Brilliant scientist Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) renders himself invisible by means of a serum that took him years to perfect, with the unexpected side-effect of the concoction warping his mind and turning him into a vicious, psychotic megalomaniac. His rampage begins small by terrorizing the staff and regulars at a rustic inn, but he soon moves on to murdering a policeman, pitching innocent men off of a cliff, stealing money from a bank and throwing it to passersby in the street and, most horrifying, causing a train derailment that kills over a hundred people.
The bandages come off. Though there's obviously nothing to see, it's nonetheless exceedingly disturbing.
Clearly out of his goddamned mind, Griffin's evil deeds, though quite murderous, come off more as the work of a mischievous asshole rather than the would-be world-conquering terror that he sees himself as, and that's what makes him indelible as a classic Universal monster. While there is some grain of sympathy to be had for the fact that he unwittingly drove himself barking mad, that compassion is exhausted as we witness his tapestry of abusiveness and willy-nilly homicide. To some degree, audiences empathized with Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the wolf Man, but not Griffin. He's just too much of an amoral bastard.
The classic image of the man who cannot be perceived. A smoking jacket while invisible is my idea of the very definition of style.
Masterfully helmed by James Whale and infused with a playful liveliness of pacing that had thus far not been seen in the Universal shockers, THE INVISIBLE MAN often surprises first-time viewers with its sometimes uneasy fusion of jet-black horror and a very British sense of humor that veers into the broad and silly. James Whale reportedly had a wicked and very camp sense of humor, and that aspect is in full effect throughout this film. Claude Rains is also a delight as the bullmoose crazy Griffin and he wastes no opportunity to devour the scenery like it was the finest of caviar. But that is not to say that his performance is a banquet of prime ham; Rains indeed has a field day with Griffin's over-the-top histrionics, but it's all appropriate for the character during his many moments of ranting, and is balanced quite nicely during the rare instances when he speaks with a calm civility that almost belies his lunacy.
Often overlooked by fans of old school horror because Griffin is not a "monster" per se, THE INVISIBLE MAN absolutely deserves to be experienced by all who enjoy the unique flavor of the early Universal horror flicks. It's a masterpiece of the blackest comedy and even features a few "Oh, SHIT!!!" moments when Griffin really gets going. An underrated treasure.
Poster from the original theatrical release.