I missed Sunday Movie Night last week, so I did a double feature tonight: back to the black and white era for two classic monster movies in which the monsters are people.
The Invisible Man
This is of course the Claude Rains version from the 30s, directed by James Whale (who also directed Frankenstein). It starts abruptly and more frighteningly than I expected; Rains looks really creepy in the surgical bandages and goggles, stalking into an inn and demanding a room. He looks even creepier later when he finally takes them off; without his false nose and goggles he looks like a skull. The invisibility effects — both his absent limbs and all the action with objects flying about apparently by themselves — are actually pretty good and almost all of them work at least as well as they have to.
I didn’t know anything about the plot coming in, and I was surprised at how villainous Jack Griffin (the title character) gets, and how quickly. Supposedly the key chemical in his formula has psychosis-inducing side-effects, but the way he talks about the power of an invisible man to spy, steal, kill, and hold the world to ransom is quite rational, just sociopathic in the extreme. I wasn’t sure I bought that the other lab assistant, a pretty burly fellow who had no hesitation in moving in on Griffin’s girl as soon as he disappeared, would be such a coward when confronted by the invisible Rains (who’s not that big a guy, or doesn’t look it on screen, even when you can see him). But every supervillain needs a henchman. It’s strange to think that this film predated the first appearance of the Joker (another villain created, mind and body, by a bleaching chemical) by only seven years. I also found myself thinking of Fantomas, who predates this film but came after the H.G. Wells novel, but the various schemes the police come up with to catch Griffin reminded me of nothing so much as the elaborate set pieces in the Nolan Batman films.
I love that so much thought went into how to detect and snare the invisible man — perhaps it comes straight from the novel, but it’s here too, the discussion of how he can’t go out after he’s eaten because the food is visible in his stomach until he’s digested it. Then there are all the weather conditions that will expose him, like rain, snow, and even smog. This isn’t a concept that originally held a lot of interest for me, but after seeing the film, I’m fascinated. I’m not sure I can give a higher recommendation than that.
The Wolf Man
Maybe it was the pizza I’d eaten during The Invisible Man, or maybe it was the cats sleeping on me while I tried to sit through this second feature, but I kept nearly dozing off. I haven’t watched too many werewolf movies, but I always imagined they were largely about the “money shots”: the transformation from man to wolf, the killings, the eventual silver bullet to the heart. Perhaps that’s what the others are like, perhaps not, but in this one it seems to be largely about inner conflict, the duality of good and evil within every man (person? I don’t remember how specific they get about gender). We never see Chaney transform into a wolfman, except for a dissolve shot where his legs get hairier and turn into paws, and we only see him transform back once, when he’s dead (just like the Invisible Man, actually).
The story just seems a little fuzzy to me. Presumably we’re supposed to read the werewolf transformations as Larry Talbot succumbing to the evil side of his nature, but apart from a really creepy stalkerish sequence where he checks out a girl in her bedroom with a telescope (by accident, but still) and then goes to flirt with her in the shop where she works, it’s not clear what that side of him is all about. The first person he kills is apparently the patient zero wolf, played by Bela Lugosi, and from what we see Talbot actually thinks he’s killing a wolf who has attacked and killed a girl. He then sustains a bite from the wolf, but the next morning he’s healed. Are we supposed to wonder if what “really” happened was that Bela was there helping save the girl and Talbot hit him instead? Or that Talbot actually killed them both? Because if we take it at face value, and believe what both Talbot and the old gypsy woman believe — that Bela was a werewolf and what we saw was true — is that really an evil act, to try to save a girl from a wolf?
And then there’s Talbot’s first and only real murder, where he goes out as a wolfman (why is he a wolfman while Bela was full wolf? and while we’re on the subject, why does he wolf out while wearing a tanktop but next appear in a workshirt buttoned all the way to the top? are wolfman hands that dextrous, and wolfman fashion that modest?) and kills…not his romantic rival, the gamekeeper, and not the detective trying to solve Bela’s murder, but a gravedigger he’s never met. Does this mean he’s got a taste for blood and has become a sort of remorseful, self-conscious serial killer, picking off anyone he runs into? Wouldn’t it have supported the theme a lot better for him to kill someone a person’s dark side might actually have targeted?
I dunno. Well, Chaney’s pretty good in this, appearing genuinely tormented in a (non melo-)dramatic way, even though it’s impossible to believe the much shorter and looking-nothing-like-him Claude Rains is his dad. I like the misty forest sets, too, and there are a few really gripping moments, like the one where Talbot can’t bring himself to step into the aisle of the church, and pretty much any scene involving father and son. Overall, I wasn’t in love with it, but it’ll stick with me a lot longer than the film I was expecting would have.
And I’m sure this memorable catchphrase was on everyone’s lips in 1941: “Take a note, Twiddle!”