Friday, October 19, 2018

Monsterpiece Theater: Universal Monster Mash- The Invisible Man

by Rustbelt

Well, I said this week would be all about the bandages, didn’t I? I just didn’t say which en-bandaged one it would be! Mwah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha haaaa!!!! (Lightning strikes) You’re turn, Vince!

Now, there have been a lot of invisible characters in TV and film. Outside of Marvel and Pixar, there have been versions on the SciFi Channel, dreadful adaptations of self-important comic books, and even those that just want us to be mellow. But all stem from this one; which, I should add, is the only true science fiction character to reach great heights during Universal’s ‘gothic’ period of the 1930’s and 40’s. It’s also the only to eschew straight-up horror in favor of multiple film genres, as we’ll see.

The films we’re to examine this time begin with an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, ‘The Invisible Man.’ It’s the story of a brilliant scientist who, out of curiosity, self-experiments and turns himself invisible. Enthralled with a new sense of power, he then sets out to terrorize the English countryside and bend the country to his will through fear. Now, unlike previous series I’ve done, I have to confess that I haven’t read the original novel. I’ve read that in that book, the scientist behaves more like a socialist revolutionary than a researcher. This would make sense, as Wells was more of a social critic than a straight-up sci-fi author. (‘Invisible Man’- title character as empowered proletariat; ‘Island of Doctor Moreau’- thin line between human and animal/power of propaganda; ‘War of the Worlds’- vulnerability of human civilization)

So, I can’t say just how accurate the first film is. I can say that Wells himself, who was still alive and kicking when the first movie came out, demanded final script approval before selling the rights to Universal. This was over his displeasure with some earlier silent adaptations of his works. Nevertheless, Universal did get the rights and released one best entries in its classic Monster canon.

The Invisible Man (Universal, 1933) Trailer

Plot: A mysterious man later revealed to be Mad Scientist Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) wanders into the ancient English town of Iping where he walks into an inn and demands room and board. His head wrapped in bandages and always wearing gloves with his suit, his soon attracts unwanted attention from the villagers. Finally, after a few weeks and his rent due, he flies into a rage and reveals himself to be invisible. He undresses and proceeds to terrorize the village before all trace of him is lost.

Meanwhile, Griffin’s boss, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), colleague Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), and fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) discuss the situation. After searching Griffin’s lab, Cranley realizes that Griffin was experimenting with monocaine, a drug known to cause insanity, among other side effects. That night, Griffin arrives at Kemp’s house and forces the lesser doc to assist him in retrieving the books he left at the inn. While there, Griffin takes the time to kill an inspector who is about to declare the disturbance a hoax.
Everyone then races to Kemp’s house to beg Griffin to listen to reason, but Kemp double-crosses Griffin and calls the police. Griffin escapes and goes on a mass murder spree, which includes derailing a train. He also breaks through police security and kills Kemp by locking him a car that crashes. Griffin is finally caught when a farmer spots him taking refuge in a barn during a snowstorm. Forced out when the cops set fire to the barn, Griffin is shot and later dies in a hospital. Once dead, his body re-materializes.

Thoughts and Background: First, I think I should mention that this is my favorite of the Universal Monster canon. I can’t put it into words directly, but everything just seems to work in this one. Director James Whale- of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ fame- was given as much freedom as Wells’ agreement would allow. He specifically chose Claude Rains for the lead because of his ‘intellectual voice.’ (The studio initially wanted Boris Karloff, but Whale called him a ‘truck driver’ and went with Rains instead.) Using Rains’ voice, Whale makes the character sound as if he could be coming from anywhere. It really heightens the tension as the other actors scramble to find out where Griffin is. A favorite scene of mine is when the police broadcast is made and Whale shows a montage of people calling in tips, running inside, and barricading their door and windows. This isn’t easy to pull off and it feels like the type of hysteria such a situation would cause.
Whale was also known for attention to detail with minor characters. The best known is Una O’Connor, who plays the hysterical inn proprietor at the beginning. Of course, there’s also E.E. Clive as the shocked constable who tries to arrest Griffin at the Inn, and Holmes Herbert as the disbelieving chief of police. Each character is unique and, though limited in screen time, enhances the scene they’re in.

