It’s a mixed bag of emotions watching my four year old play video games. Toss aside any guilt I have for introducing my kid to electronic gaming before kindergarten and it’s still bittersweet. Watching him steadily improve and notice the game’s patterns fills me with pride. But watching him struggle with even the most basic timing or trial of dexterity makes my hands itch.
I have to choose: do I reach over and take control, leading him to a quick, dull, but effective solution? Or do I sit and watch him struggle, hoping he will do something clever that fills me with glee? Like the time he completely encircled a giant spider with TNT blocks on Minecraft, calmly laid a fuse line, then placed and flicked the switch that obliterated both the arachnid and a 1/4 mile of desert biome? Sadistic, remorseless, clever, and meticulous. Ladies, keep an eye on this one.
Then there are the times where I watch him dig merrily straight down until he is stuck miles beneath the earth and wants out. Or the time when he tries in vain to jump onto a ledge only to fall into the lava moat he had to have around his castle. I get convulsions just watching him trying to equip something from his backpack.
Horror movies can invoke that same impatient itch. There will always be the “give them exactly what they’ve paid to see before” movies, recycling and sleepwalking through scripts. See also any movie based around found footage. Other movies are premise-heavy. In a rush to distance themselves from what is perceived to be played out or trendy, writers will agonize over high-concept premises. Too often, the execution is secondary. See also Sharknado.
Once a premise is declared, as the voluntary viewer you have to trust the movie to play out or lash out that it fails to follow any logical progression. Case in point, The Invisible Man. The mere idea of gaining invisibility invokes so many devious acts that both Salt Lake City and the Vatigan have physicists and chemists working around the clock to ensure man never gains that ability. Also, one has holy underwear and one has fabulous pointy hats.
The Invisible Man (IM) looks like it could have been filmed on the same day as the later Bride of Frankenstein. The incomparable James Whale was still at the helm and many of the bit players were the same, down to Una O’Connor the shrill voice if moral panic (also the spirit animal to Marcia Gay Harden in a The Mist). They hadn’t yet switched the sets to the expressionism that graced Son of Frankenstein years later. As for monster duties, Claude Rains tags in as a menacing presence, one with mystery and vulnerability, although the script is keen to point out he is not without blame for his condition.
The movie opens with IM wandering into a bar I’ve spent my entire life trying to find. Everyone looks positively old world. Dirty limericks are told, darts are played, stacks of antiquated casks (oh, the whisky they likely hold!), open flames, an Igor-ish bar wench, and for the proprietors, argyle is all the rage. Back in Scienceville, many miles and several decades away from The Green Dragon (the tavern people, it’s a Tolkien joke… I think it is actually called the Ram’s Head, like the Pentagram song) IM’s colleagues work a crude centrifuge and wear the hell out of some lab jackets.
“He meddled in things men should leave alone.” Whale was famously homosexual and loved to insert wicked humor in his movies to taunt the establishment, and the censors tasked to protect the public. This line was either a wry Wilde moment or a brilliant and prescient summation of every horror movie ever to be made hence.
Fifteen minutes in and we already have an angry misinformed mob mounting the stairs, ready to accost IM, who I have to admit when in his bandages looks like a B+ steampunk cosplayer. I will put my integrity on the line by saying the visual effects of his invisibility are remarkable, especially for 1933. The ingenuity of these old films cannot be forgotten. Much like the fact that in older films Meg Ryan was a sex symbol.
After the first reveal of his invisible self, at which time he tauntingly tosses his Humpty Hump prosthetic nose on the table at the mob (if I learned anything from the Marx Brothers, some befurred dowager nearly fainted upon viewing this scene), the grown men flee the scene like Shaggy and Scooby. To punctuate the chaos, IM enjoys some maniacal laughter that predates The Joker and is truly unnerving. Once safely in the barroom (read: down one flight of stairs), the constable’s testicles drop and he decides he’d better suspend all disbelief and nip this in the bud.
“If he gets the rest of those clothes off we’ll never catch him in a thousand years.” Another zinger flirting with would-be censors? Or just my imagination? This is what I was alluding to earlier: there exists something primal in the Y chromosome that equates being invisible with power, and power with sex. The key to IM’s power over others is not in his brilliance but in his nudity. Once you have to be nude to be empowered, there is little to stand in the way of many fine (and many more disgusting) excursions into depravity.
If most men could be unseen, they’d do the worst, most lewd, immoral acts a person can conceive. Look at the relationship with internet anonymity and porn availability/consumption. Look at digital theft of entertainment media. Look at the disgusting, hate-filled anonymous remarks filling comment sections. If no one is looking, I have a free pass to be a soulless dick. This movie is about a decent and brilliant man who lusted for something unnatural, and gained it, only to spiral towards personifying all things abhorrent. It is a moral lesson of ‘The More You Know’ magnitude. Whale, applying his touch, doesn’t shy from the flight of fancy we all dream of… true anonymous selfish sexual freedom.
The mere veiled mention of nudity giving IM the upper hand is Whale saying “You know, all your moral proselytizing and hiding behind your religious creeds, codes of decency, and so-called societal norms is bullshit. The second you could escape personal scrutiny you too would become a hedonistic force that would rival Robert Evans.” And that is exactly what transpires, in a fit-for-1933 way. IM disrobes, throttles and teases a bunch of men (while nude), chokes a cop (still nude), runs the town streets in broad daylight (flopping nude), steals a bike and rides it (chaffing nude), and vandalizes and assaults his way to freedom. Say it with me, “While nude.”
