Horror Is Universal: “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944)

I deliberated for a while about how to begin this article. I like to open these articles by posing a question or thesis statement, or I’ll just try to write something that I think is funny. But in this case, I’m hard-pressed to do either. I can’t think of anything to say about this movie besides “Well, that happened.”

I think it’s pretty clear by now that Universal Horror has given us some truly awful and lazy films in addition to the enduring classics. Out of all the films we’ve examined so far, The Invisible Man’s Revenge is not the worst nor the laziest overall. It’s not even the worst or laziest film in the Invisible Man series, because Invisible Agent exists. And yet, I sort of wish it was the worst one.

I’m not going to take any pleasure in tearing this movie to shreds. Because it’s not the fun kind of bad movie. But it’s not the hateful, unwatchable kind of bad movie, either. Instead, its primary sin is the basic cardinal sin of many a displeasing film: it is the definition of average.

The Plot: Five years after being left for dead on an ill-fated safari, Robert Griffin (Jon Hall) returns to England quite a bit worse for wear, a phrase which here means “He escaped from an insane asylum after murdering two orderlies.” Robert then pays an unexpected visit to some old friends of his, Sir Jasper Herrick (Lester Matthews) and his wife Lady Irene (Gale Sondergaard). Believing that the Herricks deliberately tried to kill him back in Africa, Robert demands a costly recompense: first his rightful share of the diamond fields that the party discovered, then the Herricks’ estate, then the hand of their daughter Julie (Evelyn Ankers). Shocked and horrified by Robert’s behavior, the Herricks throw him out of their house. While plotting his next move, Robert ends up in the home of local mad scientist Dr. Drury (John Carradine). Drury has discovered the key to invisibility, and he’s got the menagerie of invisible animals to prove it. Robert realizes that he’s just stumbled upon the ultimate weapon in his quest for revenge on the Herricks, and he volunteers to be Drury’s first human guinea pig. Newly invisible, Robert teams up with a local drunkard named Herbert Higgins (Leon Errol) to coerce Sir Jasper into signing his wealth away. But Robert must be visible to enjoy his good fortune, of course, and the cure for invisibility turns out to be a gruesome one indeed…

We have another instance where I can find very little concrete background info on today’s film. Universal announced the project in June 1943 and released it a year later, almost to the day. The director was Ford Beebe, who we previously encountered as the producer of Son of Dracula. His passion was directing westerns, but he also did a fair number of horror/sci-fi serials, such as 1939’s The Phantom Creeps and some of the Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. The screenwriter, Bertram Millhauser, wrote a few of the 1940s Sherlock Holmes films put out by Universal with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

You may remember that Jon Hall has played one of our Invisible Men before, way back in Invisible Agent (though he is not the same character by any means). Evelyn Ankers is also here to be criminally underused yet again. Keen eyes and brains may recognize Lesther Matthews as the backup love interest from Werewolf of London a whopping nine years ago. In that time he’s apparently aged enough to have an adult daughter. Gale Sondergaard had quite an interesting Hollywood career. In 1936 she became the first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and she was nominated again ten years later. During the 1950s, she pivoted from Hollywood to theater when her director husband was targeted by the Red Scare. Ironically, if you know about Sondergaard today, you may know her best from a role she didn’t actually play: she was the original casting choice for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

The final cast member we need to talk about is John Carradine, the most famous out of this bunch. With a whopping 351 film and television credits to his name, he was one of the most prolific English-speaking actors of all time. He was a frequent collaborator of both Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford. A lot of his film and TV credits were low-budget horror or Westerns, which he did to finance his own touring theater companies. Theater, especially Shakespeare, was Carradine’s real passion, and he did tons of stage work in addition to film and TV. And apparently, when he was asked if he enjoyed any of the horror films he was known for, he cited The Invisible Man’s Revenge.

For me, the really baffling thing about Invisible Man’s Revenge is that I’ve rarely seen a bad movie come so close to actually being good. The pieces of a good movie are, for the most part, all here. The acting is decent, and the script is not terrible. The direction and editing are fine, if perhaps uninspired. And as I’ll describe later, there are times when all the disparate elements come together and create a genuinely entertaining scene. So what went wrong? Why can’t the film maintain that quality for the whole runtime?

