Directed by James Whale, who made history with Mae Clarke and Karloff two years before with Universal's Frankenstein, The Invisible Man was Claude Rains' first American film appearance. For my money, his turn as an obscure chemist become a deranged freak of science gone awry gives us the most charismatic screen villain of all time. His maniacal rants, explosive rage and giddy, giggly homicidal sprees foreshadow later iconic villains like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and Jack Nicholson's and Heath Ledger's Jokers. That would be enough to earn Rains a place of honor in the annals of cinematic horror. But I think that, in a way, his performance surmounts what later actors accomplished. This is largely due to the fact that he gets it all across with only his voice and a pair of pajamas.
Rains is Jack Griffin, an unknown laboratory researcher whose dreams of scientific prestige lapse into megalomania as the chemical formula responsible for his invisibility -- his intended legacy -- slowly corrupts his mind. Dangerously unhinged and desperate for an antidote, Rains radiates sinister intensity, alternating between delusional speeches about ruling the world with invisible armies and hysterical mirth as he cavorts in the nude, running amok, compulsively destroying property and wasting innocents left and right in a slapdash reign of terror. Rains treads a razor-thin line with stupefying nonchalance. He's funny but really quite disturbing.
Of course I wasn't there in 1933 to join everyone in seeing it for the first time (oh for another of H.G. Wells' fantastic devices, a time machine!), but 80 years of changing trends and conventions somehow take nothing away from the film's eerie energy. Even through my crass Netflix looking glass and foggy flu goggles, Rains is mesmerizing and his performance feels fresh and surprising. And it bears repeating: his portrayal would likely have the same impact in a radio format. We only see Rains' face in the film's tragic final frame. Virtually everything remarkable that he brings to the film he accomplishes with his voice. It's hard to overstate what that says about his sheer magnetism. You can't take your eyes off him. And it's hard not to find yourself secretly rooting for him. Maybe that's just me.
Here's a highlight reel. But if you like nice things, don't spoil the high points and just watch the whole thing instead:
Fun fact: In the film, Griffins' former mentor, a respected chemist and father of The Invisible Man's perpetually hysterical love interest, is played by Henry Travers, the avuncular, earthbound angel in Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life. But enough about Christmas.