H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man was published in 1897, giving sci-fi one of its most intriguing and enduring characters. Thankfully, that Dark Universe version with Johnny Depp never came to fruition, but the latest adaptation—starring Elisabeth Moss as a woman tormented by her invisible ex—is out February 28.
With that in mind, there’s no better time to round up the eight most memorable big-screen Invisible Man iterations so far, be they faithful to Wells or otherwise.
In between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale ventured into the realm of a totally different Universal Monster, creating the classic movie version of The Invisible Man. It stars Claude Rains (and his deliciously evil cackle) as Dr. Jack Griffin, the scientist who turns his body invisible then loses his mind as a side effect. Griffin is a murderous menace whose crimes include killing his best friend and derailing a passenger train, but for all its darkness, The Invisible Man also manages to strike the perfect mood: abject terror injected with a bit of “being invisible is actually fun as hell” excitement.
The scene where Griffin bursts out of the inn where he’s been hiding and scampers through the town causing chaotic mayhem is as funny as it is unsettling. And considering it came out in 1933, the special effects—which include mechanical cheats like a bicycle that seems to propel itself, to camera trickery, as in the iconic scene where Griffin unwinds the bandages from his face to reveal nothing underneath—are actually quite impressive.
Very early in his career, future genre icon Vincent Price made his first horror-movie appearance as Geoffrey Radcliffe, a man wrongfully convicted of murdering his brother who’s able to escape execution with the help of his best buddy, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), brother of the late Dr. Jack Griffin. And when we say “appearance,” that translates to scant moments of screen time at the very end, though Price’s voice—not yet as distinctively stylized as it would be later in his career—is present throughout, as Radcliffe races around dodging Scotland Yard and trying to clear his name before the invisibility serum’s well-known violent side effects take hold.
With that ticking clock propelling the plot, The Invisible Man Returns is more crime drama with a side of fantasy than full-on horror. Rather than derailing a train, Radcliffe does stuff like pretend to be a ghost, flapping a handkerchief around and taunting a terrified former co-worker into confessing his role in Radcliffe’s brother’s death. By the time the (incredibly obvious) real killer is unmasked, Radcliffe has started to fly off the rails, but fortunately, Griffin has been tinkering on the cure that his infamous brother failed to perfect before his own demise. The Invisible Man Returns is a surprisingly solid sequel, and it was so well-received the series soon became its own mini-franchise.
Despite Google’s best efforts, Universal’s The Invisible Woman is not to be confused with the 2013 film in which Felicity Jones plays the much younger lover of Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Dickens. (Fun fact: There’s also an Invisible Woman made-for-TV movie, circa 1983, co-starring Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island and a mischievous chimpanzee.) This older version of The Invisible Woman has circled back into pop-cultural notice thanks to the recently announced Elizabeth Banks film of the same name, though we don’t yet know if that’ll be a remake or have any connection beyond being under the ever-growing Universal Monsters umbrella.
Like The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman is hardly a horror film; it’s much more of a screwball comedy, telling the story of a shapely model (Virginia Bruce) who turns invisible—this time with the use of a special device—invented by an aging professor played by John Barrymore. Later, after reappearing and disappearing again, she helps keep the device out of the hands of some bumbling gangsters who’re hoping to use it for nefarious purposes. It’s lightweight fun, but it also demonstrates how tonally versatile the plot gimmick of turning a character invisible really can be.
The screenwriter of The Invisible Man Returns, Curt Siodmak (he also wrote The Wolf Man and co-wrote I Walked With a Zombie), penned this spin-off that focuses on Frank Raymond (Jon Hall)—the Invisible Man’s grandson, which means that at some point, yes, the Invisible Man fucked.
Frank’s living in New York, minding his own business, when he’s accosted by a quartet of Axis agents (Peter Lorre, regrettably, plays the Japanese agent) who’re keen to snag the formula to you-know-which fabled serum. Instead, patriotic Frank makes himself invisible and becomes America’s most uniquely valuable spy, skulking around Nazi Germany and stirring up intrigue, confusion, hijinks, and eventually romance when he meets a comely double agent. Obviously, an invisible person would make for the perfect spy, considering that eavesdropping and creeping around come with the territory—so in many ways, Invisible Agent, which was released in the middle of World War II, feels like a timely and logical extension of the character.
