Friday 2 December 2011

Films which make you an evangelist: The Invisible Man

I love the film The Invisible Man, James Whale's 1933 adaptation of the H.G. Wells story. I love it so much that if it were a woman I would try and set her up on a date with my friend Ed Dickins, because she would be far too good for me.

I first saw it in 1995 and was flabbergasted. I have loved the Universal Studios horror film series ever since I first clapped eyes on Frankenstein when I was about 12 or 13. I love their classical style, mired in the European traditions of the original literature. This was helped by the fact the Universal Studios were owned by the Laemmle family, German emigrés. Many of the actors in the studio repertory company, too, were from Europe, the majority from the UK. Whale himself was an Englishman - born in Dudley.

I've written here before about my love of this rotating company of actors who crop up time and again in Universal's films of the period. What I particularly love about it is the fact that it never turns into a joke. In fact, the familiarity of the same old faces appearing - not just as lead actors but as barmen, sailors and maids - acts as something of a comfort blanket. Always important when there's a monster on the loose!

And The Invisible Man's monster is one of the best of the lot. The film deals primarily in philosophical and psychological horror, with the film's titular star descending into madness as the combination of his invisibility drug and the potential power of his discovery come together. There's a tension and a menace which give this film such an edge over many of its contemporaries. At the time, of course, a lot of films were rather static out of necessity - in the infancy of the talking picture the sound equipment was very cumbersome and led to a slew of drawing room-set dramas. Even the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula film is largely a one-room play.
The Invisible Man, too, has its drawing room sections. But it is so much more, too. I think of it as a prototype of the Hollywood blockbuster. It has action, suspense and moments of terror. But what really sets it apart are the dazzling invisibility special effects. It's fun to watch King Kong, or any of the Ray Harryhausen-designed monster films of the 1950s. But it's possible to watch films that were made in the 1980s now and have to stuff handkerchiefs into your mouth at the laughably basic special effects. Not so The Invisible Man. It barely ever misses a beat. Considering the time, the infancy of the medium and the technological limitations, it's one of the most astonishing achievements in the history of cinema. It was all achieved with a lot of black velvet and the technical mastery of John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams (Hollywood special effects people always have a middle initial, from which they derive their awesome powers).

If you've not seen The Invisible Man, please try to. It's one of those films that turns you into an evangelist for it. The Terminator is another such film with me, although I have to say I think The Invisible Man has better, more believable, special effects. It really does. Also, The Terminator can't claim to have in its supporting cast the magnificent Una O'Connor playing a shrill, shrieking, hysteric of a publican's wife. Another oversight, there. In fact, The Invisible Man and The Terminator share another key characteristic: their stars are unusually constrained by Hollywood's standards - Arnold Schwartzenegger only has twelve lines of dialogue, and Claude Rains spent his first starring role in a motion picture wrapped up in bandages, only appearing in full face in the last frame of the entire film.

Yes, if only someone could combine The Invisible Man and The Terminator, you'd have the perfect film. Rest assured, I'm working on it.

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