This film also contains an incredible amount of on-screen talent. In addition to this being Rains’ debut in a leading role, it also features Henry Travers, better known as Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,”; John Carrdine’s first on-screen appearance as one of the tipsters in the aforementioned montage; and then-23-year-old Gloria Stuart, who audiences know today as ‘Old’ Rose in ‘Titanic’ (1997).

I think a key reason this film works is because it’s one of the earliest true depictions of a serial killer (about 30 years before the term is thought to have been created). Think about it. Griffin kills strangers for reasons that are only his own. He enjoys the publicity his terror creates. He is intelligent, mad, and able to cover his tracks. The crowds’ response to his deeds (hiding, tipping, and living in fear), are not unlike those caused by Jack the Ripper in 1888, the Zodiac Killer in the 1960’s and 70’s, and the Green River Killer in the 1980’s. Maybe one reason this film stands out is because, in a canon full of inhuman monsters, the most terrifying beast is one of our own, who is a monster on the inside.
Claude Rains as Griffin (the Invisible Man): There’s not much more I can add to what I said above. This is mostly a voice-acting performance. His powerful, authoritative voice easily gets the attention of the other characters. He seems to be overacting a bit, but it works so well that I think he gets away with it. In particular, he does a great job of conveying the character’s rage as the insanity takes over. Even when wearing the coat and bandages, he tenses his arms and moves around deliberately enough to show Griffin’s anger at his situation. Not an easy thing to do. And what a trooper: the effects, which were achieved through backscreen (as opposed to modern blue or greenscreen), had to be shot with perfect repetition four times, for front and back shots and in high and low light before being composited together.

The Invisible Man Returns (Universal, 1940) Trailer

Plot: Awaiting execution for the murder of his brother Michael, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is visited by Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Immediately afterwards, Radcliffe vanishes and a dragnet is set up. It is soon revealed that Griffin is the brother of Mad Scientist Jack Griffin and has injected Radcliffe with a version of the earlier invisibility chemical, which is now called ‘duracaine(?).’

Aided by Griffin and his fiancée, Helen (Nan Grey), Geoffrey searches for the real killer while narrowly avoiding Law-Ignoring Police. He finally forces a man named Spears (Alan Napier) to confess the truth. You see, Geofffrey’s family owns a mining operation. Spears says that Geoffrey’s cousin- and alleged friend- Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) killed Michael with Spears present. Spears was then promoted to mine superintendent for helping to frame Geoffrey for the murder.
After several narrow escapes from the bobbies, Geoffrey confronts Cobb at the mine, with the two having a final fight on a mine car. Geoffrey is shot and runs off. Cobb confesses his crime just before dying. Near death himself, Geoffrey returns to Griffin’s lab (at the mine hospital), and is saved through blood transfusions that also restore his visibility.

Thought and Background: The series takes its first detour from true horror with this film, heading in the direction of a revenge/jailbreak film. Not much to add here. The effects take a step up, with Price’s Geoffrey being revealed slightly by rain and cigar smoke. Overall, this is a very worthy sequel and I do recommend it.
The thing I need to gripe about is the police. It seems they’re allowed to go anywhere they want and take the law into their own hands while ignoring any privacy laws. Now, I’m not an expert on the British justice system, and while its gone a little crazy lately, I’m pretty sure coppers in the UK have not had this level of warrantless investigation since the days of the Star Chamber. (One cop ignores a home owner, says he doesn’t need a warrant, and inspects a house solely on the evidence of a dog barking!) The lead inspector is particularly insufferable. Already a graduate of the School of Nuckle-headed Fat Southern Sheriffs in Birmingham, he also has that B-movie prescience that enables him to guess the entire plot through nonsense or guilt by association. And, of course, he uses this knowledge to threaten other characters, just ‘hoping they would cooperate.’ It’s almost enough to make me root for the bad guys, but I could never side against Vince.
Vincent Price as Sir Geoffrey Hardwicke (the Invisible Man): And here, in his first leading role in a horror film- if there is an Omega, there must be an Alpha- is the Price-inator himself! Like Rains before him, Price has to do a mostly voice-acting performance, though he appears in clothes a little more than his predecessor. His voice is mostly recognizable, though it’s early in his career and he doesn’t have all of his famous inflections down yet. Price goes through a gambit of emotions, from fearful of the possible insanity should he stay invisible too long, to maniacal when he has the real criminals in his grasp. (He only goes crazy after escaping a trap set by the police.) Price really seems to enjoy this role as the writers also found there’s humor in becoming invisible.
When Geoffrey taunts Spears, he claims to his own ghost and that he’s come to haunt the guy! (Price gets to do his first creepy “whoooo!!!!” effect.) I guess you could say he gets to stretch his comedic muscles here, though you wouldn’t be able to see that from this movie!! See that? Invisibility joke! Ha ha ha! (There’s also a nice line where a cop gripes, “Shoot on site? What am I shooting at if he’s invisible?”) The only true moment of terror comes at the end where, once visible, we see that Vincent HAS NO MUSTACHE! No, no, please, Lord, no! It can’t be! Vince without the ‘stache is like Abe without the hat or George without the teeth! What’s next? Columbo without a trench coat? Colonel Potter without a war? Or some other Dude Among Men without his own without his own Mustache of Power?! That’s a world I don’t want to live in.

