Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Get ready for Halloween with the 'Invisible Man Complete Legacy Collection'

This is the time where the mind turns to horror movies, given that October and Halloween are fast approaching. Allow me to suggest that you spend some time with the classics this time around. And you can't get more classic (or classy) than films from the Golden Age of Universal Horror. You can build a library of great horror classics quickly with the entries in Universal's "Legacy Collection" series.

One of these sets presented all five of the original "Invisible Man" movies from the 1930s and 1940s, some appearing here for the very first time on DVD. The Invisible Man entry in Abbott & Costello's series of comedies where Universal put their 1930s monsters out to pasture is also included (You can, for example, watch one each Thursday in October as you prepare yourself for the Night of Walking and Knocking Candy Hungry Horrors! And you can wind down from the horror of it all with "Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man" on the Big Night itself.)

The main attraction of the set is the original 1933 "Invisible Man" starring Claude Rains--which features an informative running commentary of historical facts about the film and its stars on the SAP track--but the "bonus features" are for the most part also films that any move buff will be delighted to see. (None of the four sequels from the 1940s rise to the level of greatness of the original film, but they also don't sink to the level of crapitude that the so-called sequels to "The Mummy" did.)

I review all five movies in the set in this post. You can get more information (as well as purchase information at Amazon.com) by clicking on the ad link at the bottom of the post.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Starring: Claude Rains, William Harrigan, Una O'Connor, Gloria Stuart, Forrester Harvey and Henry Travers
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Chemist Frank Griffin (Rains) developes a formula that turned him invisible. He goes on a homicidal rampage in rural Britain after it also drives him insane.

Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in a scene from
"The Invisible Man" is another true classic from the formative years of the horror genre. It's quite possibly the first horror comedy and it's black humor holds up nicely even today--arrogant scientists, simple country bumpkins and incompetent cops never go out of style!

The film's special effects also hold up surprisingly well, with simple techniques employed here that were used over and over until CGI came fully into its own but rarely used as well as they were here. (Yes, there are a few places where one can see the matting, but the "invisible action" here is depicted better than it was in a film made 60 years later, "Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight".)

And finally, the film has a literate, finely honed script with loads of tension that effectively translates the mood of H.G. Wells' original novel to the screen. The characters seem well-rounded and believeable, and this, even more than the special effects, make the movie such a pleasure to watch even now. The film even manages to capture the point about loss of identity resulting in loss of connection with the world around you and ultimatley insanity (even if the movie attributes Griffin's madness first and foremost to the chemical concoction he's created.)

Lovers of classy horror and sci-fi films owe it to themselves to check this one out. The same is true if you have an appreciation for dark comedies.

The Invisible Woman (1940)
Starring: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, Charles Lane, Donald McBride, Oskar Homolka and Shemp Howard
Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A runway model (Bruce) volunteers to test an invisibility machine so she can get back at her abusive boss. Things get complicated when gangsters decide they want the machine for their own purposes.

Just because she's invisible, doesn't mean a girl can't show off her greatest assests in this scene from The Invisible Woman.
"The Invisible Woman" was touted as a sequal to "The Invisible Man", but it has nothing in common with that movie... other than the word "invisible" in the title.

This film is a light comedy with some screwball elements and slight romantic touches. Everything is played for laughs and the film is perhaps even funnier now because of some of the outdated social attitudes on display in the film. (At the time, the solution to dealing with the problem of having to pick up a passed out naked woman was the source of humor, but today it's the fact that both John Barrymore and John Howard's characters were too gentlemanly to touch her bare skin is the funny part.)

"The Invisible Woman" is a charming piece of fluff featuring a fast-paced script and a cast of fine comedic actors. It's the odd (wo)man out in Universal's "The Invisible Man Legacy Collection", but it still adds value to the set.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway, John Sutton and Alan Napier
Director: Joe May
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wrongly convicted man (Price) uses an invisibility serum to escape execution and find the murderer who framed him. But, even with the help of his loving fiance (Grey) and his loyal best friend (Sutton), can he track the killer before he is driven mad by the subtance that renders him invisible?

John Sutton (left), Nan Grey and Vincent Price in a scene from The Invisible Man Returns
"The Return of the Invisible Man" is a well-conceived sequel. It's got significant ties to the original, retains some of the same basic themes, but presents a completely different and unique story. Too often, sequels either shoehorn connections to the film into the story in an artificial manner or have so little to do with the original that one wonders why a connection was even drawn (well, aside from naked greedy attempts to ride on the coat-tails of another film's success).

A well-scripted mystery is added to the invisible man shenanigans... and although it's a bit slow in getting started, it is a gripping tale once it gets going. The mystery isn't terribly hard to solve for those who like playing along--there really is only one suspect and the film never launches any serious attempt to divert the audience's attention from that villain. However, plenty of suspense arises from watching the invisible man start to lose his mind even as he indentifies his prey.

The great cast of the film is also to be credited with its success. Most noteworthy among the actors are Vicent Price lends his distinctive voice to the film's unseen protagonist, and Cecil Kellaway who appears in a rare dramatic role as the inscrutible Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard.

The only complaint I have with the film are the invisiblity effects. Whether due to a lack of budget or creativity on the part of the director and special effects crew, there is nothing here as impressive as the cinematic tricks used to sell the presense of an invisible character on screen as was found in the original "Invisible Man" nor in the "Invisible Woman", a comedy dating from the same year yet featuring far more impressive effects. (Nothing in "The Invisible Man Returns" comes close to the bicycle stunt in "The Invisible Man" or the stockings scene in "The Invisible Woman".)

However, the solid story and excellent cast make up for the shortcomings in the special effects department.

