5/10. The fifth and final instalment in Universal’s Invisible Man Franchise was released in 1944 and treads familiar ground as an escapee turns invisible in order to exact revenge on his wrong-doers. John Carradine is delicious as the nutty scientist, scream queen Evelyn Ankers is underused and Jon Hall returns as the invisible menace for a second time. A messy script is saved by quality filmmaking.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge. 1944, USA. Produced & directed by Ford Beebe. Written by Bertram Millhauser. Suggested by the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Starring: Jon Hall, John Carradine, Leon Errol, Evelyn Ankers, Alan Curtis, Gale Sondergaard. IMDb: 5.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 40/100. Metacritic: N/A.
John Carradine must have really needed money for his Shakespearean company in 1944. He appeared in no less than 11 different films that year. It’s not like he needed to do low-budget monstrosities like Voodoo Man (review) or Return of the Ape Man (review). He had cushy supporting roles in a number of major studio productions, and appeared in two horror movie sequels at Universal, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. But he worked as much as he could during this time in order to raise fund for his theatre company, and they must have been doing well this year.
This is not Carradine’s film, however, even if he is the best thing in it. It is Jon Hall’s film. With The Invisible Man’s Revenge Hall becomes the first actor at Universal to play the unseen menace in two different films. Unfortunately for the viewer’s sanity, he plays a different character in this film than he did in Invisible Agent (1942, review). The Invisible Man’s Revenge has nothing whatsoever to do with H.G. Wells’ novel, nor the original 1933 James Whale movie. In the 1942 movie Hall played Frank Raymond, the son of the infamous original Invisible Man Jack Griffin. This time around, Hall is neither a scientist nor is there any mention of Jack Griffin or that the character would have had a relative who was, at one point or the other, invisible. Here Hall plays an embittered adventurer who has escaped from a mental asylum abroad and returned to London in order to blackmail his old colleague Jasper (Lester Matthews) who he feels has cheated out of him his part of the profits from a diamond mine they found together in Africa. But just to further confuse the audience, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser has decided to call Hall’s character Robert Griffin. And it doesn’t help that Lester Matthews looks and sounds a lot like Cedric Hardwicke’s character from The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review). All this means that you spend the first 20 minutes of the film trying to connect the dots to previous installations, until you finally realise that there is no connection whatsoever.
The plot doesn’t need too much explanation: Robert Griffin is the (wrongfully?) interned mental hospital escapee who wants revenge on the people he thinks have wronged him, and by lucky chance stumbles upon the house of the eccentric, but ultimately good-hearted Doctor Peter Drury (Carradine), who needs a human test subject for his experiments in invisibility. Insert then the plot of The Invisible Man Returns. Stirring things up along the way are also Jasper’s scheming wife Lady Herrick (a deliciously wicked Gale Sondergaard), the plotting alcoholic/comic relief Mr. Higgins (Leon Errol) and not least Jasper’s daughter and Griffin’s old flame Julie (Universal horror queen Evelyn Ankers), as well as her staple secondary love interest played by Alan Curtis in a role so meaningless that I can’t even remember him, even though I watched the film just a couple of weeks ago.
The Invisible Man franchise was perhaps the one that had the most consistently solid sequels of all Universal monster movies. None of the later pictures ever came close to the quality of James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933, review), but they all kept their noses above the water. The screwball comedy The Invisible Woman (1940, review) has many detractors, but I personally think that for what it was, it was a rather decent film. On the other hand, there are few people who feel passionately about the Invisible Man sequels. At best, they are entertaining programmers. Nobody was clamouring for yet another IM film in 1944, and that screenwriter Bertram Millhauser has basically rehashed the plot from The Invisible Man Returns is a sign that nobody expected originality from this product. Millhauser was a veteran of the silent era, whose greatest claim to fame is perhaps that he worked as a writer on the groundbreaking 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline (review). In the early forties he was a Universal hack with some lift, as he was the primary screenwriter for the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies.
Jon Hall is once again written as a good-natured scoundrel, although this time his character gets a much darker arc, turning him into a clearly defined villain at the end of the movie, as opposed to his jingoist playboy in Invisible Agent. Hall is solid in the lead, even if I think he worked better as the humorous, suave amateur spy in Invisible Agent. Millhauser’s attempt at writing Griffin as both victim, villain and hero backfires as he doesn’t quite convince as either, and his motives sometimes come off as somewhat flimsy, even for a film of this kind.
