Here is Darrell Buxton’s introduction to a classic Universal Horrors Double Bill of The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns which screened a couple of weekends ago at QUAD. QUAD’s Universal Horror season continues on through the rest of June and early July with double bills of The Wolf Man/Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and The Creature From The Black Lagoon / Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy.
So, what would you do if you were invisible? Don’t answer that – I know you lot!
Welcome to Fright Club, for a show that goes further back in time for us than usual with a pair of classic movies from the 1930s – THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, both from the home of horror, Universal Studios, whose string of major monster movies we’ve been showcasing at QUAD all month.
Looking around the audience, I’m wondering if we’ve got a full house tonight. I mean, I can see some of you – but do be careful where you sit, as those empty-looking seats next to you may not be what they seem.
Invisibility in the movies goes back a long way – it’s an ideal subject for silent movies, being so visual, and perfect for those early pioneers who dabbled in trick films too, as via the use of a few strategically placed wires or wind machines you can make it look as though all kinds of objects are being propelled by an unseen hand.
Of course, invisibility is not such a fitting concept for literature, but H.G.Wells penned his novel ‘The Invisible Man’ within a run of classic speculative science fiction including ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘The First Men In The Moon’, and ‘The Time Machine’, all published within a span of a few years in the late 1890s and early part of the 20th century.
Filmmakers soon adopted the notion, with a 1905 French movie called LES INVISIBLES – it still exists, runs for about 8 minutes, and is on YouTube. In 1904 Georges Melies had made SIVA THE INVISIBLE, of which no copies seem to survive. It became quite a popular theme in silent cinema, and the German horror star of the period, Paul Wegener, best known for his Golem movies’ made DER YOGHI in 1917, where an Indian mystic uses the powers of invisibility to scare an inventor.
Other appearances, if I can use that inappropriate wording, by invisible characters over the years have included Kevin Bacon in THE HOLLOW MAN, directed by Paul Verhoeven; Chevy Chase in the John Carpenter comedy MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN; James Bond drove an invisible car in DIE ANOTHER DAY and Schwarzenegger and crew took on an invisible alien in PREDATOR. Sue Storm of the Fantastic 4 has the ability to turn invisible, of course, though the less said about the films featuring the Fantastic 4, the better! The Harry Potter series occasionally features the Cloak of Invisibilty, which, unsurprisingly given the popularity of Harry and co, is nowadays available as an item of clothing for purchase or costume hire, though with the disclaimer that it will not actually render the wearer transparent. The stuttering Universal ‘Dark Universe’ was supposed to star Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, in a 2020 film scripted by Ed Solomon, writer of the ‘Bill & Ted’ movies and, appropriately enough, writer of ‘Now You See Me’ – but the chaos into which the Dark Universe has entangled itself might mean we have a bit of a wait on our hands.
There have been heaps of further examples too, far too many for me to go into during our brief time here tonight. Japanese films of the 1950s like INVISIBLE AVENGER and THE HUMAN VAPOUR touched on the theme, and 70s tv was big on disappearing leading men too, with David McCallum starring in an ‘Invisible Man’ series, rivalled by Ben Murphy as ‘The Gemini Man’.
So to tonight’s double bill, then – part of our ongoing season of Universal’s horror classics of the 1930s. In recent weeks we’ve already screened FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE, three early 30s masterpieces directed by Dudley-born James Whale; and the studio’s 1933 version of THE INVISIBLE MAN was yet another classic from the hand of Whale. Boris Karloff starred in all of those other Whale landmarks and was intended to play the main character, Griffin, in THE INVISIBLE MAN. However, studio boss Carl Laemmle had reneged on a promise to increase Karloff’s salary – who knows, perhaps using the reasoning that the star would be spending less time on set and doing less work in front of the cameras on this particular project? – and so Boris turned it down. Weirdly enough, another actor born in the same Camberwell area of London where Karloff hailed from was offered the role – Claude Rains.
One aspect of any production involving invisibility which needs to be carefully considered is the voice of the main character. Ideally, clear diction, powerful line reading, and a spectrum of emotion will be required to round out a convincing character in this unusual situation where the filmmakers cannot rely on facial expressions, body movement, and visual action from their lead actor. Rains was inexperienced in film, having featured in one British silent movie in 1920, but had done plenty of work on stage before heading for Hollywood. He had been almost completely blinded in one eye during the First World War, and had also managed to ditch a broad Cockney accent during his theatre training. Claude’s daughter Jessica once remarked “The interesting thing to me was that he became a different person. He became a very elegant man, with a really extraordinary Mid-Atlantic accent. It was his voice, nobody else spoke like that, half American, half English and a little Cockney thrown in.”
This proved to be perfect for THE INVISIBLE MAN and Rains dominates the film with a powerful vocal performance – the movie contains lots of Whale’s trademark whimsical humour but Rains adds a few levels of true horror, especially once his megalomania takes hold and he begins to plan out his campaign of murder and mass destruction. Invisibility films can often ignore the frightening implications of the condition in favour of witty fantasy, broad comedy, or farce, but the figure presented by Whale and Rains has a terrifying focus to his vision. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of fun in the movie – special effects wizard John P. Fulton is as big a contributor to the proceedings as anyone, with some amazing camera tricks and bits of clever business that are still impressive 85 years after the original release.
The second offering tonight is THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, directed by Joe May for Universal in 1939 and starring Vincent Price. Today we think of Mr. Price as being one of the giants of horror, but at the time this film was made his screen career was just starting out, and through the forties and early fifties he was to become more associated with film noir and thrillers’ often playing urbane and sophisticated characters on the fringes of the main action. Again, Vincent has a perfect voice for the invisible man role – John Fulton has had six years to up his game and provides a few fresh visual bits of trickery, and Joe May, while no James Whale, makes a good job of directing the mobvie, especially in the visually striking scenes taking place at a coal mining company. May had emigrated from Germany during Hitler’s rise to power’ and spoke almost no English – something that you could speculate gave him an insight into the difficulties experienced by a man trying to turn a deficiency into an asset.
Universal made four further Invisible movies, with the comedy THE INVISIBLE WOMAN in 1940, the wartime spy saga INVISIBLE AGENT in 1942, the science-fiction/horror/crime hybrid THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE in 1944. The final bow of the concept came in 1951 with the inevitable ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN, although Bud and Lou had already met the Invisible Man when he turned up at the very end of 1948’s ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN – the role on that occasion voiced once again by a cameoing Vincent Price.
There was one more brilliant Invisible Man film in 1939, produced by the geniuses at the Warner Bros. cartoon unit – when you get home, turn tonight into a triple bill by searching online and watching Porky Pig in PORKY’S MOVIE MYSTERY. Highly recommended and featuring loads of first-rate invisibility gags.
For the time being, though, enjoy THE INVISIBLE MAN – and don’t disappear afterwards, but stick around for the sequel.