Jack Griffin is already mad when he bursts through a door of a small tavern in The Invisible Man’s opening. Lesser films derive their thrills from the wonder of science and the workmanlike look into a man driven to insanity for love. Universal’s famed adaptation skips it all to give audiences what they want.
Griffin is crude to an otherwise polite owner of this snow covered tavern. Una O’Connor is wonderful as a hard working wife, just trying to serve Griffin a meal. If Griffin is driven mad by an experiment he cannot overcome, O’Connor’s Jenny Hall turns maniacal. Few can match her freakishly loud cackle, and without it, the film would never be the same.
Few discuss The Invisible Man without mention of the visual effects, and why would they? Like King Kong, The Lost World, and A Trip to the Moon, the vintage – and simple – effects have achieved a classic status. They are instantly identifiable, and a cloaked, bandaged man is all one needs to know that they are viewing Claude Rains… or a double.
But, to be so singularly focused, despite the technical achievement, is to gloss over everything else Invisible Man is doing right. The sheer sense of terror and panic sweeps the countryside and grips what we assume is an entire nation in fear. Griffin’s run as a madman is often vicious, slamming a stool into a policeman’s head, and derailing a train full of passengers. The miniatures do not lessen the effect.
Comparatively, Invisible Man is not a direct Universal Monster. As marketed, those creatures carry an identifiable trait. They are immediately fearsome, while Griffin has his moments of calm. He works out plans with an assistant, Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), as to how they will kill. His demeanor is unpredictable, and even though he does not don Jack Pierce’s make-up or have the sly look of Bela Lugosi, Griffin exists. Likely, he is behind you. Or next to you. Or maybe he is killing your neighbor. That is more deadly a proposition than a man who turns into a wolf.
This is an expedient film with often surprising editing that skews modern. The finale is cut with numerous points of view, often for little more than a few seconds to sell the scale of an assault on Griffin. It is an editing frenzy that stands out against the often static tone of ’30s cinema, horror or otherwise.
Invisible Man is also quick to establish appropriate disbelief, as if the piece needed yet another stand out feature. Griffin’s development is a shock to the system, and with a small bar involved, people are quick to assume alcohol is in charge. This quirky tone is a James Whale trait if there ever was one, a shifting, often dazzling tone that entertains comedically as often as it thrills. Consider it the under statesmen of Universal Monsters if you will. Such thinking is only allowing Griffin to strike.
Universal’s steady hand crafts a transfer that is slightly uneven if absolutely impeccable at its peak. Generous sharpness renders an image 80-years old as pristine as something done with modern black and white techniques. Definition surrounding environments, interiors, or even the landscapes when used is marvelous.
Zooming in, the bandages that adorn Reins’ invisible face are wonderfully resolved. His first major close-up once into the tavern is a pleasant sight of things to come. Other actors are given the same treatment, with only the traditionally hazy appearance that is so prevalent in ’30s (and later) era films. Invisible Man is unique with its effects work that will introduce a more sharpened image, although a style that is inherent to the source, not due to any meddling.
An AVC encode works overtime to handle a grain structure that has little consistency. What begins as a beautiful layer can quickly turn muddy or overly compressed. There are shots that seem to carry little actual film representation and break down into a mushy mess. Thankfully, those shots are few but no less noticeable. Certainly, the perfection of gray scale helps work through the down moments.
Final concerns? A problem shared elsewhere in this Universal Monsters set, and that appears to be some filtering, often aggressive, then covered with grain to hide it. In close, it is all but impossible to spot, but when the camera is pulled back, faces take on a very identifiable trait that screams digital. Peering through what looks like a film stock should not register so artificial. Either it is aggressive clean-up of damage (none remains visible for certain) or a quizzical choice of the mastering process. Still a looker either way.
Opening with a clear highs and clean lows, the score carries immediate weight. While age is (of course) evident, the DTS-HD mono mix situates itself on the high end of the quality spectrum. Carrying limited static and almost zero distortion, it is hard to call anything out within this audio track.
All of the technological advance has made Rains’ dubbing stick out, if only because it carries a more dominating presence with his voice work. Other actors work does sound a little dry and hollow, above that of competition from other films in this set. While hardly a revolution, the dramatic leap in quality over the (admittedly compressed) score in the bonus features and here is fantastic.
Slim this one is on bonuses, Rudy Behlmer’s commentary being the thickest item here. Now You See Him is a fun 35-minute documentary on the film and the awe-inspiring visual effects. Unforgettable Characters is a Universal 100 bonus, and some posters roll through for 4:30 as a video montage.
Note: This review is based on the UK version of the disc. Contents (video, audio, extras) aside from the menus, are identical to the US release.