John Carradine’s character of Dr. Drury is the most enjoyable one in the film, partly because it is the only one that is written well, but mostly because Carradine is on good form here. I like the touches with the invisible parrot and especially the invisible dog, which is “on screen” for a lot of the time through the movie magic of a floating collar and leash. The dog does, in the end, play a significant role in the picture. This was a rare non-villainous role for Carradine in a horror movie.
On that note, one can argue about whether or not The Invisible Man’s Revenge should be called a horror film. A more accurate description might be “revenge drama with a sci-fi twist”. One thing I do give screenwriter Millhauser credit for, though, is dumping the absurd idea of the first film about a “rare flower in the Himalaya’s which drain’s all creatures of their colour when ingested”. Instead, Millhauser has revived H.G. Wells’ original theory of altering the body’s refraction index, making the light pass through the body instead of reflecting off it — like clear glass, essentially. (There is, of course, the oft cited flaw in Wells’ theory that if we were truly transparent, then light would also pass straight through our eyeballs without being picked up by the optical nerves, but let’s leave that for another time, shall we?)
The Invisible Man’s Revenge has a somewhat shaky reputation both among Universal horror fans and critics in general. It has a 40% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and a mere 5.9/10 rating on IMDb, which is rather low as far as Universal horrors are concerned. But on the other hand, most critics agree that it is a solid, if somewhat bland, movie. Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum, Richard Scheib at Moria, Eric Reifschneider at Blood Brothers and Jon Davidson at Midnite Riviews all give the film an equivalent of a 3/5 star rating. All the above mentioned praise the special effects of Universal’s resident magician John P. Fulton, who created the invisibility effects of the original invisible man. One scene that seems to stick out for most critics is a humorous one, where an invisible Griffin teams up with Higgins at the local pub, and the invisible man helps his sidekick impress the patrons with his astounding dart skills. Scheib writes: “Leon Errol as the invisible man’s visible assistant gives a very funny performance – the invisibly assisted darts game in the pub is a comedic gem”. Reifschneider contintues: “Like the other entries the special effects are the real highlight and the effects displayed here are the best of the series. Now we get to see the invisible man disappear while in motion and even see him with water splashed on his transparent face.”
Even the critics who aren’t completely sold on the movie give it decent ratings, with J.P. Roscoe of Basement Rejects awarding it 5.5/10 stars, and AllMovie as well as Horror Cult Films giving it 5/10 stars. The latter writes that The Invisible Man’s Revenge is “the weakest of the Universal Invisible pictures, an uneven, awkward picture that is still certainly enjoyable, but gives the impression of having been written in a rush”. Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster writes: “While entertaining enough, don’t expect a film of the same caliber as the original”. According to Jon Davidson, it is “an entertaining, if not exceptional, chapter in Universal Studios’ saga of iconic creature features”. Scheib concludes that it “remains a likably good film, which is something that one has to stretch to be able to think of saying under the most optimistic conditions about any other Universal monster sequel from the 1940s”.
My main problem with The Invisible Man’s Revenge is that it has a messy script that sets up a number of interesting arcs, and then dumps them. For example, the film never gives us a definitive answer to what actually happened in Africa, and how this led to Griffin being locked up in an asylum. However, the movie clearly sets this up as the central pivot point in the beginning: did Mr. and Mrs. Herrick try to murder Griffin in the jungle, or did they, as they claim, think that he died in an accident and leave him for dead? And is Griffin actually crazy, or did he just get locked in the asylum because of his temporary amnesia after the “accident”? But around halfway through the film, the script seems to forget that these were ever issues, and we now focus entirely on hunting down the invisible madman. Universal’s wonderfully wicked Gale Sondergaard is initially set up for a central role as the scheming matriarch of the Herrick household, but Millhauser almost completely drops her from the script after one early scene where she not only implies that the Herricks have something to hide, but also sets up and executes a plan to drug Griffin, steal the evidence that he was ever entitled to the profits from the diamond mine and has him thrown out in the gutter. The movie also lays out a subplot in which a lawyer is going to help Griffin get back what is his, but nothing comes of this, either, as the lawyer is dispatched of as abruptly as he was introduced. Millhauser also sets up a delicious triangle drama between the young Ms.Julie Herrick (Ankers), her boyfriend and Griffin, but nothing comes of this either, as Julie categorically rejects Griffin all through the movie. And as delicious as John Carradine’s mad doctor is, his character is little more than a plot device explaining how Griffin became invisible. It feels a lot like Millhauser had an interesting plan when he begun writing, and then simply ran out of time.
