Winter Film Advisory: The Invisible Man (1933)

We had our first legitimate snowfall of the season in New Jersey this weekend and it got me thinking about my favorite snowy films. Without a doubt in my mind, my favorite black and white film connected to snow is The Invisible Man

With perhaps the exception of The Mummy (though his image lives on stronger), no Universal Monster series goes as ignored as The Invisible Man. Plans pop up every so often to remake it with every major advance in film making technology, yet nothing has come of it yet. I'm not surprised. 

The Invisible Man is easily more challenging than most of the studio horror of the period. For one thing, the menace can't be seen when he's causing trouble. The effects representing this are still stunning today. From simple moments of a match being struck by itself to stranger emerging footprints in the snow, the practical effects have given me nightmares in the past. 

Even stranger is the reliance on dialog. The Invisible Man is a very talk-heavy film. It has to be. H.G. Wells's source novel was, too. Since The Invisible Man cannot be seen without his full body covering, he has to engage other characters to establish something isn't right. When he's not on screen, everyone else is talking about him. The film doesn't use action for storytelling until the last few minutes when the titular villain has run a muck. This is an effective decision, lending a strong sense of understanding to the circumstances of the film and an emotional investment into what happens.

This does not even account for The Invisible Man being one of the first successful horror/comedy films. The final action sequence is filled with slapstick standards - bikes riding away from their owners, cars careening off edges, people suddenly falling, objects flying into people - given a menacing twist from the knowledge that The Invisible Man is responsible for it all. What was achieved through masterful editing and fabric manipulation still stands up today. I laugh at all the gags without losing the sense of dread connected to the horror unfolding.

It would be shortsighted of me not to mention the talented crew behind the film. Claude Rains is breathtaking as The Invisible Man, slipping between intelligent charm and maniacal ramblings with only the power of his voice. Since his face is covered the whole film, and his body subject to the whims of the effects and costuming departments, everything comes from his voice work. It's flawless, especially the laugh when he finally snaps.

Director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Man in the Iron Mask) manages the rest of the cast and effects with aplomb. There is a light directorial touch to his output in that he relies heavily on his actors to sell the story with everything they have. It works especially well here (and in the Bride sequence of Bride of Frankenstein - haunting) in a production that could easily have turned into nothing but a showcase for special effects.

And then there's the effects team. Editor Ted J. Kent had to pull together all the different layered frames to unleash The Invisible Man. Art Director Charles D. Hall had to make sure everything looked great on film and didn't interfere with the fabric manipulation for the invisible effects; Props Master Wally Kirkpatrick had to do the same with even smaller objects, like pipes and gloves. John P Fulton, John D. Mescall, and Frank D. Williams are the men responsible for the effects in the film. They are the ones who figured out how to use black velvet on black velvet to make Claude Rains disappear as well as all the wire manipulation and body casts for the rest of the effects.

So how is this a great winter film? The Invisible Man arrives in a snowstorm. The film is surrounded by snow. The action-packed climax is filmed on the snowy streets to fully take advantage of all the possible invisible antics. Shy of setting it after a rain storm (hence, mud everywhere), The Invisible Man had to take advantage of a corrupted winter wonderland to achieve its scares and artistry. It's perfect late-night viewing during a powerful snowstorm to remind you how much worse it could be. Snow can be a bother, but at least you can see what's coming at you.