Invisible Woman (Universal, 1940) Trailer

Plot: Professor Gibbs, (John Barrymore) Mad Scientist of no repute whatsoever, is in trouble: his benefactor, a newly-broke playboy (read: lady problems), cannot no longer fund his research into invisibility. So, he takes out an ad. Answering said ad is Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce), an overworked fashion model who hopes the results of the device will allow her to get revenge on her cruel, ultra-misogynist boss (Charles Lane). It works and she heads off, much to Gibbs’ chagrin.

Kitty trashes her boss’s office, avenging her fellow sisters by claiming to be his conscience (or a pre-birth Gloria Steinem specter, I don’t know) and ransacking the place before putting Crowley’s head in the window guillotine-style (huh?) and kicking him in the butt- all while invisibly naked. Calling the Production Code people... Kitty heads back to the lab to find an irate professor. It seems Kitty’s excursion caused them to miss the professor’s benefactor, who headed out on a weekend trip. They have to repeat the experiment on the now-visible Kitty and meet with the playboy in the hopes of renewed funding.
While they’re gone, a group of thugs steal the device for a Mexican crime boss (Oscar Homolka) who needs it to sneak back into the U.S. after being exiled for... reasons. It seems to be the only way he can sneak past the well-fortified, heavily-guarded U.S.-Mexico border. [insert your own comment here] Kitty and the Professor show the benefactor, one Richard Russell (John Howard) the results and, naturally, Kitty and Richard begin the cycle of bickering and flirting in what becomes a Forced Romance. Kitty also learns, to her shock, that alcohol prolongs her invisibility.

Back at Richard’s mansion (we’re skipping ahead), Kitty is kidnapped by the thugs as ransom to force the professor to fix the stolen machine. (Seems the Keystone Criminals couldn’t make it work.) One of them betrays the group and leads Richard and his butler to the hideout. (The crime boss tested the machine on said thug; it made his voice go falsetto and his wants to get even.) At the hideout, Kitty drinks some booze, goes invisible, and takes out the thugs herself. When Richard arrives- I kid you not- she pretends to still be in danger and make Richard fight for her by firing the gang’s machine gun(!) at him! Even coyotes would find this behavior over the top. Long story short, the two reunite and get hitched. Ta-da!
Thoughts and Background: From horror to jailbreak/revenge to comedy. Variety! I guess the writers here saw a few scenes from the previous film and decided to run with it. But instead of cleverness and subtlety, they opted for almost entirely slapstick comedy, which is easily hit-or-miss. Now, after checking user reviews, I see that a lot of people like this film and that’s perfectly FINE. After all, it IS light-hearted and meant to be silly. For me, it just didn’t click. It seems the actors don’t have good enough comedic timing IMHO and most of the jokes feel forced. It is playful like its predecessor when the script plays around with the fact the invisible character is actually naked, so it has that. The worst of the overacting goes to John Barrymore, which, sadly, is probably due to his alcoholism. (Irony is that he’s the one to tell Kitty not to drink too much.) And, yes, this is the first film in the series not connected to the original film.