This said, the film’s 75 minutes move along at a brisk and dynamic pace, the actors all do a good job, and the whole thing is well directed by Universal workhorse Ford Beebe. Beebe had been around almost since the birth of Hollywood, in the capacity of both writer and director, and worked primarily on serials, including two later Flash Gordon serials, Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet, Jungle Jim, Tarzan, and would later garner success with his films about Bomba the Jungle Boy — plus a whole slew of westerns. Prior to The Invisible Man’s Revenge, Beebe had directed the atmospheric horror movie Night Monster (1942) starring Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, which is probably why he was assigned to another horror franchise entry. In The Invisible Man’s Revenge he shows a level of finesse and style that one might perhaps not immediately expect from a serial workhorse assigned to the n:th sequel of a B movie franchise, but Beebe apparently took the assignment seriously enough to squander what was still — in a way — one of the few productions he was handed that actually had some prestige attached to it.
Jon Hall, born Charles Felix Locher, was one of those male actors in Hollywood who benefited greatly of the fact that many of the top stars of the business were off doing off doing PR and propaganda during WWII, leaving the door open for second-tier stars to show what they were made off leading man roles. Half Tahitian on his mother’s side, he made a splash in 1937 when he was cast in the lead as a persecuted Polynesian sailor in John Ford’s The Hurricane, produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn, who only made a few films a year, then kept Hall on the payroll for two and a half years without putting him in a single movie. When he finally started getting work again, he found himself typecast as handsome island Romeos, until his chance came to show off a different kind of acting chops, as he switched studio to Universal and got cast in Invisible Agent. After that he was on a hot streak, partly because of his slightly exotic looks. Between his first and second IM film, he counted half a dozen leading roles, as Haroun-Al-Raschid im Arabian Nights (1942), Kaloe in White Savage (1943), in the title role in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1943) and as Ramu in Cobra Woman (1944). All these were produced by Universal and all co-starred Maria Montez, the Mexican Spitfire, and often either Sabu or Turhan Bey. In 1944 he also managed to snatch a second lead opposite Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland in Paramount’s musical Lady in the Dark.
After the war ended in 1945, Hall was let go from Universal after yet a few films with Montez and Sabu/Bey. When the real stars returned, he saw his career slide and remained jobless for two years, when he teamed up with low-budget producer Sam Katzman, who had struck a deal with second-tier studio Columbia. Katzman kept Hall busy with a string of leading roles, some of them even rather memorable, such as Robin Hood in the 1948 film The Prince of Thieves. In 1952 he had something of a surprise comeback when he scored a hit with the TV series Ramar of the Jungle, which he co-created and starred in. The show aired until 1953. In a somewhat bizarre book-end to his career in film, Jon Hall found himself as director, cinematographer and leading man in the hilariously bad low-budget beachsploitation film The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965), partly filmed in Hall’s own house to save money. He also did some uncredited aerial photography for the similarly crappy The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) — a film which we will return to when its day comes.
Once again, as so many times before, leading lady Evelyn Ankers is underused in The Invisible Man’s Revenge — here playing the daughter of Sir Jasper Herrick, and the invisible man’s former flame, now with a new boyfriend. And once again, Ankers is on top of her game. This would be her last science fiction movie after a short but intensive burst of genre films between 1941 and 1944.
Born to English parents in Chile in 1918, Ankers studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and appeared on stage both in London and on Broadway, and started acting in small, mostly uncredited movie parts in London at the age of 18 in 1936. In 1940 she relocated to the US, and after a stint in New York found herself in Hollywood, where she was signed as a contract player for Universal. Almost immediately she paired up with the ghouls of the company, as she got a starring role in the Abbott and Costello comedy Hold That Ghost (1941). It wasn’t long after that Ankers received the part that she would be remembered for, that of Larry Talbot’s love interest in the legendary monster movie The Wolf Man (1941). She then went on to star in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943, review), Weird Woman (1944), Jungle Woman (1944, review), The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Pearl of Death (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). Apart from straight-up horrors and SF fare, she also appeared in a number of Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone.
