Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine.
Would you rather have the power of flight, or the power of invisibility? That’s the classic superhero question, and it should be pretty simple to answer. Flight puts you in the company of innumerable superheroes, while invisibility puts you in with a smaller, somewhat dodgier crowd. Let’s face it: the power fantasy of becoming invisible is inherently creepy and weird. Invisible characters are often cast as thieves, spies, or other roles built around subterfuge. Some go a step further and act like monsters. And in The Invisible Man, Claude Rains does it with unnerving glee.
Rains’ Invisible Man, seen (or rather, not seen) in James Whale’s eponymous 1933 film, is the most iconic of all the Invisible Men in cinema. Dr. Jack Griffin is a classic mad scientist, testing an invisibility serum on himself with little regard for science or personal wellbeing. H.G. Wells’ original Invisible Man was mad from the outset, while Rains’ invisibility serum makes him so, but the end result is the same: an invisible dude lurching unpredictably between “ain’t-I-a-stinker” pranks and world domination.
Rains, whose screentime-to-billing ratio in The Invisible Man puts Robert Downey Jr to shame, faced with a difficult acting task. He’d have to play the central character in the film, with his face entirely covered for nearly its entirety, relying only on physicality and (dubbed) dialogue to convey emotion. While a double was used in some scenes, Rains is behind the bandages for the majority of the film, and he’s delightfully camp from frame one. All he wants is peace and quiet – and his temper flares spectacularly when anyone interferes with his experiments. Speaking with gravelly, scowling anger, he quickly makes enemies of most people around him – less through his invisibility than through being kind of a dick. In this movie, an angry mob forms in less than ten minutes.
Once he’s been rumbled by the authorities, Griffin’s fun truly begins. Initially, he’s merely sneaky and mischievous, every bit the prankster countless YouTubers wish they could be. As he “unmasks” himself, he cackles like a lunatic and taunts the cops who stumble after him. On the run, he causes havoc solely for laughs – tipping over people’s drinks, stealing their hats, hijacking their bicycles, and so on. The best part: while he’s pranking and cracking wise, he’s technically doing it all stark naked.
From there, Griffin’s plans escalate from mostly-harmless tricksterism to all-out global domination of his visible opponents. Adolf Hitler was in the final stages of his journey to dictatorship in 1933, and there’s a lot of his pompous and self-aggrandising oratory style in Rains’ performance. Griffin claims he’ll “sweep the world with invisible armies”; declares “an invisible man can rule the world…he can rob, wreck, and kill!”; predicts the world will “grovel at [his] feet.” All of this is delivered with much shouting and fist-shaking, but the key to Rains’ performance is the relish with which he delivers his proclamations. He’s coy and jokesy about his impending reign of terror, bragging it will start with “a few murders here and there.” Luckily for most (but not all) characters, though, Griffin’s all talk – a forceful and deranged speaker, perhaps, but still just one invisible man against a whole visible world.
In today’s context, Rains’ performance plays as campy and exaggerated, but it’s important not to forget that his Invisible Man helped codify the moustache-twirling villain trope in the first place (even if said moustache would be invisible anyway). Griffin literally screams “I’ll show them!,” playing it to the nosebleed section with gusto, exuding a sentiment so pure in vengeance that it persists (albeit comically) to this day. Whale’s Universal monster pictures are all like this to some degree, depicting scientists so drunk on their own power that they blossom into grandiose posturing. Dr. Griffin’s “I’ll show them” is akin to Dr. Frankenstein’s “it’s alive”: a hacky old-school reference now, but one that was obviously new at some point. That level of camp is missing from most horror movies today; in recent mainstream memory, only the It films toe the line between grim and silly as well as The Invisible Man did.
Curiously, Rains’ take on the Invisible Man isn’t really echoed in other screen adaptations, which tended toward more straightforward comedy or drama. Vincent Price’s protagonist in 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns was not, in fact, a return of the original Invisible Man, but a new, decidedly Pricelike figure. Returns and various other official sequels did however contain relatives of Griffin, engaging in larks from fighting the Nazis to hanging out with Abbott and Costello, as was the custom at the time. They ranged from murderous psychopaths to hapless innocents, but none quite captured Rains’ unique camp charm.
More liberal adaptations of the character strayed even further. Chevy Chase plays a pretty upstanding invisible fugitive trying to live an ordinary life in Memoirs of an Invisible Man. By the end of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, Kevin Bacon’s invisible man becomes a complete monster, murdering people and dogs and raping his neighbour, all with the indiscriminate rage of a man invisibly scorned. Whale’s humour would have been out of place in that film, despite Verhoeven’s prior dips into camp comedy; a giggling rapist would be an even more alienating protagonist than a silent one.
Most movie villains are depicted as grim, determined, and deadly serious about their big plans for conquest. The Invisible Man is such a monster too, but Rains takes joy in portraying his monstrosity that few other villain actors ever do. Even when he straight-up murders people he does it with glee; he’s the very picture of the classic horror villain, calling everyone “fools” he needs to “teach a lesson.” One minute, he’s singing nursery rhymes while pulling pranks on people; the next, he’s committing mass murder. And of course, it’s even funnier when imagining him doing it naked.
In spite of the existence of Leigh Whannell’s terrifying and disturbing take on the character, Claude Rains’ Invisible Man is proof positive that the power of invisibility is the realm of the annoying, creepy dickhead. Dr. Griffin is a bad guy who could only exist in movies, but his revelry transcends the gravity of his behaviour. Despite our better judgement, it’s hard not to get swept up in it.