Let’s start off with…I don’t want to call it the problem of Robert, because it’s not necessarily a problem. It’s a different way of approaching the character, and I’m not sure it works quite as well as the other incarnations of the character. This is the first time in the film series that we have an Invisible Man who starts out as a straight-up villain, even before he becomes invisible. One of the first things we learn about him is that he’s killed two people, and the second thing he does is try to extort money from a couple and threaten their daughter. Over the course of the film, he continues with his extortion plot and attempts to murder several people in cold blood, succeeding in at least one instance. And because no mention is made of the invisibility serum having the side effect of insanity, we are left to assume that Robert is doing all of this because he just wants to. I will not be calling him Griffin because, like the last guy, he is unworthy of the coveted title of Griffin. He also gets banished to the WTF Is Wrong With You Corner, where he will stay by himself until the heat death of the universe. Or at least until he is joined by someone even worse than him. And he will be.

Anyway! This is a sharp contrast from the Invisible Man movies that have come before, in which the protagonist is either a good person who falls victim to insanity (as in The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns) or someone who remains heroic all the way through (as in The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent). Robert here is actually a bit closer to the character’s depiction in the original H.G. Wells novel, where he was already a thief and an abuser even before he performed his fateful experiment.

So this is not the first time we’ve seen the Invisible Man as a villain through and through, nor will it be the last. But out of all the unambiguously villainous takes on the character, this one is perhaps the weakest. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, Robert is the character that you spend the most time with. This results in the audience spending most of the film being stuck with a character that they are rightfully supposed to hate who has zero redeeming qualities. In The Invisible Man, you obviously don’t want Griffin to get away with the murders he’s committed and his plan to conquer the world. But you do want him to at least be cured, because the movie does a good job of showing you that he wasn’t always a dangerous man, and you feel some sympathy for him as a result. Robert, on the other hand, was just a bad person already, as far as the audience is shown. So there’s nothing about him to root for.

The other pitfall of having a villainous Invisible Man in this movie is that, because all the other characters are so woefully underdeveloped, there is no interesting or sympathetic hero who rises up to oppose him. Let’s switch gears for a bit and talk about the Herricks. The movie wants us to see them as the unfairly targeted victims of Robert’s revenge — or does it? When you analyze some of the stuff that they do, you realize that the film doesn’t portray them in a very flattering light, either. This is most obvious with two things they do in the first scene that they share with Robert. First off, there’s the part where Lady Irene gives Robert a drink that she has very obviously drugged, apparently without telling her husband. When Robert passes out after just a few sips of the drink, Irene launches into a prepared speech about how him not being able to hold his liquor clearly means that he’s gone completely insane and is no longer the man that she and her husband knew. Robert has a paper in his pocket, the original legal agreement that he and the Herricks made to evenly divide any of the riches they might find while in Africa. The second really questionable action on the Herricks’ part comes when Lord Herrick, egged on by his wife — there’s a pattern here — steals this paper from the comatose Robert and destroys it. The Herricks’ reasons for not wanting anything to do with Robert are initially understandable: they have fallen on hard times themselves, and they legitimately thought their friend died five years before. But the kind of subterfuge they undertake complicates matters. That, combined with their generally arrogant attitude and the callous way they treat the lower-class people around them, makes it difficult to sympathize with them despite what they’re going through.

So, just to recap, the main conflict in this film is “rich assholes vs. a budding serial killer.” You don’t want to root for either side, so a lot of the film just becomes unpleasant to watch.

Things begin to get a little better once the idea of invisibility enters the picture. First there’s the entrance of Carradine as Dr. Drury, which is by far the strongest performance in the movie. Drury is very much a mad scientist, with a secluded cabin all to himself and rows of invisible animals in cages. But his behavior is more subdued than you may expect from such a character. Carradine’s facial tics and intonations of voice successfully convey both charm and a slight sinister nature. The way his face lights up when he realizes that the stranger seeking shelter at his door is a potential human guinea pig for the invisibility serum is a noticeable early moment. But at the same time, Drury is a bit more personable than your typical mad scientist. He genuinely cares for his invisible pets, especially his trusty German Shepherd named Brutus. Drury isn’t the movie for a very long time, but you get the sense that he’s had a career and a life long before Griffin turned up on his doorstep. And that makes his ultimate fate, which I’ll discuss in more detail later, that much sadder.

Another strong section of the film is when Robert teams up with Herbert Higgins after he becomes invisible. We get to see something that none of the other Invisible Man films have attempted as of yet: using invisibility to con people rather than just terrorize them. Higgins is challenged to a game of darts while in the pub, and he uses Robert’s help to pull off a variety of tricky moves like making a shot from between his own legs, making a shot with his eyes closed or throwing a handful of darts at once and having them all hit bullseye. They make a tidy sum out of money from wagers, of course. This is probably the standout sequence of the film for me. The back-and-forth between Robert and Higgins as they try to coordinate the scheme is funny, and the whole concept is just very well-executed. It’s one of the rare moments when the film comes alive, and it makes you wish the other 60-ish minutes had this much energy.

