Universal’s Second-Best “Invisible Man” Movie
by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
After that it was a relief to see The Invisible Man’s Revenge, an all-stops-out Universal monster melodrama with Jon Hall as a black-hearted villain (this time the invisible man is crazy even before he becomes invisible!) who seeks to terrorize the British couple (Lester Matthews and the marvelous Gale Sondergaard) who abandoned him in Africa five years before after the three of them discovered a diamond mine. Also in it are John Carradine (as a marvelously eccentric scientist who actually makes Hall invisible, only to be killed by him after he discovers that the only way he can become visible again, even temporarily, is by taking out all of another person’s blood and transfusing it into himself — I’d make a joke about Keith Richards but I already did that in connection with House of Dracula) and Leon Errol (playing a funnier-than-usual comic-relief role as a minor-league grifter whom Hall exploits). The screenplay was by Bertram Millhauser (“suggested” by the original Invisible Man novel by H. G. Wells, just as his contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes scripts for Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were only “suggested” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and the film was both produced and directed by Ford Beebe (director of the Flash Gordon serials for Universal, which is actually a pretty good recommendation for this sort of film).
I’ve long thought The Invisible Man’s Revenge was the best of the Universal invisible-man films except for the marvelous James Whale/R. C. Sherriff/Claude Rains original (it’s certainly a damned sight better than The Invisible Man Returns, which was a decent movie but overdid the social commentary and offered a reasonable but unspectacular leading performance by Vincent Price — on the strength of that film no one would have predicted that he would succeed Boris Karloff as the Hollywood horror actor, and indeed his impression in The Invisible Man Returns was so lackluster that he didn’t get to do another horror film for 13 years — until House of Wax, and that was the film that made his reputation as a horror star). Jon Hall, bland and beefy as a hero (in the earlier Invisible Agent as well as all those South Seas or Arab tits ’n’ togas pictures with Maria Montez), is surprisingly good and chilling as a villain, and from the marvelous opening scene (a padded steamer trunk is being unloaded, it’s sliced open from the inside and Hall emerges) to the action-packed climax The Invisible Man’s Revenge remains a tight, well-constructed and exciting movie. — 11/8/98
I ran Charles The Invisible Man’s Revenge, Universal’s 1944 entry in its Invisible Man cycle and, to my mind (a lot of posters on imdb.com disagree!), the best Invisible Man film since the first one in 1933. Robert Griffin (Jon Hall, here playing a black-hearted villain and doing so a lot better than he played the hero in Invisible Agent!) escapes from an asylum in South Africa and stows away on a freighter bound for London by hiding inside a bale of something-or-other; in the marvelous opening scene we see a knife tear the cloth covering the bale from inside and then the cut grows large enough to allow the man inside to emerge. Years before he had been a diamond prospector in Tanganyika along with his partners Sir Jasper and Lady Irene Herrick (Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard), only he had either been hit by a tree or actually clubbed by one of the Herricks. He was left in the jungle for dead and the Herricks went on to make millions from the diamond field the three had discovered — only to fritter it all away again on bad investments — and now Griffin has returned and wants his share of the mine even if that means providing the final financial ruination of the Herricks in the process.
He confronts them at the Herrick manse he covets — along with the hand of the Herricks’ daughter, Julie (Evelyn Ankers in one of those uninspiring damsel-in-distress roles she got stuck with in most of her movies at Universal — though she came alive when she got to play a villainess herself in Weird Woman), who of course already has a decent young male love interest: journalist Mark Foster (Alan Curtis). Just as he’s presenting himself and the document which he thinks will give him a legal claim on what’s left of their fortune (including their ancestral home, Shortlands), Robert Griffin collapses after drinking wine the Herricks have given him (it’s presented as an accident but, as with the original Tanganyikan “accident” in the backstory, it’s suggested they may have actually drugged his drink), and the Herricks lift the legal paper and dump him outside the estate grounds.
