Following their superlative trio of Monster Legacy Collection sets from a few months back (and now mercifully free of those horrific "Van Helsing" promotional materials) comes wave two of the Universal Monster Classics on DVD. May 2004 saw the release of Legacy Collections (two discs, multiple movies and extras) for the Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man franchises, and just in time for Halloween come similar sets for The Mummy, The Creature of the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man. Each set boasting (at the very least) a triple feature of old-school horror chestnuts and a handful of fantastic supplementary materials (for just around 20 bucks American), these Legacy Collections are grade-A groovy from top to bottom. Whether you're an old-school aficionado of Universal's greatest ghouls or you're a newcomer raised only on the exploits of Freddy and Jason, each Legacy Collection is an inexpensive little treasure, and we're here to take a look at the package dedicated to The Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933, 71 minutes) is, of course, the great-granddaddy of any movie with an invisible antagonist. Based on the well-adored novel by science-fiction mega-genius H.G. Wells and directed by the immortal James (Frankenstein) Whale, this is one of those well-rounded old-school shockers that offers equal parts drama, comedy and horror...and does so in an effortlessly breezy fashion.
Claude Rains plays the titular tower of terrifying transparency, and as the film opens our ill-tempered villain is on the lookout for a little place to hide. Covered in long cloaks and bandages, he finds his way to a tiny village and the Lion's Head Inn. It doesn't take long before the new tenant proves a right bastard, verbally abusing the innkeeper's wife before laying the smack-down on her husband. When the local constable gets involved, the newcomer's secret is made clear: he's invisible! Not only that, but the very serum that causes the invisibility also makes the user...criminally insane! Not a healthy combination!
On the other side of town, a few scientists and a pining wallflower wonder what became of their old pal John Griffin. What WAS John working on before he just up and vanished? You can bet the freaked-out folks over at the Lion's Head Inn could give these guys a few clues...
It's Whale's crisp, clean and clever direction that make The Invisible Man so much more than just a half-decent old genre affair. Plus there's a devilishly droll mean streak that runs through much of the movie, which is what qualifies this original entry as a high-end horror movie as well as a furiously fascinating science-fiction story. The special effects used to create the invisible-ness of the main character must have proved absolutely staggering back in 1933, and while they're very rudimentary effects, they still work perfectly well today. The icing on the cake is the fantastic (mostly voice) work from lead actor Claude Rains, who brings a combination of theatrical bravado and lovable lunacy. Plus that laugh is just too creepy!
By my estimate, The Invisible Man deserves a place of honor right beside Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein among Universal's most spectacular old horror classics. This movie alone (combined with the special features) would capably suck twenty bucks from my DVD budget, but, as is the Legacy Collection m.o., there are four more flicks included!
The Invisible Man Returns (Joe May, 1940, 82 minutes) is more of a crime drama/mystery/sci-fi concoction than anything that could accurately be described as a horror movie, but there's still enough intrigue and quaint ol' invisibility effects to keep the fans entertained. This time around it's Vincent Price who gets to turn transparent, playing an unjustly (?) convicted murderer who uses the power of invisibility to ferret out the true killers. Featuring stalwart old-time character actors like Cedric Hardwicke and Cecil Kellaway, 'Returns' works reasonably well enough by its own standards, but it's seriously lacking the dark-edged deviousness of its forefather. It's basically a rather conventional whodunit that employs the invisibility angle without much ingenuity. With only the most tenuous connection to the original film, 'Returns' would seal the approach for the rest of the series: each is a stand-alone movie, yet they all have at least one character named Griffin...and someone turns invisible every time.
