By Joan Amenn
Universal Studios released a few of their most iconic horror films back into theaters this month and yesterday the double feature was “The Wolfman” (1941) and “The Invisible Man” (1933). These two films represent bookends of the genre, in a sense. One focuses on the theme of humanity delving into forbidden knowledge, specifically through science. The other’s plot suggests that there are “more things in Heaven and Earth than are written in [our] philosophy” as a certain Danish prince once said.
Of the two, I think that “The Invisible Man” retains its power more, and not just because folkloric curses seem to be the least of our potential problems in the 21st Century. Director James Whale, who had experience in the theater, knew how to build up tension in a scene. He also believed in the importance of tempering horror with humor which was a formula Universal whole-heartedly embraced in its later popular series of Abbott and Costello meeting various members of their “monster” canon.
Most of us have seen “The Invisible Man” in our homes on smaller screens than it was originally created for. On a theater screen, the famous reveal of Claude Rains unwrapping his head bandages to show nothing underneath is even more stunning. The tight camera focus on him and his amazing voice as he defiantly taunts the villagers who are watching dumb founded is still thrilling. Of course, Rains was hired precisely because of his well-trained voice and it helps that H.G. Wells had script approval over the adaptation of his novel.
“The Wolfman” was one of maybe two of the original Universal Monsters that was not based on a previous novel. In other words, Lon Chaney Jr. created the mythos along with a great script by Curt Siodmak virtually out of whole cloth. It is a tribute to the pathos and humanity that Chaney brought to the role that lycanthropy remains a popular horror trope that is still being mined for fresh takes. He is truly heartbreaking as a man cursed “through no fault of his own” and that’s not easy to pull off when your face is covered with yak hair. Chaney is made more tragic by his father, played by Claude Rains again, refusing to acknowledge that his malady is not caused by something that can be rationally explained.
Humanity’s helplessness against the mysteries of nature and the universe would be a theme later expanded upon by Universal when they ventured into post-atomic age science fiction films. However, their early offerings of classic horror through their monster canon has arguably given Hollywood greater base material to reiterate from over the years. Even so, the originals still offer plenty of thrill and nostalgia, especially if you are lucky enough to find your local cinema is showing them for a weekend matinee.