but also the author of Salvage: A Ghost Story, and the horror collection, Gristle & Bone. He’s been published in a various of anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts and The Animal, and the upcoming anthology, Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can follow and chat with him at www.facebook.com/duncanralstonfiction and www.duncanralston.com.
“Amazing! Terrifying! The most savage spectacle of all time!”
“They came to CONQUER the EARTH.”
“Might panorama of Earth-shaking fury as an army from Mars invades.”
“The original invasion!”
These are the tag lines audiences were given while watching Byron Haskin’s film adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells story “War of the Worlds.” While Haskin may have been the director, I’d hang my hat on that George Pal (producer credit) had more to do with the films stylization, considering his previous films, When Worlds Collide and Destination Moon had the some technicolor fluidity. Also considering the era, the special effects and overall production of the film was out-of-this-world (no pun intended). Pal gave the film a beautiful apocalyptic quality that is visually stunning to watch. The entirely of the film is breathtaking, charming albeit terrifying, from the small California town of Linda Rosa, to the overwhelming inclusion of global invasion. But what is “War of the Worlds?” Lets take this in the story’s natural progression, from novel, to the radio, and finally to film.
H.G. Wells first published “War of the Worlds” in 1897 as a science-fiction piece and perhaps even a social commentary piece on British colonization of indigenous tribes and then subsequently being killed off by disease. Much like Wells’ other works, “War of the Worlds” was destined to be an influential story, spawning dozens of adaptations, including radio.
October 30th, 1938 is indeed a day that will live in infamy! Well, until FDR will replace it with the Attack on Pearl Harbor, yet interestingly, both infamy dates could be argued to have spawned from the same trajectory…being WWII, but I’m getting off track here. Produced at Columbia Broadcasting System, “War of the Worlds” aired as an episode of the American radio drama anthology series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed on Halloween during an era before television sets were a household item. Radios dominated living rooms.
On that fateful night, no doubt thousands were huddled together listening intently to the cautionary voice of Orson Welles as he retold the classic H.G. Wells story. Many of course knew this was a drama production; however, many more did not catch the “fiction blurb” and believed the events unfolding were real. It could be said that Orson Welles was inspired by many radio drama shows of the day, however, I think a strong argument could be made that he was also making a statement, a statement of the gullibility of the mass public who seemed to be willing to believe just about anything aired on the radio and perhaps maybe even a commentary of the growing threat from Germany at the time, this being 1938. But this goes back to the original story and the adaptability it has for each generation.
Quoting from the 1953 movie, a radio reporter states, “In the First World War, and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days. The Second World War involved every continent on the globe, and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction. And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super-science, menacing all mankind and every creature on the Earth comes the War of the Worlds.” Here we get a glimpse into the mindset of the film adaptation of Wells’ novel. We see the generational bent, the dangers of science, so-to-speak.
We have to, of course, understand the day and age. This is 1953, the world is still reeling from the Atomic Bomb, this is by definition the Atomic Age, and will go on to spawn dozens of films that speak to the fears of this era. There is also an interesting spiritualization entwined in the film, pastor Collins is regarded more favorably than in the original novel and with the ending scene at a cathedral on the drink of destruction when the invaders begin to suddenly die, and then…silence, given one of the last quotes, “The smallest creatures that ‘God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth’ have saved mankind from extinction,” we see perhaps a quasi-religious intention in the story telling. Depending on where you land on the fence, some have regarded it negatively, while others positively. Personally, I didn’t find the religious aspects overdone, though I did note them because they are undeniably there. The message I got was the futility in the efforts of mankind to save itself against an seemingly unstoppable force, to be saved in the end by such a minuscule thing.
Regardless of the intentions, War of the Worlds is highly entertaining. Even the effects are still fun to watch, though at times clumsy, an obvious indication given the age of the film. There were many harrowing moments, including the above scene when we finally get a look at the alien in its biological form. When it comes to horror, I’m of the mindset of less is more, and given the films bright colors and almost over-the-top techno science-fiction, this moment and its banality is absolutely chilling. The cast was also good. Gene Barry played an excellent Dr. Clayton Forester and Ann Robinson was a sympathetic Sylvia Van Buren. Another positive of the film was the onset with the small town charm in Linda Rosa, focusing almost exclusively on its characters, and then the slow escalation toward a global event, giving us glimpses of a world-wide invasion. The small town sequences worked fantastically because the audience was “set at ease” with the smaller group interactions and joyfulness of a “simply American life.” When the chaos is introduced, the film pulls back and gives the audience a larger world view, streets filled with looters and displaced peoples searching for safety.
As the musical score begins its final dramatization (enter sad music), I feel we are given one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, as the alien arm reaches out and falls limp, dead, and then followed by silence. It is a strange joyous while at the same time tragic moment. As Gene Barry reaches out and touches the lifeless alien, we get this final connection as biological being cast in our own worlds set adrift among the endless black of the cosmos. The ending, for me, is directly connected to the opening sequences of the film, the artistic depictions of the “other worlds” and how barren they are. The fact that life exists anywhere is a miracle. I think that this is perhaps George Pal making a final quip, stating how precious life is, yet it seems all we can do is kill each other. This sentiment should not be lost for our own generation, it certainly was not lost on Pal’s post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki generation.
My Rating: 5/5