Jack Griffin’s monomania with his addiction to injectable monocane leads to the disintegration of his psyche and overwhelming megalomania. James Whale’s brutal film sports the highest body count of any Pre-Code horror film (120+) yet is infused with humor and pathos as Griffin makes sport of his newly acquired powers one moment before becoming a cold blooded killer the next. This dichotomy is absolutely chilling as we see an entire town thrown into chaos by one unseen assailant. Imagine what an army could do?
James Whale and his DP Arthur Edeson capture the “appearance” of our titular character in dramatic form in the first scenes as we see a cloaked man slogging through a snowstorm only to seek refuge in a village tavern The Lion’s Head. The crowd of working class men are laughing, drinking, playing darts and gossiping (the women are in another room) when the door opens to reveal a man wrapped head to foot in stout clothes and bandages and wearing goggles. We get an extreme low-angle medium shot that immediately cuts to close-up. That one cinematic pulse makes our heart stop and all we hear is the wind whistling through the door as the men have been provoked into silence as id f they’ve just seen a ghost. Perhaps they have. As this masked figure is shown to his room he is quick to agitate and become violent, scaring the always hysterical Innkeeper’s wife. When his antics become too much, he is asked to leave which incites him to retributive wrath. As the story progresses, we learn a bit more about Griffin from his former colleague Dr. Kemp (a real turd), his employer Dr. Cranley and his beautiful daughter Flora who is smitten with our protagonist. We learn through them that Jack Griffin wasn’t some maniacal mad scientist but a hard working chemist trying to earn enough money to marry Flora. Its important to note that we never experience Griffin as a good and sympathetic man; we are witness only to his cruelty and deceit. It’s only through others that we learn of his previous personality and disposition. I believe this makes his ending all the more tragic. His discovery with monocane could lead to riches but the side effects are psychologically damaging and he has become monstrous. Unable to “find his way back” Griffin is trapped in his invisibility and chemically altered brain. It’s not until his final breath that the human is revealed in repose.
The special effects are outstanding even when seen today and help add verisimilitude to the story. The matte work and composite printing while not flawless is extraordinary for its time. From the first unraveling of his visage to the pantomime of a ghostly shirt, to the trousers skipping joyously down a county lane while chasing a screaming woman (and singing a rhyme too) to the fade back to solid reality where we see bone and muscle appear before Griffin’s boyish face, the camerawork is pure artistry. Claude Rains only “appears” in the very last shot but he is in character throughout: watch his body language (when swathed in bandages and gloves) and listen to his sinister voice! Great fucking performance.
Finally, trapped in a barn fire on a snowy night he is forced to flee towards the barricade of officers who, seeing his footprints, shoot him dead. While laying in the hospital a doctor says he was shot through both lungs and the end is near. I suppose he could diagnose that by touch but operating would be impossible, obviously. He takes his last breath to reveal, not a deformed freak of nature but a young handsome man. The most terrifying monster of all hides behind its mask, not of bandages and gauze but flesh and bone.
Final Grade: (A)