Not content to call it a day, he travels back to Scienceville and sneaks into the den of former boss (who’s daughter is crushing crazy hard for pre-deprived IM), complains of how cold he is (reminder, my junk is still uncovered, audience), pulls up a chair (mind the leather!), and smokes (one of the best SFX set pieces ever) and discusses how empowered he is while threatening violence. You see, he needs a beard; a tangible minion. He requires a helper that is held completely in check by the threat of future violence and the lack of knowing if or when he is being watched, so much so that the very presence of his captor can be doubted. Years of societal ingraining of Christianity wrote that playbook!
Wearing the gayest robe and pajama combo ever, IM lays out his plan. It was the drugs he took that lit up his mind, freed him from boundaries. More moral panic, as we learned a few scenes ago that the key ingredient to his invisibility drug was “monocaine,” a fictitious agent that apparently rots the brain and drive test animals mad. Drugs are bad. It’s like an early Reefer Madness. IM is Jim Morrison.
AS the movie hurtles to wrap up under 80 minutes, there are some scenes to note: IM’s power over us feebs is real, yet he immediately sees murder as the only tool to achieve his ends. When minion man is repulsed by this notion, IM threatens to disrobe, at which point minion relents. There’s a fear of male nudity, either figuratively or metaphorically. Then Whale swings for the fences. IM sends minion man on a task because it’s simply too cold to do errands in the nude. He even speaks the word. “nude” (sorry recently roused dowager, but out you go again). Once minion man leaves, IM disrobes anyway. Casting off propriety, IM gains true freedom and power. He wants to exert his superiority and noncomformity. It’s telling that true personal freedom and exceptionalism are not seen as righteous but as sinful snares.
You can guess the outcome. Theft, violence, harassment, panic… Cop killing. Body Count was 60 years away and their song had THAT much influence. Maybe Tipper Gore was right. Props to Ice T anyway. Oh, and more robes and pajamas. IM seriously keeps his bandages on for about ten minutes at a time. Why not strip completely nude to sleep? I imagine censors wouldn’t stand for a strip tease, even one with no pay off.
A radio program is interrupted at the town dance. Maybe it was peasant homecoming. “An unknown man by scientific means has made himself invisible…works without clothing…he’s solid but cannot be seen” good gravy, where to start with this announcement?! The townsfolk not brave enough to volunteer to join the police dragnet urgently lock themselves away in fear.
But what bait can they use to strip (heh) IM of his advantage? What will bring him back to the realm of normalcy and vulnerability? The town’s men conspire, but the film decides for them. The white flesh of the virginal Flora. Yes men, nothing sours freedom to pursue your destiny like vagina. By the way, guess what forces the cops to prematurely reveal their terrible plot in the final moments? A white cat. White. Pussy. What sets the final trap? Pure, virginal snow. More celluloid of the robe, some effeminate fawning over Flora (the premise was she was smitten with this hip young gunslinger, but now it was mutual?), he wants to come back but wants to use his terrible discovery to come and go as he pleases. Power is what he wants, but Flora believes the words of her Father which I’ll paraphrase as “blessed are the meek.”
Betrayed by minion man, the line is drawn. A speech about standing among them unnoticed tickles me to no end. IM refuses to hide. Whale himself refused to stay closeted, and openly expressed his homosexuality in increasing amounts as his career progressed. He passes his final judgment on minion man, and jumps his naked ass out of the window. Somewhere, somehow, and somewhy he dons a pair of trousers. Oh, then he scares a woman, skips and gleefully sings “here we go gathering nuts in May…”
The movie ends with a few sour notes. There is one scene where IM has some slapstick fun with police (to lessen the film’s tension I imagine), kills men on the dragnet, derails a train, robs a bank and throws money to passers-by, and returns to Flora in spite of having a very real chance to escape scot free. They are trying to show his detachment and passing into madness, but it is insulting on many levels. There is a sense for what could have been as it wraps up.
While The Invisible Man is not a gay manifesto, it is also not a moral play. Thanks to Whale’s unique flavor it is instead bipolar a popcorn flick… extolling the virtues of casting-off status quo to gain personal liberty, but adhering to the narrative structure of the day. The take-home message was deviation is aberration and good guys always win.
I would have loved to grab the camera and force this movie into making IM an antihero. Showing how society and its artificial limits constrain individual liberty would be fascinating. All the stretches the script makes to characterize IM as obviously evil (the random killings for instance) make it impossible to sympathize. The powerful message he could represent dies when the movie treads the usual path. But this wasn’t art house symbolism. It was Hollywood, trying to thrill and amuse the best it could without song and dance.
However, what remains is a classic. The movie was allowed to play out as it wished and the results were fun. There was pure, unexpected delight in some moments, followed by frustrating paradoxes in others. When faced with the most likely outcome for the premise, it’s better the movie materialized as it did, because 70 minutes of bathroom peeping, rape, and petty theft just don’t make for timeless cinema. I am sure we’ll see that in the Rob Zombie reboot. Where’s my robe?
– @cbcamarillo aka Carl Smith