Ranking Universal’s Classic Invisible Man Series

Well, here is my first truly COVID-19 empowered post. Like many of you, I have been shut up in my home these past several weeks. Recently, the wife and I decided to do a date night in – watching 2020’s The Invisible Man (it’s pretty good, more on that later). I was so taken by the new remake that I decided to watch the original 1933 film as well.

After that…well…I decided to watch the Universal’s entire series of Invisible Man films…which I have, since I got this gem last year around Halloween when it was on sale. Not something I planned on doing but, you know, as someone who has seen the entire Exorcist, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, this one really wasn’t bad. Let’s dive in, starting at the worst and working our way up:

6. The Invisible Man’s Revenge

The fifth film in the franchise, it would be easy to say “well this is sure suffering from franchise fatigue!” But that’s not true. This movie is just bad. A revenge film centered around fugitive Robert Griffin (seemingly no relation to any of the other Griffins I’ll soon mention), the movie has the most changeable monster I’ve ever seen. He wants to be invisible – now he wants to be visible – now he wants to be invisible again! Make up your mind, dude!

The biggest failing here is the script, which is full of half-baked ideas and incomplete (or just downright bizarre) themes. To give a quick summary, Rob Griffin is swindled out of what sounds like a fortune by his two rich friends. They admit to this. He then goes invisible to get revenge on them…which doesn’t amount to much. Both are still alive at the end of the film. More than that, the script seems to vindicate them!

Griffin is claimed as nothing more than a madman who got what he deserved – which is fair, he does kill people, but what about these two rich assholes? They’re the ones who left him to die in a jungle and made off with his money. His anger at them seems pretty darn reasonable.

But whatever, karma wins. If you’re a good person, you’ll wind up rich. If you’re evil, you’ll end up with nothing (and not be able to drink alcohol? It’s weird.) What a champion film for our current capitalist system!

It is worth noting that this is the first film in the series since the second to attempt to get back to the series’ more horror-centric roots. It’s just a shame it kinda sucks.

InvisibleMansRevenge
Despite being part of the main continuity, this film does not have a Griffin invent the formula for invisibility. Instead it is made by this well-meaning but eccentric scientist – who is smeared as a lunatic at the end, despite being a morally upstanding fellow who dies trying to stop Griffin.

5. Invisible Agent

Yo what if the Invisible Man fought Nazis? Sound awesome? Well, it’s a movie from 1942 so it’s more propaganda than anything else. It’s also a film from the 1940s so I hope seeing Peter Lorre play a Japanese man doesn’t bother you. Unfortunately, this film just feels dated. Does it have its moments? Sure, but not nearly as many as you’d hope.

The film follows civilian Frank Raymond (really a Griffin who changed his last name) trying to keep his family’s invisibility formula out of Axis hands. Then he volunteers to be a spy – which is approved because why would you ever send someone with actual training into a war zone? He’s sent behind enemy lines, does his best to blow his cover at every available opportunity, and is then captured by the Japanese (despite being in Germany).

Strangely, this movie brings up the invisibility formula’s downside – its unfailing ability to drive people mad if they remain invisible for too long – and then never brings it up again. Frank never once lapses into insanity or into any kind of murderous rampage…I’m actually not sure if he even kills any Nazis (I know, right? Disappointing.).

I wish I could recommend this one but, unless you’re going for a completionist viewing, you can just skip it.

4. The Invisible Woman

Despite being part of Universal’s Invisible Man collection, this film has nothing to do with any of the others – at least not that I saw. It’s a romantic comedy about a down-on-his-luck playboy who happens to be renting out part of his estate to an eccentric scientist. I’ll give you a cookie if you can guess what said scientist’s experiments are about.

Anyway, a woman becomes invisible, uses her new-found independence to get back at an abusive boss, and then helps foil some criminals who want to kidnap the scientist to turn their fugitive mob boss invisible and sneak him back into the country.

Honestly there’s not much to say. It’s fine if you’re in the mood for it. It’s very lighthearted. No one dies. I don’t even think anyone gets injured, not really. A lot of people make a big deal of her being naked when invisible – which is odd since no one really seems to care in any of the other movies when a man is invisible (I think each would be alarming in their own areas).

3. Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

Made in 1951, this marks the final film in Universal’s Invisible Man series. Fortunately, things go out on a fairly high note. I should say now that I’m a fan of Abbott and Costello and their wacky style of comedy – I used to watch their movies all the time as a kid. So I may have some bias here.

The movie is in some ways a much lighter retelling of the second film’s plot. While the specifics are changed, the invisible man is trying to clear himself of murder charges before his invisibility drives him mad. Abbott and Costello are two new detectives hired to help him with his case. It’s all tremendously silly but features some of the most creative uses of invisibility in the entire series.

I don’t want to spoil much since I think this one is worth watching. Apart from one joke on using invisibility to sexually harass women at the end (it’s a real bummer this is in here, most everything else aged pretty well), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is a good-natured parody that is fun to watch. It’s not Young Frankenstein but still pretty good.

2. The Invisible Man Returns

The second movie in the series is also the second best! Who’d have thunk it?

Anyway, Vincent Price is the invisible man this time around. He’s not a Griffin directly but instead a family friend. He’s been framed for murder and needs to clear his name before the drug drives him insane and he becomes a murderous psychopath. As I said, it’s a very similar plot to the previous entry only, you know, played straight.

Price shines and there’s a lot of performances here to like. Definitely recommend if you’re a fan of thrillers.

1. The Invisible Man

Shocker. It was close. I think The Invisible Man Returns is a more complex film that still succeeds very well. Claude Rains is the reason this one wins out. He is fantastic as the arrogant Jack Griffin, driven mad by his formula. Like all good Universal Classic Monster films, there is a real element of tragedy to his character.

All of his drive and all of his ambition comes from the desire to win his (financially much better off) love. There’s a scene or two where you almost feel for him. There’s also plenty of scenes where he nonchalantly murders people. This has by far the highest body count of any of the series – literal hundreds – and is a straight science fiction horror film.

It’s a classic and is totally worth watching, especially if you are a fan of the new 2020 version.

 

So there you have it. If you’re in the mood, why not watch the classic Invisible Man series? There’s only six of them and they’re each under two hours long. For the record, the 2020 remake would rank pretty highly on this list – definitely in the top three.

What I find truly interesting (and refreshing) is that every film in this series is a different genre. We go from horror to thriller to rom-com to propaganda to revenge flick to wacky comedy. It’s truly interesting in that regard and a creative use of the source material. Far from the worst horror series I’ve ever seen and a good way to escape the distressing reality of today.

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