Another interesting choice the film makes is when it essentially becomes a sci-fi vampire movie in the third act. After Robert seemingly gets everything he wants from the Herricks, he realizes that he can’t enjoy his new wealth and court Julie unless he’s visible. A little investigation reveals that his invisibility can be cured with blood from another human…all of their blood. This sets him off on a fresh murder spree in search of lives he can sacrifice to regain and preserve his own. The comparisons to Dracula are even pointed out by the other characters. Robert’s first victim is none other than Dr. Drury, whom he kills with a full blood transfusion before burning down his laboratory. Only the now-visible Brutus escapes the flames. When Drury’s blood can’t sustain Robert for more than a few days, he then attacks Julie’s reporter boyfriend. But this desperate act leads to Robert’s fatal undoing, as well as one of the most satisfying death scenes in Universal Horror so far: Brutus, the dog whose master Robert killed, chases him down and presumably mauls him.

In terms of story and character, this is kind of a frustrating movie. There are scenes and ideas that I definitely like here, but that’s all they really are: scenes and ideas. The pieces never quite fit together to form an entertaining whole. There’s also a lot of missed opportunities in the plot, especially where the Herricks are concerned. We’ve talked about how the moral ambiguity of Lord Jasper and Lady Irene never gets addressed, but there’s also the fact that Julie has no personality or agency of her own. Calling her Robert’s love interest isn’t even accurate, because he never even meets her before he sees her portrait and decides he’s going to marry her. Both Robert and the film treat her not as a person but as another possession that he’s determined to steal from the Herricks. And the script could have turned Robert’s obsession with Julie into a genuinely creepy plot point, but that would have required making Julie an actual character.

Now I want to move away from talking about the script and talk about the effects, which might actually be the most disappointing aspect of the whole film. See, this is where the “laziness” aspect comes in. I don’t know what exactly went wrong — budget constraints, probably — but there’s been a steep drop in the quality of the visual effects between the previous Invisible Man movies and this one. Some of the effects done on-set look okay, like the floating darts in the pub sequence. Other on-set effects are less convincing, like when Robert is supposed to be lifting a comatose man onto a table and the strings couldn’t be more obvious. But the majority of the floating objects, as well as the moments when invisible Robert reveals himself, all look terrible. These effects were filmed separately and then edited into the film later, not unlike the technique used on the previous films. But the previous films made an effort to edit them into the scene well, so that the final effect was borderline seamless. In this movie, it’s painfully obvious that they just projected these elements over the existing film and called it a day. Props that are being handled by the invisible Robert will be kind of see-through and not blend in with the rest of the set, and when Robert is partially visible, you can tell that Jon Hall is being filmed separately. And when I say “you can tell,” I mean the filmmakers aren’t even bothering to hide it.

Let’s contrast two similar effects from two different films. In Invisible Agent, the main character smears cold cream on his face to reveal himself to another person. In this film, Robert does a similar trick by smearing flour on his face. But the effect in Invisible Agent looks much better, and I say that as someone who had virtually nothing good to say about that movie. But it did manage to successfully create the illusion that someone was physically present in the scene and gradually becoming visible. The effect in Invisible Man’s Revenge just looks like a fuzzy-around-the-edges projection of a face beaming in from somewhere else. I don’t want to say the illusion is destroyed because there is no illusion in the first place.

And I think that’s kind of the issue with this movie: it’s simply not trying very hard. Universal had done five of these movies in eleven years, and I think they were just running on autopilot. The movie takes the straightest possible line through its sequence of events, cutting past ideas and characters that have the potential to be interesting. Nearly everyone behind and in front of the camera is putting in effort, but not that much effort. The result is a movie that’s perfectly functional but not memorable in the least. I can’t call it unwatchable or even all that bad, because it isn’t, but I can’t recommend it over the original Invisible Man or the first two sequels. It’s basically the definition of a middle-of-the-road movie. Which is kind of a shame, since this is the last solo Invisible Man film in the Classic Era. But with three good movies out of five, I’d say Griffin’s legacy is pretty well secured for now.

Final Rating

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Let’s see, what do I have to look forward to in June, my all-so-important birthday month?

…Oh. Oh no. No no no no. NO.

UP NEXT: The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

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