If Fay Wray was the original Scream Queen in the thirties, then Evelyn Ankers was her successor in the forties. Dubbed “The Queen of the Screamers” and “The Queen of the B’s”, her career was not unlike Wray’s, with the exception that Wray had been in the movie business for quite some time when her time of fame came. But like Ankers’, Wray’s horror period was short and intense, starting with Doctor X (review) in 1932, and ending with Black Moon in 1934. A dark brunette with a “wholesome” look, Ankers often appeared as cultured middle class leading ladies. Her attachment to the Universal horrors was no doubt strengthened by her British heritage, as many of the films of the franchise were set either in England or in that vaguely turn-of-the-century Middle European universe inhabited by so many of the Universal monsters, often surrounded by British actors for European authenticity. Unfortunately few of Universal’s later horror films gave their female actresses a chance to shine — and when the roles called for a feistier and more memorable femme fatale, the call didn’t go to Evelyn Ankers, but more often than not Anne Gwynne, Acquanetta or indeed co-star Gale Sondergaard. The numerous pinup photos available of her proves that Ankers had no problem being saucy when publicity called upon it, but when she hit the studio she was often stuck in rather modest, wholesome roles, perhaps befitting a woman whose facial features vaguely resembled those of Ingrid Bergman’s. In 1942 Ankers married a future SF legend, Richard Denning, star of such films as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Day the World Ended (1955) and The Black Scorpion (1957). She retired from the movie business in 1952 to become a housewife.
There are many other actors worthy of mention in The Invisible Man’s Revenge. John Carradine, of course, should be well known to all readers of this blog. Leon Errol is a minor legend among movie comedians. Gale Sondergaard was universal’s go-to femme fatale, often acting as a foil to Sherlock Holmes, most memorably perhaps in two films as the titular Spider Woman, of which the first is considered to be the best of the Rathbone series. Apart from Carradine, though, none of the supporting cast have much connection with science fiction, so I won’t delve deeper into their lives and careers. There are a few bit-part players worthy of mention, though. First off, there’s Skelton Knaggs, the wiry poor man’s Dwight Frye who inhabited so many of Universal’s horrors and thrillers in the forties. Then we have Beatrice Roberts as a nurse — Roberts is perhaps best known for playing Queen Azura in the 1938 serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. Dan White was a prolific bit-part and supporting player whose other genre credits include Voodoo Man (1944, review), Unknown Island (1948, review), in which he had a rather substantial role, Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). Cyril Delevanti — playing a shopkeeper here — was a frequently returning guest on the TV shows Science Fiction Theatre (1955–1957) and The Twilight Zone (1959–1964). He also appeard as Book #4 in Soylent Green (1973).
Final verdict on The Invisible Man’s Revenge? As far as plot and script goes, this is the weakest of all Invisible Man films. The characters, the setup, the early plot and even the looks of the actors, plus the fact that the invisible man to be is called Griffin, too closely resembles The Invisible Man Returns, so that when you’ve finally figured out that the two films are in no way related after twenty minutes, you’re already exhausted. (Of course, in Returns, Griffin wasn’t even the invisible man, but nobody remembers that.) Furthermore, the fact that we never get a clear answer to the central question of the movie (What did actually happen in Africa?) is extremely frustrating. The early films sets up Lady Herrick as planning a devious plot against Griffin, but this angle is completely dropped after that first scene. The addition of the lawyer is meaningless, as he just pops in for a scene that we feel is going to be central to the story, but then just disappears and is never heard from again. At one point Griffin’s drunkard friend turns against him, but after Griffin raises his voice, he falls back in line, making this yet another red herring as far as plot developments go. And while I like Carradine’s character, he’s basically just a plot convenience.
On the other hand, the film is breezy, the acting good and the direction solid. It’s a stylish Universal production. The special effects are among the best in the entire Invisible Man franchise. There are a few blemishes, such as occasionally visible wires and a few times when the black screen process isn’t entirely flawless. This can probably be put down to the time constraints of making the movie. But on the whole, special effects wizard John P. Fulton has had 12 years to perfect the methods he employed in the original movie, and he adds a few new touches, as well. One that pops out is where the invisible man dips his invisible hand in a fish tank and you can see the outlines of his invisible fingers. He then splashes water on his face, making himself visible. On the whole, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, if at the same time frustrating.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge. 1944, USA. Directed by Ford Beebe. Written by Bertram Millhauser. Suggested by the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Starring: Jon Hall, John Carradine, Leon Errol, Evelyn Ankers, Alan Curtis, Gale Sondergaard, Lester Matthews, Halliwell Hobbes, Leyland Hodgson, Doris Lloyd, Ian Wolfe, Billy Evan. Music: Hans Salter. Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner. Editing: Saul A. Goodkind. Art direction: John B. Goodman, Harold H. MacArthur. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Gowns: Vera West. Produced by Ford Beebe for Universal.