But with all that, think about this: this movie features Margaret “I’ll get you, my pretty!” Hamilton and Shemp Howard- and gives them almost nothing to do! Hamilton plays the Professor’s cranky housekeeper and is almost the only one who understands comic timing. Shemp is cast as a buffoon thug who just screws up. He’s given so little to do, I didn’t realize which one he was at first. (I admit I’m in no way an expert on the Stooges.) Good grief, what kind of movie casts this kind of talent and doesn’t use it?!
Virginia Bruce as Kitty Carroll (the Invisible Woman): Not much to say here. Bruce is easy on the eyes, but her voice (so important in an Invisible Movie), is so squeaky and high-pitched it gets annoying. She does what she has to and I guess it’s enough.

Invisible Agent (Universal, 1942) Trailer

Plot: Print shop proprietor Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) gets an unwanted visit when SS commander Stauffer (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Japanese agent Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre- yes, you read that right), reveal that they know he is the grandson of Jack Griffin and demand the late scientist’s formula. Griffin (his cover name being blown), fights them and their goons off and makes a break for it.
Not long after Pearl Harbor, Griffin volunteers to use his family formula on a spy mission. His does so while parachuting into Germany. Once there, he meets with members of the anti-Nazi resistance, mainly Maria Sorensen (Ilona Massey), who guide him to Stauffer’s office, where he steals a list of Axis agents in the U.S.

Learning there is more going on, Griffin confronts the imprisoned SS officer Heiser. (Griffin had earlier played invisible tricks on Heiser at Maria’s home; Stauffer later arrested him.) Griffin offers to free Heiser, who is scheduled for execution, in exchange for the information he wants. After Heiser reveals a plan to bomb New York is about to be set in motion, the two flee the prison. However, Griffin is captured by Ikito with a fish-hook-lined net. Ouch! Griffin is taken to the Japanese Embassy in Berlin where Ikito plans to learn the invisibility secret. However, Stauffer arrives, demands Griffin, and a fight breaks out where Griffin and Maria escape. Ikito kills Stauffer and then himself for the failure of the mission. Griffin and Maria steal a bomber(!) and bomb a Luftwaffe base before crossing the Channel and parachuting over England. The film ends with Maria visiting the now-visible Griffin in the hospital.
Thoughts and Background: We go another direction with this series and into wartime propaganda. You know, I hate that word, ‘propaganda.’ Maybe I’ve studied World War II too much. It’ll always have a Nazi/Soviet connotation for me. Just throwing that out there.

This film is a decent enough spy caper. I didn’t go into too much detail above, but this Griffin’s first invisible scenes in Maria’s home involve him acting like a buffoon and humiliating Heiser when the latter has dinner with Maria. I hate to be nit-picky, but even invisible, sneaking around in enemy territory in the FuhrerReich is hardly the time to be a clown. The special effects, however, are a big upgrade. At Maria’s home, Griffin slathers makeup on his face to reveal himself. No more constricting bandages. Oddly, there’s no mention of the insanity the chemical can lead to. At worst, it makes Griffin... sleepy! And this only happens once in order to set up a tense scene with Stauffer. There’s even a timely reference in the first scene to Oregon State playing Duke in the Rose Bowl, which was announced before Pearl Harbor. Ikito tells Stauffer it’s a “national event.” (That game, BTW, was played in North Carolina for security purposes- the only time the Rose Bowl Game hasn’t been played in Pasadena.)
You know, a lot of people would call this film stereotypical, but I think the characterizations are mostly quite good. At the shop, Stauffer calls Griffin’s refusal to give them the formula “soft thinking” caused by “democracies.” Heiser later adds, “The Fuhrer doesn’t like people who think their own thoughts.” True. Nazi ideology considered democracy to be degenerate, and Hitler pathologically demanded full control over everyone around him. (Hence the numerous Nazi programs designed to control all aspects of German life.) However, Heiser refers to having a three-hour meeting with the Fuhrer. What a laugh. During the war, Hitler was infamously lazy among the German High Command and spent most of his time at the Burghof in Bavaria. (There’s even a favorable reference to Reich Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. Would never have happened. Virtually everyone in the Nazi government hated that guy.) Also, the Axis alliance is portrayed as one of convenience, with neither side trusting each other. Ultimately, the Germans and Japanese fight each other for Griffin’s secret. Not to mention the Germans also fight each for in-party position (This is also a theme in ‘the Man in the High Castle,’ where, after winning the war, the Axis relationship devolves into their own cold war.) I would say that, ultimately, when you create governments based on destruction, violence, and favors from within a cult of personality, what you get, inevitably, are human beings turning on each other like the rats they are.

