(The Horror Heretic is a blog series where I voice opinions about the horror genre that are unpopular. Because I’m contrary like that.)
I’m just going to start by blurting it out: The Invisible Man is a superior film to Bride of Frankenstein.
Let me get the disclaimers out of the way: I am in no, way, shape or form dissing on Bride of Frankenstein. It’s a work of art and one of the best films Universal made. And I must admit here that I’m not a big fan of Frankenstein in general. I understand how important the book was and as a woman who writes horror I very proudly claim to be a daughter of Mary Shelley. But I also have lived my entire life in the age where the themes she tackles have been pounded so thoroughly into the ground that I’m tired of having the discussion, so Frankenstein stories that don’t involve Peter Cushing being evil are pretty boring for me. That does inform the opinion I am about the give to a degree. Also, I’m not as familiar with the making of these movies as some of my readers will be, so I can only speak to how the movies feels to me.
This past Halloween, just by chance, I watched The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein back to back and I puzzled over the differences for a good long while. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges, but I felt like there was something I wanted to say about the differences. I felt like Invisible was a better film, but it took me a lot of humming and hawing to articulate why.
Story wise, there is no way to compare them. They convey different stories in different time periods in different ways. For me, as someone who spends a lot of time watching movies and seeing things that may or may not be there, there’s no denying that Bride has a hefty chunk of James Whale’s heart in it. Invisible does not.
I don’t think anyone would argue against Whale being one of the gods of cinema Gothic (and if they do, stop talking to them IMMEDIATELY and walk away. You don’t need them in your life). When he made Bride, he already had Frankenstein and The Old Dark House under his belt. He was comfortable with Gothic.
For my taste, perhaps a little too comfortable. There’s a static feeling about Bride. A lot of “just look at how pretty this is while we gloss over some plot stuff.” There’s no denying it is a gorgeous movie, deliberately Gothic, but that gives the movie an almost leaden feel. It feels like not much happens in Bride because we are chained to pretty locations.
The Invisible Man goes the opposite direction. Invisible is a wonderfully dynamic and energetic movie. It feels like play. Whale didn’t have the Gothic template to fit things into, which means he had to formulate how this movie would be made from the ground up and he was given the freedom (by necessity) to try all kinds of different stuff.
If nothing else, the cinematography makes Invisible a superior film.
Look at this shot. Look at this shot. We have one shot, a woman’s face framed by some flowers as she frets about the man she loves. That shot alone tells us in a subtle, delicate way everything we need to know about Flora. It’s all right there. If you had never seen this movie and only saw the picture, you wouldn’t even need to hear what she says. You just know what she’s saying and thinking.
Likewise, the camera makes subtle shifts when focused on Griffin. Towards the end of the movie when Griffin is going nutso, the camera will shoot him like normal, but as soon as he starts in on one of his world domination monologues, the camera angle goes as wonky as Griffin’s worldview.
The kicker for me was the scene where a radio broadcast at a party warns everyone that an invisible man is on the loose. The camera starts parting the crowd as it goes toward, then into, the radio. We feel like we’re traveling over the airwaves to all the houses full of terrified people trying to register that they should be scared of nothing.
I also think the performances in Invisible all around are better. The core performances in Bride are top notch, no doubt. But in Invisible, every single actor from star to bit player had to be on their game. A lot of actors spend a great deal of time interacting with nothing. When that cop gets kicked in the butt by the invisible man, he’s gotta sell it without making it look stupid. And he does. They all do. There’s not a hitch in the scenes where the actors have nothing to work with, which, in and of itself, is a miracle.
I also felt like, while Bride is a lovely time capsule we can sit and watch wistfully, Invisible is still relevant today. Both movies are about science gone wrong, but Invisible is much more immediate. It is also an early instance of a man who works in a science field that is specifically for benefiting people (whereas Frankenstein is much more about “look what I can do!”) going off on his own and creating something that will harm everyone. In many ways, this movie presages what would happen in the atom age and, by extension, the sci-fi/horror hybrids of the 50’s (sorry Creature From The Black Lagoon, you weren’t first after all), in addition to the Cold War paranoia of what may or may not be out there to get you.
That last bit is a matter of personal taste for me. Grand philosophical dilemmas about the nature of human existence are fine, but I prefer to have my immediate worldview and surroundings challenged. Not a lot of people like that though, I know.
Now, for the record, the best horror film Universal made was 1925’s Phantom of the Opera (I will defend Phantom unto death! Come at me, brah!) and I was gonna shoehorn that movie in here eventually anyway, so just go with it. However, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein are both contenders for number two. What makes The Invisible Man the winner – and I would assert James Whale’s masterpiece – is a subtle but important difference.
In Bride of Frankenstein, an ethereal Elsa Lanchester sit us down and tells us to watch her fairy tale unfold before our eyes.
In The Invisible Man, Claude Rains grabs you by the arm, drags you outside and laughs manically as he takes you on a journey to discover all the dangers you didn’t know existed right outside your door.
And when he’s laughing like that and promising such an adventure, I’d follow Claude Rains anywhere.
GRATUITOUS PHANTOM OF THE OPERA PICTURE!