Megalomania is often referenced in cinema; from the Bond films downwards, many films feature a monologue-ing villain with a crazy scheme to destroy and/or repopulate the world. But few make such madness the central issue of their film; James Whale’s famous 1933 shocker, adapted freely from HG Wells 1897 novel, really goes to town on this single issue. Although the character of Dr Jack Griffin (Claude Raines) has featured in a number of films, he’s often a hero; this origin story makes him out to be a genuine sociopath, and the result is a surprisingly dark horror film from the Universal catalogue.
You might expect a slow start, with Griffin tinkering in his laboratory, on the track of a scientific breakthrough, but we get none of that. The film starts with Griffin already transformed, hiding out in an upstairs room of a Sussex pub. The drugs he’s taken have already taken hold of his mind, giving him a specific psychosis through which he’s keen to dominate the world. There seems to be quite a sizable gap between Griffin’s humble situation and his lofty ambitions, and his inability to close the gap causes issues as the cops close in. Griffin goes on rampages, killing innocent people while engaging in a few tricks which still look good today; riding a bike, goosing old women and generally being a low grade pest.
It seems strange that the police don’t just fling a pot of paint at him; instead, they track him down by holding hands and walking slowly towards Griffin, which doesn’t go well. His cruelty is defiantly bad-ass (this is a pre-Code film with a notably lack of moral content), and it’s genuinely astounding that he’d casually switch the tracks of a passenger train, killing hundreds just to create a diversion. Rains is only seen int he final scene, but he gives a barnstorming performance, using his voice and body to create an unforgettable character.
The Invisible Man doesn’t feature much transformation or even a character arc for Griffin, and that’s what makes it so fresh; this feels as much a film about the dangers of drug addition (fictional drug monocane is mentioned), and Griffin’s rants match up to what we might expect from someone with a serious coke habit. This is one old movie that stands up for modern audiences; the effects are ingenious, the tone is anarchic, and The Invisible Man sits up with the best of Whale’s 1930’s work. With the success of The Invisible Man movie in 2020, this original version is well worth a look for the sake of comparison.