12 – 72mins – 1933 – B&W
THE PHANTOM MENACE
Overcoming an avalanche of production issues and cast and crew shake ups which would have derailed many lesser film studios, it’s remarkable that Universal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 “fantastic sensation” even made it to the screen – much less that it is now considered a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work of art worthy of preservation by the US National Film Registry.
If I’m being bluntly honest, I feel it falls somewhat short of such an honour, but the fact that two screenwriters were fired, a director left and the first choice of leading man (Boris The Mummy Karloff) was pushed away due to salary cuts before production even began – and then a fire on an exterior set caused considerable damage during filming – I feel somewhat obliged to forgive James Frankenstein Whale’s film its tonal inconsistency.
Claude Rains eventually stepped into the (largely unseen) role of bandage-swathed scientist Dr. Jack Griffin, who was interrupted while experimenting with a dangerous drug called monocane, turned him transparent – and raving mad. With his obsession for a “reign of terror” overpowering his commitment to researching an anecdote to his condition, it is up to Sussex police, villagers, colleagues (Henry Travers, William Harrigan) and Griffin’s fiancée (Gloria Stuart) to bait the madman into stopping his killing spree.
I will confess that that synopsis sounds suitably terrifying for a Universal Monster Movie, however some outrageously theatrical and melodramatic acting – particularly from the innkeeper’s screeching wife (Una O’Connor) – somewhat deter from the film’s initially mysterious ambiance in introducing the “disfigured stranger” one snowy night. Things almost descend into outright farce when a local bobby chases the disembodied voice around his hotel room – all that’s missing is the Benny Hill theme!
“How can I handcuff a bloomin’ scarf?!”
Thankfully, any comedic excess cannot diminish the creepiness of Griffin’s first on-screen undressing, cackling maniacally as he disrobes to reveal his “eaten away” appearance (or lack thereof). It is in its remarkably impressive effects work that The Invisible Man excels, not only in its extensive ‘ghost’ shots, but a rather spectacular car and train crash in the final act presents a grander scale and more menacing edge, sharpening the film’s frivolous self-indulgence.