He’s rescued by townsman Herbert Higgins (Leon Errol, whose dry wit makes him a far more agreeable contributor to this movie than most of the dreary actors inserted into films like this for so-called “comic relief”) and eventually discovers that another area resident, Dr. Peter Drury (John Carradine), has discovered an invisibility formula and has already rendered his dog Brutus invisible. (Two years later, in Monogram’s The Face of Marble — a marvelously atmospheric movie, especially surprising for a slovenly studio like Monogram, though the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense even by the meager standards of horror films — John Carradine once again played a mad scientist who had a dog named Brutus.) Griffin eagerly goes through the invisibility regimen and then (like Orson Welles as Cagliostro in Black Magic five years later) refuses to hang around and let Drury show him off as a successful experiment; instead he returns to Shortlands to harass the Herricks some more. He also crashes a pub and makes his friend Higgins look like a champion darts player by grabbing the darts from his hand, rushing across the bar and sticking them in the bull’s-eye. (At least this time they got the dartboard right; in the 1933 Invisible Man they had an American-style dartboard in the middle of a pub in the heart of England.)
Eventually Griffin realizes that Julie is horrified at the idea of an invisible lover, and he finds that the only way he can become visible again is through completely draining all the blood out of another human being and transfusing it into himself. (Unlike W. Scott Darling and Eric Taylor, who wrote the script for Universal’s The Ghost of Frankenstein two years earlier, Invisible Man’s Revenge scenarist Bertram Millhauser cheerily ignores the whole issue of blood types.) Griffin picks Drury as his first victim and threatens to give the same treatment to Higgins, Mark Foster and anyone else who he thinks stands in his way — until he starts fading back to invisibility in a scene with the Herricks and Brutus, Drury’s dog, attacks and kills him. (It’s not every horror film in which the monster is taken out by a dog!)
Millhauser’s script has its inconsistencies but it’s mostly a well-honed tale of murder and revenge with a sci-fi twist, and director Ford Beebe — who usually worked on Universal serials — managed to get a much more convincing Gothic atmosphere out of the Universal horror infrastructure than many more highly prestigious directors on the lot. He also gets the performance of a lifetime out of Jon Hall, who on the basis of this film should have played fewer heroes and more villains; his off-handed dismissal of the worth of anybody else’s life compared to his own is as chilling as the throbbing megalomania of Claude Rains’ utterances in the 1933 film, and in this bad-guy role he acts with a power and authority that often eluded him in more heroic parts.
Incidentally, Charles downloaded the novel The Invisible Man to his Palm device and just finished reading it; he said it’s a lot more openly propagandistic against irresponsible scientific experimentation than the film (not surprising since Wells was an active anti-vivisectionist, the animal rights movement of his time; The Island of Dr. Moreau is a quite obvious propaganda piece against animal experimentation, though not surprisingly that aspect of the story has been ignored in all three film versions) and there are a lot of quirky differences, including that the Invisible Man is described as a heavy drug user before he makes himself invisible; that the invisibility process is a combination of chemical and electrical treatments (so the spoof The Invisible Woman came closer to the original novel, at least in this particular, than Universal’s “serious” Invisible Man films!); that Jack Griffin is an albino, which makes it easier for himself to become invisible because he’s already short of the normal quantity of skin pigment; and that in the finale he’s almost literally lynched. (I’d remembered it as a lot closer to the 1933 film than that!)
Charles also asked me to check the meaning of the word “griffin” to see if there was any symbolic significance in H. G. Wells’ choice of that as his Invisible Man’s name; the griffin is a mythological flying creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body and tail of a lion; the Web site http://home.planet.nl/~artrako/Historie/Grijpvogels-EN.html tells of a legend that the German city of Greifswald was built on the site of a griffin’s nest, and the griffin sought revenge in ways that might or might not relate to Wells’s plot: “[T]he expelled griffin used to rob children to swallow them; later on people spotted horrible ghosts that were wandering around at nights: a big wife, rattling with a bunch of keys, driving a herd of pigs or snow-white goose in front of her; the appearance of a black horse or a grey that jumped on peoples shoulder’s and pushed them unto the ground so hard that the blood came out of their noses and their mouth.” — 11/1/08