There are a lot of reasons why the original Universal Monsters will always be hailed as the “classic” monsters. Dracula and Frankenstein are both timeless stories and while those adaptations were very different from the books, they tapped into the core of those stories and what made them work so well. Even original creations like The Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon followed similar themes of isolation, of being an outcast and being misunderstood. Because for the most part, that’s what the Universal Monsters are. They’re each the antagonists of their own movies, but they elicit sympathy all the same.
And then there’s the Invisible Man. Among the classic monsters as depicted in the original Universal films, he stands out. That’s not to say that there aren’t similarities, because I think there have to be for him to feel like he’s even a part of that same universe. He has a condition that he cannot control, which is something that he has in common with all of the other monsters. But it’s his approach to that that ultimately makes him very different.
Unlike the others, he’s totally accepting of the fact that he’s invisible. It may have driven him mad, but it might also just be the kind of person he is. In an era filled with generally morose monsters, he approaches what he is with a sadistic kind of glee. He not only takes pleasure in destruction, he finds it hysterical. This is someone who became invisible, found out that it was not a condition he could come back from, and discovered it to be a completely liberating experience. As a scientist, his ideas would be criticized. Even his formula for invisibility had to be an idea that no one would ever take seriously, even if he clearly knew that it would work.
As the Invisible Man, there’s no one that can tell him no, not ever again. Most of them will never even know that he’s there. Invisibility is one of those superpowers that everyone wishes they could have, but it’s one with very few practical uses. The idea of not being seen immediately leads to not getting caught. It’s wish fulfillment, but only for the things we would never want to be seen doing. It caters to the id, to dark and extreme momentary impulses.
If you’re invisible, there’s no need to bury a dark thought. There’s no need to think that you can’t push someone out into traffic, kill the old lady who’s taking too long in line, do anything you want no matter how horrible because you already know that you are going to get away with it.
Over the course of the film, Griffin kills literally hundreds of people. He derails a train, he throws people off of a cliff and he does it with a song in his heart. He easily has the highest body count of all the Universal Monsters. But he’s not Frankenstein’s creation killing a little girl because he literally doesn’t understand death. He’s not Dracula, forced to prolong a long life he explicitly states he doesn’t want. He’s not Larry Talbot, cursed to transform into the Wolf Man.
No, at the end of the day, Griffin’s just killing people for, well, the f**k of it. He’s causing more mayhem than any of the others combined and he’s doing it for no reason whatsoever, other than the fact that he knows he can get away with it. As his rampage goes on, he literally sets his sights on world domination, but there’s no higher purpose in it whatsoever. It’s just something he decides on because he thinks he can probably get away with that too.
Frankenstein’s Monster just wants to be left alone. Dracula just wants to die. The Wolf Man really, really wants to die to the point that it turns into his overreaching arc throughout all the films he appears in. The Gill Man wants to walk among people—at first, then he just wants to return to the lagoon and be left alone—and Erik the Phantom just wants to be loved and accepted, both by Christine and the music industry as a whole.
Griffin wants to destroy everything he comes across. Had the film been made a decade or two later, he would without hesitation be trying to get his invisible fingers on nuclear launch codes. He’s the kind of man who literally wants to watch the world burn. Throughout The Invisible Man there’s no one he seems to empathize with on any real level. There are only the people he thinks he needs to kill right away, the random bystanders he kills for a momentary laugh, and the ones he believes he can manipulate and exploit.
Like so many monsters of his type, Griffin’s insane narcissism proves to be his downfall. Someone who believes that he alone has the power to actually rule the world, who blames everyone else when he’s forced to go on the run for not understanding his genius, does not always take into account the little things—like the fact that he’s making footprints in the snow.
On some level, that’s actually hilarious. And I believe it’s intentionally hilarious, because there’s a dark sense of humor running throughout The Invisible Man. But it’s also totally believable when you look at the insane arrogance of this character. He doesn’t think he can be caught, so he doesn’t stop to worry about a little thing like whether or not his invisible feet are making very visible prints. He’s one of the only Universal Monsters who’s downfall you actually root for as a viewer. There’s no deeper yearning to what he’s doing. He doesn’t treat his condition like a curse and he doesn’t beg for society to accept him or what he has become.
Dracula is scary, but we all know the rules about defeating vampires. Frankenstein’s Monster is scary, but we know that all we need to do is be kind to him and he’ll leave us alone. The Wolf Man is scary, but only on the full moon. But the Invisible Man? He wants to kill you for no rhyme or reason. And not only can you not talk him out of it, you’ll never even know he’s there until it’s too late.
A good man being transformed into a monster has all the makings of a truly terrific story. But a man who doesn’t really understand the difference between right and wrong? A man who knows he would kill someone if he could get away with it and then finds the power to do all that and more? Well, that’s terrifying.