Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Hollow Man" vs. "The Invisible Man"

I just saw Hollow Man (2000) again, an entertaining but flawed entry in the invisible man tradition of horror films. To ascertain why this movie doesn't quite work, it helps to hold it up against the gold standard of invisible man movies, the original Universal version of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man (1933).

Both films are about a scientist who develops a formula for becoming invisible, administers it to himself, then goes homicidally insane under the formula's influence as he tries futilely to reverse the process. Invisible Man portrayed the scientist as a lone nut traveling around with a chemistry kit, whereas Hollow Man updated the scenario to make the scientist part of a team with high-tech quantum equipment, backed by the government and the military. The update was plausible, but something was lost in the translation: the utter isolation of the scientist.

Both films have what, for their time, were state-of-the-art special effects. Hollow Man's effects are, not surprisingly, more elaborate and sophisticated, but they are not necessarily more effective. There is a crude wonderment about the way the original invisible man unwraps his bandages from his absent head that is not to be found anywhere in Hollow Man. On the other hand, the transparent man shots in which the hollow man appears to be running around without skin afford a certain degree of creepy pleasure.

Both movies have good casts, although Invisible Man has the edge, with Claude Rains in the mad scientist role vs. Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man's mad scientist role. Rains is able to project a psychotic grandeur while Bacon evokes more of a brat-pack brattiness. Elisabeth Shue, as a scientist with action-film moves, has more to do as the female lead in Hollow Man than the long-suffering Gloria Stuart as Rains's girlfriend in The Invisible Man. But for what they had to do, both actresses were competent. (Stuart gives the added enjoyment of letting us see what Old Rose from Titanic looked like long before she met James Cameron. She looked good, though nothing like Kate Winslet.)

So if the stories, effects, and casts are of more or less similar quality, what is the difference? The main difference is the directors. Invisible Man was directed by James Whale, Hollow Man by Paul Verhoeven. Whale was a master of the horror film, who developed many of the tropes and techniques that became part of the basic machinery of the genre. Verhoeven has made fine science fiction/action films, such as Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, as well as erotic thrillers such as Basic Instinct, but at horror he is less accomplished. Some moments in Hollow Man play like science fiction, some like action, and some like erotic thriller, but not enough like horror. Whale knew how to concentrate his resources for the primary purpose of presenting a deformed destructive being, and Verhoeven did not. The hollow man is deformed and destructive, but he lacks the combination of awfulness and pathos that made the invisible man more than just your average monster.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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