To be sure, 1933’s The Invisible Man is recognized as a classic. Record-breaking at the time, what today we would consider a blockbuster. And technically the film is brilliant. The director, James Whale, does a fantastic job with the groundbreaking effects and giving us the impression of a presence in a room with just a camera move and a disembodied voice. And the portrayal by Claude Raines of the title character is exceptional, even when he is not actually on screen or his completely covered.
The film playfully switches back and forth from light comedy to suspense, which for the most part works well and at times can be brilliant. It works well, for instance, when a radio broadcast is given on the danger of an Invisible Man there is a frantic montage of frightened people locking and bolting doors only to cut to Claude Raines peacefully asleep in his bed. It doesn’t work well when, in my opinion, Una O’Connor is on screen. I know that many find her performance delightful but I find her to be borderline pantomime and just silly.
So what has made this particular character of the Invisible Man resonate and remembered? I think it is the psychological aspect of invisibility and the vicious ends to which the character uses it. He is in essence an unseen serial killer. An amoral and brutal killer that could be in the same room with you, follow you down the street; unknown and unseen till the time of attack. This is what makes it scary. The fact that we can imagine ourselves with the same ability makes it horrific.
Now the film goes to great pains to hammer home the fact that the main character is insane. That there is no way that a ‘normal’ human would do the things he does when invisible. But this obscures the real ‘horror’ of the film. Invisibility is after all a wish fulfillment.
When asked what super power one would like to have, invisibility always ranks in the top five. And the odd thing is the reasons given for this are usually less than honorable. To be able to walk into a bank and simply take what you want, or to listen in to what others are saying about you are two that are often listed. And of course the ability to slip unnoticed into the girls shower, a particular favorite of adolescent boys. These things are not horrific, petty theft and voyeurism are not considered evil – morally grey but not evil. But given unrestricted access to such power could a person succumb to the temptation of greater crimes? What would you do if you could be invisible? What would you be capable of doing? And that’s what the film asks.
No, I’m not saying that most people would run off on a non-visible killing spree. But the thing about the Invisible Man that is quite different from any of the other classic monsters is you can picture yourself in that role. Sure, you can empathize with the others, but with this monster you can imagine having that power. And it makes you question yourself. Can you say for certainty that you would behave morally? That you would always do the right thing?
Now, that’s what is really scary.