Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Invisible Man: Classic Monster Collection (1933)
Studio Line: Universal Studios

Claude Rains delivers a remarkable performance in his screen debut as a mysterious doctor who discovers a serum that makes him invisible. Covered by bandages and dark glasses, Rains arrives at a small English village and attempts to hide his amazing discovery. But the same drug which renders him invisible slowly drives him to commit acts of unspeakable terror. Based on H.G. Wells' classic novel and directed by the master of macabre James Whale, The Invisible Man not only fueled a host of sequels but features some special effects that are still imitated today.

Director: James Whale
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O'Connor, Forrester Harvey
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated NR; 71 min.; $29.98; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer; Production Photographs; Cast and Filmmakers; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - H. G. Wells

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/D+/B

One thing I like about DVDs is that they grant me the ability to check out films I never saw and in some of the best circumstances. I'd never cared much about the "Universal Monsters" movies like Dracula and Frankenstein, but the DVDs sounded good so I gave them a shot. To my surprise, I really enjoyed them, and I've now decided to pursue all of the subsequent releases from this series.

First up for my in the newest batch is 1933's The Invisible Man, a film I looked forward to for no other reason than the director. TIM was made by James Whale, the same gent who helmed Frankenstein and its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein. Both were excellent - possibly the best two films of the initial six (counting the terrific Spanish version of Dracula) - so I had high hopes for TIM as well.

While I don't think TIM belongs in the same category as Whale's other works, I found it to offer a fun and compelling experience nonetheless. Unlike modern similar pieces like Paul Verhoeven's lousy Hollow Man, TIM doesn't concern itself with the science of the machinery of the invisibility experience. Instead, our lead Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) starts the picture in a transformed state; it's only as the movie progresses that we find out what happened to him and see how the character develops.

Personally, I never really got the idea of an invisible man as a horror role. I mean, what's so scary about some dude you can't see? It's just an ordinary guy we who remains unseen by us. I'd think the main advantage to invisibility would be the ability to check out naked babes whenever wanted.

TIM expands on the threat provided by an invisible man and makes the menace clear and fairly scary. Much of the effect comes from the performance by Rains. For obvious reasons, his role is very vocally-oriented, and Rains' voice does wonders with the part. He successfully walks the line between serious drama and camp without ever crossing over to the spoofy side of the street and the result is an absolutely terrific performance that does much to make the film work. Rains is over the top, but wonderfully so.

Surprisingly, the movie's other star - the special effects - hold up pretty nicely. While the flaws are clear and the techniques well-known, I still thought the trick shots were relatively convincing. Yes, they look pretty bad to modern eyes, but I think I modify my disbelief for older movies, so I can see how amazing these effects must have appeared in 1933.

The Invisible Man lacks the depth to live up to Whale's other horror films. We get the sense that our villain was made, not born, but we don't find a whole lot of detail in this domain, as most of the story just has fun with the menace involved. Whale mixes his usual combination of chills and humor; funny material appears in the middle of spooky scenes, but not to deleterious effect, as the jokes make the whole package work better. Although TIM is a modest hit, it's a strong piece nonetheless.

The DVD:

The Invisible Man appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Time has not been kind to this movie; although it remains watchable, the film presents a very flawed image.

Sharpness is one of the most positive aspects of the DVD. Although it tends to appear somewhat soft at times, the majority of the movie looks fairly accurate and well-defined; I won't say it ever seems "razor-sharp", but it's acceptably clear. Moiré effects and jagged edges seem absent.

Black levels seemed fairly deep and solid, but they appeared a bit too heavy for the most part; it could be difficult to make out any nuances in dark clothing or similarly-toned objects. Shadow detail was also slightly murky, which resulted in some low-light scenes that came across as overly heavy.

Print flaws cause the greatest level of concerns throughout the film. White speckles are virtually always present, and a variety of other problems appear as well; I detected frequent examples of scratches, grain, and lines that run through the image, plus a few pieces of debris like hair and grit. Tears pop up a few times as well. Ultimately, The Invisible Man doesn't look terrible for its age, but it does leave a lot to be desired.

The same goes for the film's monaural audio. Although some dialogue seemed fairly clear and articulate, speech usually appeared pretty harsh and brittle, and I occasionally had trouble understanding what the actors said. The many thick accents heard in the movie didn't help, but the shrill tone of the dialogue exacerbated the situation. Effects were dull and thin, and lacked much sense of realism.

Music was used infrequently - scores were just beginning to emerge as a cinematic factor during the era - and the tunes actually sounded reasonably clean and crisp; the music offered no dynamic range, but it didn't seem distorted or rough, at least. One relative positive stems from the minor background noise heard on the track; I expected to hear more interference, but the pops and clicks remain pretty insignificant. While I don't expect a lot from a nearly-70-year-old soundtrack, the quality of The Invisible Man appeared disappointing nonetheless; the movie often sounded distorted and edgy.

Part of the reason I've become so fond of these Universal Collector's Editions comes from the lovely supplements included with them. First we get an excellent audio commentary from film historian Rudy Behlmer, who also did the terrific track for Frankenstein. He leaves almost no stone unturned as he details the genesis of the original H.G. Wells

We also get a fine documentary about the film. Hosted by Behlmer, "Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed", this 35-minute and 10-second program provides a tight and compelling examination of the movie. It repeats some information heard in Behlmer's commentary but adds to it nicely through a mix of interviews with the usual complement of film historians plus some folks like Rains' daughter Jessica, Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen, and others. The program expands on the usual information about the film itself with details of Whale's post-TIM career and later TIM sequels. It's yet another fine show. One disappointment: the lack of participation from actress Gloria Stuart. It's so rare for any lead participants in these old movies to still be alive that it's unfortunate when they don't appear in these programs. Even without Stuart, however, it's a solid piece.

A few other supplements round out the DVD. We get "Production Photographs" presented as a running piece. Normally this conglomeration of posters, lobby cards and shots from the set would appear as still frames, but in this case, the entire program runs as a video. It pans in and out from different images, and all of it is accompanied by the film's score. I like this presentation; it may ultimately be a little more awkward than the usual frame-by-frame access, but it shouldn't be a problem since one can easily fast-forward through the show. I think the addition of the audio makes it a more dynamic and involving process. The total running time goes for about four minutes and 25 seconds minutes.

"Production Notes" provides a few screens of decent text about the book and the film. The documentary and the commentary render these statements redundant, but they offer a nice little recap of events. "Cast and Filmmakers" includes modest biographies of five actors plus Whale, while "Recommendations" informs us of the existence of the other seven DVDs in the "Classic Monster Collection". (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein could fall into this category, but instead it's placed under "Comedy Legends".)

Although The Invisible Man isn't a great horror film, it's a very fun and clever one that works well almost seven decades after its original release. The DVD offers fairly weak picture and sound which seem disappointing but are fairly typical for the era. The package benefits from some excellent extras, however, and it ultimately would make a fine purchase for any fan of classic scary movies.

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