Perhaps the most underrated and certainly the most fun of the classical Universal pantheon, INVISIBLE MAN doesn't dawdle and gives us the goods right away. A mysterious man, all wrapped in bandages, arrives at an English pub in the midst of a snowstorm. He tries his best to be crowned King of All Dicks, barking orders and demanding food and solitude, earning the ire of the bar's soused Brits.
These early scenes set the stage for the film's entire feel. Director James Whale has it and flaunts it, mashing up menace and laughs in equal measure. Una O'Connor's performance in these scenes is a master's thesis in how comedy can be integrated into legit horror films. Her shrieking and caterwauling simultaneously underlines the terror and takes the edge off of it.
As I'm sure you've heard, the terror is basically that Jack Griffin, the guy in the wrappings, is an invisible man. As if that weren't bad enough, the invisibility process has rendered him a little sociopathic. He boasts about his plans to "rob and rape and kill" and tries to murder a sleepy-eyed policeman.
A really neat thing about INVISIBLE MAN is how it bounces back and forth between the villain being horrifying and being an entertaining prankster. Unwrapped and fully invisible, Jack Griffin roams the streets, swiping bicycles and swatting people with brooms. But things escalate, starting with the cop-throttling and the upturning of a baby carriage. By the time we get to calculated murder and train derailments, you won't doubt the monster potential of the invisible man.
As with KONG, effects are a huge concern here and they are executed well. Some of the invisible-man-moves-stuff scenes might linger a little too long for modern eyes, but the chair rocking and cigarette smoke exhaled apparently from nowhere are still pretty spookshow cool.
The directorial choices and cinematography here are exquisite. We get flashes of the panic as word spreads, and get reaction shots from grandpas and orphans. The camera glides at strange angles and leads actors between rooms. Every scene is staged and framed with considerable care.
And none of the actors let us down! Obviously, the titular role was of supreme importance and Claude Rains shows why he deserved to be immortalized in musicals. Maybe more than any actor, even Christian Bale, Rains pours his whole self into a threatening voice. He doles out trilled R's all over the place, like some kind of lunatic aristocrat. But this is also a strong acting performance, not just spookhouse fare. His interactions with his beloved Flora (Gloria Stuart) show a softer side of Griffin.
Stuart, who would go on to some post-PIRANHA II James Cameron movie, also delivers a fine performance here. It helps that Flora has nuance and depth as a character. Stuart doesn't get a lot of screen time and sometimes has to hand over the spotlight to invisible mania, but she's consistently impressive when she's seen.
You couldn't ask for much more than we get here: a novel concept presented in a fast-paced and fun way by serious talent. Amazing that the same film can contain lines like "I shall kill you even if you hide in the deepest cave of the Earth!" AND "How do I handcuff a bloomin' shirt?" And yet this does and it works, so well.