Less compelling: 1944's The Invisible Man’s Revenge, also starring Jon Hall, though he plays a totally different character. This time, he’s a maniac, recently escaped from a psychiatric hospital, who’s obsessed with exacting payback against the well-heeled family that left him for dead while they were on an African safari together. Truly, there’s already too much plot going on even before the guy manages to become invisible.
The veteran comedy duo scored a huge hit with 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which co-starred Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man (with a quick cameo by Vincent Price’s voice as the Invisible Man), and paved the way for several more films with Universal’s gallery of monsters. Much like The Invisible Woman, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man doesn’t ever try to be scary. The movie is actually more of a sports comedy, oddly enough, with Lou and Bud—freshly graduated from detective school—going undercover to help Tommy (Arthur Franz), a champion boxer who’s been framed for murder, kinda sorta just like the main character in Invisible Man Returns.
The scheme to expose the real killer requires Lou to pose as a fighter, and he proves amazing in the ring—though all his punches are actually being landed by the accused, who’s hiding in plain sight thanks to an invisibility potion ostensibly obtained from the files of O.G. Invisible Man Dr. Jack Griffin. The logistics required to keep this charade afloat get appropriately ridiculous, and while there’s a certain amount of concern that Tommy will go mad like Griffin did, physical comedy—including a climactic gangsters vs. goofballs vs. disembodied weapons fight in the gym locker room—obviously wins the day instead.
This nutty anthology film is all over the place, but there’s a genius sketch starring Ed Begley Jr. as the Invisible Man’s son, who genuinely believes he’s duplicated his father’s experiment. Truth is, he’s only duplicated part of it—specifically, the losing-your-mind side effect. Otherwise, he’s an obliviously naked guy running around giggling about how awesome it is to be invisible, pranking exasperated bar patrons who are just trying to play darts. In just four black-and-white minutes, the segment offers the perfect spoof of pretty much every movie on this list.
John Carpenter is a cinematic genius, but Memoirs of an Invisible Man (which is not based on H.G. Wells’ work, but a different novel by H.F. Saint) is probably his worst movie, which hasn’t prevented it from earning minor cult status. It contains none of the director’s signature style whatsoever—but it does contain an invisible man, San Francisco stock analyst Nick Halloway, played by Chevy Chase in what feels like an uneasy attempt at a “serious” role hamstrung by the irresistible urge to default to crude humor whenever possible.
The most notable thing about Memoirs of an Invisible Man—aside from Sam Neill’s scenery-chomping turn as a CIA agent who’s dying to get his hooks into Nick—is the perspective it takes on invisibility, particularly the often-cited scene where you can see smoke inside Nick’s lungs (but no other parts of him) while he’s sucking on a cigarette. (The film gives us a similar X-ray sort of visual when it comes to the invisible man’s inevitable need to eat and drink.) It’s a testament to the film’s then-advanced special effects, but it also kind of makes sense in the weirdest way, even if a lot of the rest of the movie—for instance, the idea that Daryl Hannah would fall for Chevy Chase at all, much less an invisible Chevy Chase—really doesn’t.
The flashiest special effects money could buy back in 2000 elevate this thriller from director Paul Verhoeven, whose more successful sci-fi credits include RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Hollow Man is gruesome from its first scene, showing us lab animals in agony before Kevin Bacon’s cocky scientist—the leader of a government-funded research team that does its morally iffy experiments in a high-tech, top-secret underground lab—decides he’ll be the first human test subject. Bacon’s character is already a little unhinged before he volunteers to transform himself, and as you might expect, the procedure makes him even more violently unstable, leading to sexual assault, murder, and finally a dramatic fight to the death that involves flamethrowers, a bomb, and a screaming plunge down an elevator shaft.
Hollow Man is at times rather unpleasant and creepy to watch, but it does introduce some new ideas into the invisible-man movie genre, especially the use of thermal-imaging technology to keep track of the guy who could otherwise be standing right next to you, planning your death with the all the detectable presence of a cool breeze.
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