As for Lorre, well, let’s just say this: he accepted any role in any movie that he thought would undermine the Axis. An Austrian Jew forced to flee the Reich, he saw it as his way of fighting back.
Jon Hall as Frank Raymond/Griffin (the Invisible Agent): I was prepared to hate this guy for the afore-mentioned comedy scene above. Also, I had to facepalm myself when he injected the serum into his arm before jumping out over Germany and then stripping in mid-air while somehow not unstrapping his parachute! Not bad visuals, but... WHAT?! However, I began to like him when he started doing his job and defied the German officers, especially when he ridicules fascist doctrine to Heiser’s face. That line, “You Nazis. I pity the Devil when you start arriving in bunches,” is a new favorite of mine. His distrust of Maria- whom he wrongly supposes is a double agent near the end- is a character flaw that adds just tension to the ending and keeps things exciting. While not as memorable as Rains or Price, Hall does a surprisingly good job here. I recommend this one.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)

Plot: A dangerous, psychopathic scoundrel has escaped from a looney bin in Cape Town, bent on claiming a claim from people he’s thinks have wronged him. (Yeah, back to revenge/jailbreak. Also, this one is likewise unrelated to the first film.) How do we know he’s a scoundrel? Well, when he buys a suit, he leaves behind his prison jacket and the salesman discovers a conveniently-placed newspaper clipping in the pocket detailing how a maniac just escaped from said looney bin, killing several people in the process. Any follow-up questions?
Anyhoo, (complex storyline; I’ll try to make it brief), bad guy Griffin (no relation to any previous character or movie in the series, BTW), visits Sir Jasper (Lester Matthews) and Irene Herrick (Gale Sondergaard), demanding his claim. It seems during a safari years ago, they agreed to split any profits from diamond deposits they found. Griffin was injured, only the group was misinformed that he was dead. Sir Jasper tells Griffin (Jon Hall- he’s back! -as a different Griffin!), that all the profits were lost in bad investments and they have little to give him. Already going mad, Griffin refuses to believe them and demands both his share and their daughter’s hand. They properly show him out- after giving him a spiked drink, knocking him out, taking his written copy of the claim agreement, and vowing to repay him once he’s no longer insane.

Griffin first attempts to blackmail the Herricks using a lawyer, but the barrister cowers off with his tail between his legs when THE CONSTABLE (Billy Bevan) arrives. Then Griffin does what all guys in his position inevitably do: he visits a Mad Scientist (John Carradine), undergoes an invisibility experiment, (as one does), and then strikes out for revenge! In classic Gestapo fashion, he forces Sir Jasper to write a note ‘admitting’ to trying to kill Griffin twice and that he’s now giving him all his worldly possessions. It must also be mentioned that the cure for invisibly this time around is another blood transfusion- as in all the blood from the donor. And when the Mad Scientist refuses to commit murder, Griffin uses the Mad Scientist for the transfusion instead before burning the guy’s house down. (And, yes, Crow T, Robot, there WAS a time when John Carradine wasn’t 100 years old. (‘Night Train to Mundo Fine’ from ‘Red Zone Cuba’).)

