Horror is fascinating. Horror characters are fascinating. Whether they’re human, or monsters in the classic sense, the many complexities that you find in all of them are equally disturbing and wonderful. And The Invisble Man (1933) and The Wolfman (1941) are two of the finest in the bunch.
The Invisible Man (1933) starts in an English inn on a cold winter night. A heavily bandaged man, wearing a hat and dark goggles, comes in from the cold and asks for a room upstairs. The landlady, played by Una O’Connor, informs him they don’t rent out rooms at this time of year, but the man insists. Two weeks later, landlord Mr Hall (Forest Harvey) attempts to evict him for not paying rent, leading the man to push him down the stairs. The police arrives and as they confront him, the man removes his bandages and to everyone’s surprise, he’s invisible. This is Dr Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a chemist who has discovered the invisibility drug. Unfortunately, the side effects are brutal and he becomes insane…
James Whales’ adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel is widely regarded as one of the ultimate horror movies of all time, rightly so. Apart from its innovative special effects, which are still astonishing to watch, its ironic humanization – however you want to look at it – of the invisible man does not go unnoticed. The invisibility drug renders Dr Griffin insane and power-hungry and, in a speech to Kemp (William Harrigan), whom he has forced to be his visible partner, he vows to take over the world, by committing a ‘few murders here and there’ and asserting his reign of terror, stating that an invisible man could rule the world. He’s an out-and-out monster. And he’s unapologetic about it. He’s a menacing, malicious, murderous monster. And a human one at that. Literally. This is clearly a clever nod to the audience and that message still holds up beautifully. Claude Rains’ performance as the titular invisible man is nothing short of amazing: relying purely on his physicality and his voice, probably the most beautiful male voice in Classic Hollywood, he delivers a thouroughly convincing, horrifyingly scary performance that could not have been more perfect for his American movie debut. Especially because of how complex it is. It’s not just scary, there’s also a human side to it, in the form of Flora (Gloria Stuart), his fiancee and the only person he shows any affection towards. This humanity almost shifts the character’s identity from villain to tragic anti-hero. Almost. Were it not for his truly disturbing deeds. Is he the most dangerous of all the classic monsters? Maybe. But if he’s the most dangerous, then the Wolfman is surely one of the most tragic.
In The Wolfman (1941) (.dir. George Waggner), Larry Talbot Jr (Lon Chaney Jr) returns home after an eighteen-year absense to make up with his father (Claude Rains) after the death of his brother. While there, he meets and falls in love with Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who works at an antiques shop. As a way of striking up a conversation, he buys a walking stick decorated with the head of a werewolf. That same night, in an attempt to save Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) from a wolf attack, he kills it with his walking stick but is bitten in the process. Later, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), a fortune teller, tells him the wolf was actually his son Bela (Bela Lugosi) and that he too will be transformed into a wolf…
Boasting one of the greatest scripts if its genre, The Wolfman is a lot more complex than it might seem at first. It is, essentially, a psychological drama that takes on the form of a horror picture, so to speak. Larry Talbot is a tragic figure. He craves the love and approval of his father, and he never seems to fully get it. What’s more, he never has. We understand that straight-away during their first meeting. Later on, he seeks the companionship of a woman by creepily watching her from his bedroom and then lusting after her (predator-like?) even though she’s already engaged. He seems to be entirely unadjusted to the society he walked back into, and he’s quite repressed. Depressed even. Which certainly suggests that the psychological angle is stronger than we may think. Does he become a werewolf as a sort of response to his emotional needs? As a way of coping with it? The mere fact that he doesn’t seem to want to be a werewolf, trying his hardest to get away from it, suggests denial. The movie’s brutal ending – featuring one of Claude Rains’ best movie moments – is all the more horrible because of the psychological aspect of it. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a truly scary atmosphere here. There is. Enveloped in fog right from the off, starting on the night of Larry and Gwen’s first date, the mood is eerie, dark and spooky. And it’s magnificent.
The similarities and contrasts between these two main characters are quite striking. One of the things that I find interesting about them is that they seem to come from a background that wouldn’t lend itself to this sort of thing. One is a chemist, the other comes from a rich, well-regarded family, yet they’re both fighting their demons, despite (or maybe because of) their background. I also like the fact that the Invisble Man is very much a visible figure, in the sense that everyone’s aware of him and he himself doesn’t hide or try to conceal what he is or what he wants to achieve. The Wolfman, on the other hand, is a mysterious creature, to the point where most of the villagers and even Larry himself doubt its existence. This is certainly evident in the opening sequence in both movies. In The Invisble Man, we open on a cold, snowy night, after which the mood of the inn is disturbed by our man, who walks in and demands a room, bandaged up but not really afraid to show himself. Larry Talbot’s entrance is quite the opposite. The Wolfman starts off innocently enough, in the main family home, seemingly protected by this very notion of the ‘family home’. This isn’t to last of course, but that won’t be for a while. The Invisible Man, in other words, doesn’t pull any punches. The Wolfman reveals itself slowly… Their respective townspeople’ own perspective of them certainly corroborates this. Everyone in the English village is utterly terrified of the Invisible Man, whereas the villagers in The Wolfman are quite relunctant to the mere thought that there might be a werewolf walking around. The psychological aspect, again, contributes to this. The Invisible Man’s assured, arrogant attitude and The Wolfman’s resistance in accepting himself lead the two movies down very different, yet kind of similar paths.
Again, it’s a fascinating genre and one that can lead to several discussions. That’s what I find amazing about it, and that’s what I love about these two movies and these two characters. Apart from the fact that they’re both truly, genuinely terrifying in their own way. Besides, you can’t go wrong with Claude Rains!