Invisible Agent (1942)

Starring: Jon Hall, Cedric Hardwicke, Ilona Massey, Peter Lorre and J. Edward Bomberg
Director: Edwin L.Marin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After he is threatened by Axis agents, Frank (Hall) decides to put the invisibility formula invented by his grandfather to use in the War Effort. He parachutes into Germany, teams up with a beautiful allied spy (Massey) and sets about destroying the organizers of a Fifth Column operation in the United States (Hardwicke and Lorre).

The sexy deep-cover agent for the Allies (Ilona Massey) looks on as the Invisible Agent makes himself visible
"Invisible Agent" is the second real sequel to "The Invisible Man". It's also an average WW2 propaganda film that shows the the Axis to be as foolish, evil and treacherous as can be imagined, while the Allies are brilliant and right-minded. Sort of.

While the Nazis are as nefarious as possible--decietful, backstabbing Hitler-worshipping sycophantic cowards every last one of them--our hero is also a bit hard to root for. Frank, as the invisible super-spy, is either dumb as a post or the invisibility forumula has a different effect on him than it had on those how used it in "The Invisible Man" and "The Invisible Man Returns". Instead of turning into the sort of megalomaniac who would try to get to Hitler and replace him as the leader of the Riech (which Griffin from the original film would almost certainly have done), Frank instead plays pranks on the Nazis at inopportune times--endangering both himself and deep-cover double-agent Massey--and falls into deep, coma-like sleeps at even worse times. Is it the invisibility formula at work, is Frank a moron, or is it just bad writing? Whatever the explanation, the Invisible Agent isn't much of a hero to root for... unless you're a 13 year old (who are probably the target audience for the film).

The target audience might also be the reason why it feels like a couple of punches were being pulled in this movie. While the Nazis are definately decadent scum in this movie, their evil doesn't even come close to approaching that displayed in indepdent productions from the time like "Hitler, Dead or Alive" or "Beast of Berlin", films that share many thematic and propaganda-content elements to this movie. Either, the fantastic elements of an invisible spy led Universal to choose to target it at a younger audience--and thus toned down some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Nazis--or maybe the very fact that Universal was a major film studio and corporation with international interests even in the 1940s and the two other films I mentioned were made by small operations limited the studio's desire to make a film that savaged the Axis as fully as it deserved.

The film is fun enough and the invisible man effects are decent--as is the idea that the invisible man here chooses to make himself visible using cold cream and a towel draped over his head instead of somehow finding yards worth of bandages everywhere he goes. The actors also give good performances, with only Peter Lorre failing to convince; he plays a Japanese intelligence agent and he is about as unconvincing as I would be if cast in the part of a Somali pirate captain. I can only imagine how bad the "Mr. Moto" films must be....

The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
Starring: Jon Hall, Leon Erroll, John Carradine, Lester Matthews, Alan Curtis and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A psychopath (Hall) is made invisible by an eccentric scientist (Carradine) and he sets out to get revenge on those he believes have wronged him.

From right to left: Alan Curtis, Evelyn Ankers and the outline of Jon Hall in a publicity still for The Invisible Man's Revenge.
Here's a film with decent special effects (or its time, and which are actually undermined a bit by the crystal clarity of the DVD transfer because you can see how some of them were done), with a good cast all giving decent performances, and a competent technical crew from the lighting, to the photography, editing, and musical score. Unfortunately, all these quality elements can't make up for the fact that the script is awful.

It might be that the kids in the matinee audience for whom this film must have been made wouldn't notice or care, but it bothered me that none of the principal characters were people you could root for or even care about--Robert Griffin (Jon Hall), the invisible man, is a crazy murderer from the outset, but whether his perception of old slights is true or not, when he does appear his old friend Sir Jasper Herrick (Lester Matthews) does everything short of killing him to get him out of the way, so this gives him a true grevience. With Griffin and Herrick both being scumbags, the audience has no one to be on the side of.

We might have found our heroes in tabloid reporter Mark Foster (Alan Curtis) and his girlfriend Julie (Evelyn Ankers), the daughter of Sir Jasper. but they have such limited screentime and arer so woefully underdeveloped that their presense in the film feel almost perfuctory and like items on a check list that were included just because they were on the list. ("We've got a maniac, so we need to have an intrepid journalist and a potential damsel in distress. Yeah, they don't do much in the story, but the forumla says they need to be there." (The irrelevancy of Ankers character is driven home completely by the fact that she doesn't even end up a damsel in distress... Griffin targets Foster in the films climactic scenes during the one time when the film manages to muster some real suspense and concern for a character in it.)

"The Invisible Man's Revenge" was the last of the inivisble man movies to be made in the 1940s, and it shows the studio probably should have called it quits after "The Invisible Agent". It's the weakest of the five movies included in the "Invisible Man Legacy Collection," but it's also the weakest. It also has no connection to 1933's "The Invisible Man," but instead goes an entirely different direction like "The Invisible Woman" did.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Starring: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Bud and Lou, a pair of rookie detectives (Abbott and Costello), are hired to helping a boxer who has been falsely accused of murdering his coach, they soon find their client is harder to spot than clues: The desperate man drinks an experimental invisibility potion to avoid being captured by the police, and he then proceeds to help them set up a frame to unmask the real killers.

This film has some great comedy routines in it, with the best of them involving boxing--such as when Costello is supposedly boxing a prize fighter but it's the invisible man who is landing the punches. Unfortunately, the material that gets us from one gag to the next is rather dull. This is the first Abbott and Costello film I've watched where I found myself reaching for other things to do while it was running. (I must add, though, that the special effects were well done, particularly the one where the invisible man is driving a car.)

"Abbott and Costello Meet Invisible Man" isn't exactly a bad movie, but I was expecting more from it. I think those who have seen other A&C horror spoofs will, too.

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