Flight or Invisibility? Pick your superpower. After working your way through the Invisible Man franchise, you’ll never trust anyone who chooses the latter over the former. Invisible Men are not just creeps who get their jollies slinking around in secret; they’re shattered nutcases — or worse yet, gleeful human monsters.
Universal Pictures saw immediate potential with H.G. Wells, but where the author dreamed of speculative science, the studio imagined shock and wow. The suits devoured Wells’ 1897 novel, splaying its concept on their operating table and repurposing its organs into numerous semi-recognizable sequels. Respectable what-if exploration went out the window, and fabulous effects wizardry crawled inside.
In the 87 years since the release of the original James Whale film, Universal has produced seven entries. Ranking them is not a challenge, but it will spark conversation, especially when you reach my chosen top three. If all you know is this year’s release and the first production, you really should make the time for the rest. Even the bottom feeder is quite the sight to see.
7. The Invisible Woman (1940)
No H.G. Wells credit on this one, but that’s not where your concern should rest. The film opens on a butler (George Ruggles) doing one helluva pratfall down a flight of stairs before facing the bombardment of his master’s ratatat slurs of ridicule. After the success of The Invisible Man Returns, which was released earlier the same year, Universal decided to do a comedic switcheroo with the concept, trading the deteriorating male psyche for a rascal gal-about-town.
The Invisible Woman is loaded with screwball zingers, but few land and most raise an awkward eyebrow. “If I knew where your neck was, I’d wring it!” Hardy-har-har. Virginia Bruce plays the titular adventurer who is paired with lady killer John Howard as they battle off dimwitted goons, including Stooge Shemp Howard. Bruce’s invisibility is too often treated with ooh-la-la titillation with one-too-many sequences of goo-goo eyed dolts falling over themselves whenever she’s forced to undress to make her escape. The film is the one entry where the visible out-perv the invisible.
6. Invisible Agent (1942)
Here’s an entry I’d love to see remade. Landing squarely in the middle of World War II, Invisible Agent was designed by Universal as propaganda to aid homefront morale. German-American novelist and screenwriter Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, Donovan’s Brain), who fled the clutches of the Nazis for our shores, relishes in belittling the Third Reich at every given opportunity. His script is an angry bit of B-movie cinema, held back by the censors and his director’s point-and-shoot style.
Frank Griffin (Jon Hall), the grandson of the original Invisible Man, lives in secret as the meager owner and operator of a print shop in New York City. Nazi spies led by Peter Lorre invade his workshop and attempt to rob him of his grandfather’s formula. He beats them back and escapes into federal custody. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Griffin agrees to go behind enemy lines as the Invisible Agent, bopping every Nazi he sees on the head. It’s a good time at the movies.
5. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts. Robert Griffin, no relation to Frank even though he’s still played by Jon Hall, busts out of a mental institution and, in the process, murders a couple of guards. He’s a maniac on a mission. Griffin was robbed of the deed to a diamond field in Africa while out safariing with the Herrick family. When he confronts them, they lie. He doesn’t believe them. They drug him and leave his body to rot in a field outside their home. He awakens and finds a local scientist (John Carradine) who happens to have access to an invisibility formula. He was a terror before, but now he’s an outright lunatic.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge is a parade of wretched souls. Each character you encounter seems worst than the last, but never as bad as the monster at the center of the story. Hall goes from the do-gooder war hero of Invisible Agent to an irredeemable whackjob. Of course, the cinema of the day demands he get his just deserts, but when they come, you’re left wishing similar fates for a lot of the folks involved.