Once again visible. Griffin adopts a new name and begins his push to move to take over Sir Jasper’s home and force his daughter, Julie (Evelyn Ankers) into marriage. Things get complicated when Julie’s boyfriend, Mark (Alan Curtis), a reporter, tells them at breakfast that an invisible man killed the Mad Scientist and is causing havoc. He adds that it seems a body-full of blood transfusion is necessary to undo invisibility. (Mark helped the police find the doc’s body.) Griffin praises the invisible man and his power just before his hands begin to fade. Mark follows him upstairs and only finds a note, telling him to come to the wine cellar where Griffin has info on the invisible man. Uh, let’s see. This mysterious new guy just praised the invisible man for his power, acted suspiciously after running out of the room for a minor cut with a breakfast knife, and now wants to meet him in a place with only one door in or out. So, of course Mark goes to the wine cellar, gets knocked out, and is nearly drained when THE CONSTABLE arrives to save the day. Oh, and the doc’s dog also gets in the house and mauls Griffin to death. Fin.
Thoughts and Background: The Good: The effects are pretty decent, especially where Griffin is shown fading away while running. Unfortunately, they had to ruin it with putting white chalk paint on Griffin’s face to show the start of the fading. Sorry, but the Paul Bearer look (pic of Paul Bearer) only works as a comical villain.

The Bad: I’ll just say it. I hate this movie. This is one of those films with an unlikable character in the lead. He then proceeds to attempt or commit robbery, murder, human trafficking, enslavement, blackmail, arson, and property damage. I hate setups like this. I literally spent the whole movie just hoping someone would kick Griffin’s ass. That’s not fun. Unlikable characters can work- like Scarlett O’Hara, Andy Sipowitz, or Walter White. But those people always give a hint that they can reform. That’s not possible here. And I hate it.

I also hate how people are so stupid in this movie. Yes, this is a film where the plot moves only because people act like idiots. Consider:

-After drugging Griffin, the Herricks should call THE CONSTABLE and burn Griffin’s copy of the agreement. Reasonable. But they have to be angelic and decide to settle this once he’s normal. Of course, we know Griffin’s mad now from prison time and will never recover. The road to Hell truly is paved with good intentions.

-The Mad Scientist just randomly experiments on any guy he finds. Look, I know fugitives are ideal because no one will miss them if the science backfires and they die or worse. But if it works, well, the consequences speak for themselves. Screen your test subjects, already!

-Griffin constantly tells Jasper he can destroy him with an unauthorized, unsealed, unnotarized note, etc. that admits to 2 counts of attempted murder and then just giving away all his worldly possessions to the alleged murder target. Look, I’m not a lawyer like Andrew and this is the post John-Henry Williams world, but Griffin has to make his takeover official at some point and I like to think even the shadiest lawyer might get a little suspicious of a note like that.
-Why doesn’t Jasper call THE CONSTABLE when Griffin is visible? It’s his best chance. Instead he goes outside to smoke. And, of course THE CONSTABLE shows up out of nowhere to wrap up the film. Yay.

-Mark, the intrepid investigative reporter. See above in ‘Plot.’

Jon Hall as Robert Griffin (the latest Invisible Man): I can’t blame Mr. Hall for this. He’s got range, as the previous film shows. Here, he’s in a B-film doing only what the screenwriter and director tell him to do and picking up his check on Friday. The actor gets a pass. The character does not.

I hate, hate, hate this Griffin. He has no redeeming qualities and I just want him to die. In pro wrestling, this would be called ‘bad heat’- where the crowd, instead of getting into the storyline, just want the annoying villain wrestler to be beaten to a pulp and out of their lives forever. And in an amazing coincidence, this Griffin reminds me of yet another Griffin- the Griffin from ‘Red Zone Cuba,’ a putrid mess of a film connected to this one by also starring John Carradine. (And in this one, he does look 100 years old.) This Other Griffin also escapes from prison to roam the countryside, stealing, abusing his colleagues, murdering, raping, and attempting mine plundering. The resemblance is uncanny. Perhaps the only difference is that RZC was a no budget P.O.S. that leaves you hollow and steals most of your soul during viewing. At least IMR was made by professionals. It will only make you mad at life and want to punch a hole in your wall.
And on that cheery note, here’s a cure for the common Universal turdburger: improv lord and legend Colin Mochrie!

BTW, did anyone notice there’s a full moon next week?

1 comment:

AndrewPrice said...

Hi Rustbelt! Thanks for the article. I've only ever seen a couple invisible man films, including one with Christian Slater that just stunk. I am definitely not versed in this catalog!

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