Continuing our month-long series of classic horror posts launched here, today we look at Universal Pictures original Invisible Man series. While the first picture in this series is one of the best of all the Universal horror pictures, for the most part the sequels are among the weakest. To me the reason why seems obvious. Rather than a great director or great stars, the studio privileged one single, gimmicky, repetitive special effect. It gets old super fast.
James Whale’s comedy horror take on the H.G. Wells classic The Invisible Man starts in medias res with scientist Claude Rains already well down the path to lunacy, which happens to run in tandem with the road to invisibility. It is a road down which our hilarious anti-hero will eventually skip like a little girl singing “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May.” Already transparent from the outset of the story, he shows up at a country inn during a snow storm, run by the hysterical but obnoxious Una O’Connor, whom Whale would use again to similar purpose in The Bride of Frankenstein. But Rains is already going insane and attacks whomever is interfering with him. Soon he is roaming throughout the countryside causing havoc, and forcing his former rival (William Harrigan) to do his bidding. The police form a dragnet, they eventually trap him in a barn, set it on fire, and watch his footprints in the snow for where to shoot, killing him.
And when he dies, it is the first time we see Claude Rains on screen! Ever! His performance is great, very campy, one of the best insane villains ever, with an excellent wheezy laugh calculated to put a chill up your spine. Titanic’s Gloria Stuart is the thankless fiancé/love interest. And Henry Travers (the guy who played Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is her father and Raines’ employer.
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Vincent Price in his first horror film, although I must say that, after the first movie, the Invisible Man series doesn’t really feel like horror to me. Yes, the heroes go mad, and they are ghost-like. But most of their doings seem merely mischievous, the work of bogeys. The films have a tone generally more comical than horror-producing.At any rate, in this one, a completely different character (Price) has been framed by Cedric Hardwicke for the murder of his brother. Price is on death row, but then he escapes with the help of the brother of the Claude Rains character from the first film. They’ve risked the madness that comes with invisibility because time was of the essence in freeing him from the executioner. Now the scientist is frantically working on the antidote. Price works to clear his name even as he goes mad. This film is somewhat Pollyannaish. Price never kills anyone (until the end, when he sends Hardwicke over a coal pit, which any self respecting hero would have done), and the movie has a happy ending. Having gotten shot attacking Hardiwcke, Price gets a blood transfusion. The blood is the cure—he is visible again. Hardwicke’s death scene is excellent—one of the more plausible ones I’ve seen in movies. Billy Bevan has a small part as a prison guard.
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Strictly a campy comedy, directed by Eddie Sutherland and written by Curt Siodmak—not even remotely a horror film, but highly entertaining. John Barrymore as a kindly old absent minded scientist who invents a machine which makes one invisible (the sort of role we associate much more with his brother Lionel). The usual non-descript lead actors…a young wastrel playboy millionaire who underwrites the scientist’s experiments (John Howard)…and a fashion model who answers the scientist’s ad for a guinea pig and becomes the title character (Virginia Bruce). She uses her invisibilty to torment her boss (Charles Lane). Then some crooks (one of whom is Shemp Howard!) steal the invention. Meanwhile the two leads fall in love, aided by alcohol, which somehow amplifies the invisibility process in addition to being a well known social lubricant. Additional comic relief is provided by Margaret Hamilton as Barrymore’s maid, and Charlie Ruggles as the young man’s butler.
The Invisible Agent (1942)
It is a measure of how little the Invisible Man films are actually horror films that this one, which is a spy movie, feels no different from its predecessors in tone. Amazon Women on the Moon notwithstanding, this one is the real Son of the Invisible Man. In The Invisible Agent, the invisible man’s son (Jon Hall), mysteriously American, has inherited his father’s formula, which is sought both by the Nazis and Uncle Sam. He volunteers to spy on the Nazis. Peter Lorre as a Japanese baron and Cedric Hardwick as Nazi spymaster. Lots of comical pranks. It’s fun to watch Nazis fall down. The hero foils Nazi plan to bomb New York. Then he falls for a beautiful Nazi lady spy. They fly back to London and are shot down. Then he is cured of invisibility.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Over 20 minutes into this film, there is still no reference to the Invisible Man. A fugitive amnesiac played by Jon Hall (whose name happens to be Griffin like the scientist in The Invisible Man but whose relationship to the previous Griffins is unclear) wakes up to learn he has been swindled out of half a South African diamond mine, by a seemingly respectable lord and lady. He is rescued by drunken rustic Leon Errol. Later he winds up in home of mad scientist John Carradine, who keeps a bunch of invisible animals. He makes Griffin invisible. Griffin immediately leaves to get his revenge on the people who swindled him. He first terrorizes them—wants all their wealth and also their daughter. He enlists Errol to be his lackey in the enterprise. A comical game of darts is played. Then he goes back to the doctor for an antidote so that he can win the daughter. The catch is that they will have to kill another man—drain all his blood—for a transfusion. They plan to use the blood of his rival for the girl. Billy Bevan returns as a comical cockney cop. The plan backfires and they end up using the mad doctor’s blood. There is a struggle in the wine cellar, and then the authorities arrive to spoil the party.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Well, they do and they don’t. The title of this film in some ways promises more than it delivers. It doesn’t for example deliver Claude Rains or even his character from the original crop of Invisible Man films. The scientist in this film is one “Dr. Gray”…the uncle of the girl of a boxer who has been falsely accused of murder. It is the boxer who takes the invisibility serum and provides the familiar spectacle, sometimes rendered as a guy in bandages and sunglasses, sometimes as floating objects. Abbott and Costello play private detectives who help the boxer clear his name. Lou gets scared a lot, and Bud says things like “Why, you’re seeing things!” and “It’s all in yer head!” In too many ways to count, the original film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, is much funnier than this movie.
The Invisible Boy (1957)
This isn’t a Universal film (it’s MGM), and it’s more a sequel to Forbidden Planet than The Invisible Man, but the title and the same, familiar special effect do link it and it’s only a few years after the original series. I saw it on TCM just a few weeks ago so I feel inspired to include it as an added bonus. The story: a young boy is bored and somewhat neglected by his scientist father, who has a job working at a government agency where he works with computers, robots, and space rockets. He works in a top secret facility, but somehow gets to let his kid run around the joint. The supercomputer his father is working on turns out to be malevolent and in league with some aliens many light years away. The supercomputer reprograms Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (who just happened to be handy in the prop closet) to do his bidding. Part of the plan for some reason consists of making a chemical formula that turns the boy invisible. The boy takes the potion and has fun committing the usual Invisible Man pranks on the grown ups, and then sneaks on to a rocket bound for outer space with some sort of doomsday mission. Frankly I lost track of how the father managed to get the rocket to return to earth and bring the boy to safety, but I do recall that the consequences for the boy’s highly singular adventures amounted to something along the lines of a stern admonishment and some voiced regret for working too many hours on weekends. In short, it’s basically a children’s film, although a surprisingly sinister one.