The Invisible Woman (A. Edward Sutherland, 1940, 73 minutes) moves even farther away from its source material, as its a full-bore screwball comedy in every sense of the term. Fashion model Kitty Carroll answers a mysterious classified ad and ends up in the employ of goofy Professor Gibbs, who promptly gives her a chemical compound that instigates, you guessed it, full body invisibility. (Aha! For an invisible woman to achieve total transparency, she'd have to be...naked! Imagine the hijinks!) Kitty uses her newfound powers to chastise her abusive boss and flirt with the Professor's rich, handsome benefactor...but everything gets all manic and loony when the local mafia boys decide they want in on the formula too. Fluffy light and fairly entertaining, albeit more than a little slight, 'Woman' proves a likable enough diversion...but when will this series head back into horror country?
Invisible Agent (Edwin L. Marin, 1942, 82 minutes) uses Wells' concept as a wartime asset, with truly bizarre results. A strained mixture of romance, sci-fi, war drama and comedy, 'Agent' feels like a concept that was best left in the planning stages. (One can almost see the Universal screenwriter who once said "Yeah...the Invisible Man....against the Nazis! Yes! Throw in a sultry German gal, a few of those invisibility gags, a little action and a handful of doddering Nazi stooges and we're all set!" The idea this time around is that the grandson of the original Invisible Man has retained a bunch of the old formula, offering to use it only when America's need is greatest - to battle the evil Germans! Cedric Hardwicke returns to the series; he and Peter Lorre play the villains, and they're the most worthwhile asset (by far) in what's probably the weakest of the series.
The Invisible Man's Revenge (Ford Beebe, 1944, 78 minutes) harkens back to the first sequel, in that it's full of talky melodrama, familiar character actors, a handful of flashy FX...but mostly it's a somewhat arid little melodrama. Ignoring the consistently-employed concept of an invisibility potion, this sequel requires one to be hooked up to a loony veterinarian's lab table to achieve total transparency. The first one to volunteer is Robert Griffin, a malcontent recently escaped from a lunatic asylum and looking for payback from a couple who left him for dead in the jungle once upon a time. When conventional blackmail yields nothing for our hero (?), he leaps onto the mad doctor's slab for a heaping dose of invisibility and, well, a little vengeance gets wreaked here and there.
Of the sequels, only 'Return' and 'Revenge' would make for a horror fan's rainy Saturday afternoon double feature, but 'Woman' and 'Agent' are certainly entertaining enough in their own right, although perhaps only as novelty-time curiosities. But the only flick in the collection that you'll revisit over and over is the 1933 original. I consider the sequels little more than high-end DVD extras, although your mileage on the entire series may vary. I only vouch for the excellence of the original film!
All five feature films boast the same technical aspects: full-frame video presentation, Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, English captions, and subtitles in Spanish and French. Looks-wise, you're not likely to find a better video transfer of these movies - especially the sequels, each of which are making their first appearance on DVD! Inevitably you'll find some flickers and flaws in any movies over sixty years old, but these films look about a thousand times better than when you catch 'em on the late-night UHF channels.
Extra goodies include one truly informative audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer, and (just like the yak-tracks found on ALL the Legacy Collection sets) it's a 71-minute non-stop outpouring of fascinating facts and trivia. From the history of Wells' original tale to the names and resumes of just about every single actor onscreen, there's basically nothing that Mr. Behlmer doesn't cover. One only wishes Rudy had recorded some tracks for the sequels, too! You'll also find an excellent 35-minute featurette entitled Now You See Him, Now You Don't: The Invisible Man Revealed, which offers Mr. Behlmer and a handful of other interested parties who chime in and offer all sorts of insights regarding this well-remembered series of inviso-flicks. There's also an original theatrical trailer (for Invisible Agent) and a series of pretty cool production photographs.
Those of you looking to build a great little horror collection would be well served by picking up a few of these Legacy Collection sets. You'll get 3-5 movies for the price of your standard new release, the films look as good as they ever have, the supplements are crafted with care, and you'll always have a creepy classic to keep you company on those cold winter nights. If The Invisible Man doesn't float your boat, there are five other monsters you can hang out with. Me, I plan on collecting 'em all before too long!