It cannot be pointed out too many times that many of the things we think of as the peculiar sins of contemporary cinema are in some ways as old as the medium itself. This is never clearer - and never more important to reiterate, since this is perhaps the most peculiar sin of them all - than in the case of the visual effects extravaganza. Ever since the first showmen figured out in the late 1890s that you could use the movies to depict things that could not happen in reality, that's been the surest way to separate an audience from the cash in their pockets. Bemoan CGI and 3-D all you like (I will be inclined to join you, often), they're just the latest iteration of trends that have been there all along.

I bring this up in connection to the 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man, made by Universal Pictures in their first mad rush of making horror movies, because it's rather easy to lose sight of what the thing even is, after so many generations for whom that clip of Claude Rains unwinding a bandage from where his head isn't have transformed the film into a piece of freestanding iconography. To us, snugly ensconced in an eight-decades-later cocoon, that shot is simply part of cultural history, one of the many individual shots from a Universal monster movie to end up serving as a synecdoche for not just its film, but its whole genre. To '33 filmgoers, that was a stunning, never-before-seen triumph of visual effects. The film was a terrific hit - the biggest horror picture since Universal's own Frankenstein, two years earlier, according to at least one measure (but for God's sake, let's not start pretending that there are truly reliable figures pertaining to box office in the 1930s) - and I for one rather suspect that its line of descendants are more along the Star Wars/Avatar branch of cinema history than anything to do with horror. Or with 19th Century literary adaptations, for that matter.

In fact, by our modern standards of what makes for "horror", The Invisible Man is at best a curious, awkward fit, much more so than any other one of the big Universal genre films of the day. We would, I think, be likelier to define it as a sci-fi thriller; but '30s audiences and marketeers alike had no such reservations, apparently. Hewing incomparably closer to Wells than Frankenstein did to Mary Shelley, or Dracula to Bram Stoker, The Invisible Man plunges right into the last stage of a story: on a winter's night a traveler, all in thick bandages and heavy clothes (he's voiced by Claude Rains, and in the absence of contrary evidence, I suppose we can assume he's played by Rains as well), arrives at an inn in Sussex. Peremptorily demanding a room from innkeeper Hall (Forrester Harvey) and his wife (Una O'Connor), the man demands absolute privacy to do God knows what experiments. At any rate, when Mrs. Hall takes his dinner up, we get just the briefest glimpse of the man's face to see that something is definitely not right with his eyes, till now hidden under dark glasses.

Elsewhere in England, we catch up with some people who'll be able to start giving us context: Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart), and his remaining lab assistant Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) are all in a low-grade freakout wondering where Cranley's other assistant, Dr. Jack Griffin, could possibly be. That's enough for us to make the leap of faith that assumes our mysterious bandaged man maybe just maybe is the same Dr. Griffin, and whatever secret experiment with all manner of smoking beakers of bubbling liquids he's up to, it has had the effect of making his entire body invisible. Which freaks out the Halls something awful, along with the other inn guests, and the constabulary there to evict Griffin for failure to pay his bills. The doctor, in unmistakably deranged glee, strips down to nothing and goes racing into the winter, and the movie flat-out dares us not to pause for at least a moment to think about how, '30s movie or not, his dong is just flapping about wildly now.

Aye, Griffin is invisible; and worse still, the invisibility potion he made, with the help of a terribly dangerous bleaching agent called monocaine, is going to drive him psychopathically insane in hardly any time. Cue the race to track him down and stop him, before he ends up concocting a plot to use invisibility to take over at least England, if not the whole world.

As a storytelling object, the thing one tends to most sharply notice about The Invisible Man is its brevity and its narrow scope: the 71-minute running time, in line with Universal's other first-generation horror pictures, leaves not a minute for screwing around. It is, in all ways, concise and efficient: the way we're dropped into the plot well after it has started (nor is there a flashback - the question of why Griffin would decide to make himself invisible hangs gloomily over the movie, refusing to be answered even elliptically for most of it), the way that the film clicks around two groups of characters in just a handful of locations for the vast majority of its running time, the immediacy of the stakes. Sure, Griffin's plan may be world conquest, but in the moment, the conflict is strictly at the level of individuals. It's not unlike a live-action chess game with several people all trying to out-think an intelligent, unhinged, imperceptible foe.

So by all means, let's be sure to give screenwriter R.C. Sheriff (who alone received credit) his due. The Invisible Man is focused and swift, blazing through its bleak-minded story with firm pace and a constant escalation from the mystery of the opening scene onward. But it's not a movie about the writing, for all that. The movie boasted the most potent weapon in Universal's arsenal in those days, in the form of director James Whale; his Frankenstein, thanks in no small part to Arthur Edeson's cinematography and Charles D. Hall's art direction (both men returned for The Invisible Man), rather literally invented the Universal house style (after its superlative opening sequence, the stagey, overlit Dracula certainly didn't), and the horror-comedy The Old Dark House, from 1932, quite continued the men's dominance at the top of the emerging genre. The Invisible Man is blessed with some greatly terrific visual moments, despite having none of Frankenstein's oozing Gothic atmosphere. The right angle and the right shadow splayed across a cozy English interior, it turns out, is still enough to fill with the whole movie with a jolt of dread: the introduction of Griffin's inhuman bandaged face at the very start, and a later shot of Mrs. Hall clambering up the stairs and right into an Expressionist nightmare of slicing lines and angles, are surprisingly pure horror for a film which is never particular pure anything. And familiarity has blunted the first reveal of Griffin's condition, but taken on its own terms, it is tremendously good, right from the moment we see the empty holes where his eye sockets ought to be, giving his bandages the freakish appearance of a cloth skull, and all the way to the confusing blankness where his head is meant to be, while he laughs giddily. The seams show, but only to a very minor degree; most visual effects showcases have begun showing their age within a few years, and after three-quarters of a century are nothing but museum pieces, but the invisibility effects in The Invisible Man are still naggingly convincing.

Generally, the less focused on horror (or at least uncanny sci-fi), the more disengaged Whale is; in particular, he must have had a real problem with Stuart, given all of the awful, unflattering close-ups he forces her into. Edeson's cinematography is always pretty, but that doesn't keep much of the film from being quite sedate; it comes alive only during the scenes with Griffin, which fortunately do predominate. And such scenes! Working with nothing but his voice and arm gestures, Rains turned into a major star with this, his first American role (One shot! One shot of his face, in a star-making turn. Not bad at all), and with good reason. His Griffin is a horror villain right on par with the best of that generation, filling his voice with meanness and angry spite, driving the film with menacing energy even when we can't see him at all, and the mixing leaves his post-dubbed voice sitting flatly atop the rest of the soundtrack. It's a greatly atypical Rains performance, cruel and bitter and insulting, with none of the debonair grace that even his nastiest villains would boast in later years. And that's part of what makes it so damn effective even without novelty on its side.

Of course, part of it as well is that Whale and company have so carefully trained the camera on Rains or the specific absence thereof, making him dominate the movie; that, and the low key atmosphere of inhumane rot - this is a rougher, even more nihilistic film than Universal had released. Without any overt horror elements, the filmmakers and leading man bring to bear the gloomy, moody sensibility of horror in that period, transforming a quickie literary drama into a haunting meditation on the abyssal cruelty a single man can achieve, when the goodness has been burned out of him. Rains might be the whole show, sure - Whale undercuts most of the other actors, and lets O'Connor give a truly draining "wacky screaming moron" performance - but he doesn't put a single foot wrong, and he capitalises completely on the insidious tone of the film, slowly replacing domestic simplicity with a threatening aura. It's as sleek and focused as anything in Universal's output of the '30s, which doesn't necessarily work as an unmixed compliment (a dithering lack of focus helps Whale's Bride of Frankenstein reach its highest heights, after all), but it's a boon here, and the film fully earns its status as a foundational work of Universal horror.

Reviews in this series
The Invisible Man (Whale, 1933)
The Invisible Man Returns (May, 1940)
The Invisible Woman (Sutherland, 1940)
Invisible Agent (Marin, 1942)
The Invisible Man's Revenge (Beebe, 1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (Lamont, 1951)