Review Date: February 17, 2011
Released by: Republic Pictures Home Video
Release date: 5/30/95
My dad was born in 1946, and heís old enough to remember the way that movies used to be exhibited in theaters. You could go to one on a Saturday afternoon and see a newsreel, a cartoon and an episode of a serial. But by the time he was old enough to walk down to Main Street and go to the theater on his own, the film business was in the middle of a dramatic shift that would change the way movies were both produced and distributed. Film as an art form would survive the television age, but it would lose the excess exhibition baggage along the way. No longer would you be able to see a newsreel before the feature, television and then the Internet would be able to deliver the news faster (imagine having to wait a week or longer to see the first moving images of the Egyptian revolution). Cartoons would also migrate to television, and aside from some sporadic Disney releases you no longer see short cartoons before a theatrical feature. Then there were serials, which would entirely disappear as a distinct genre after 1956, although their episodic nature would find a place in television programming to follow, and their emphasis on non-stop action with little characterization still echoes in modern feature films. Serials were just too expensive to produce, and in the TV age asking viewers to return to the same theater each Saturday for 3-4 months was just asking too much.
Though they were not the most prolific producer of serials Ė Universal got a head start on them during the silent era and their lead was never surpassed Ė the artisans at Republic Pictures are widely considered to have mastered the form, although a large number of their serials are regrettably MIA on DVD. But as the 50ís dawned even their vaunted production unit was relying more on more on stock footage and low budget gimmicks to keep their chapter plays going. Todayís review is for a Republic sci-fi serial from that era, produced five years before the company would release their last cliffhanger and eight years before they would stop making theatrical productions altogether.
A police checkpoint on a desolate road in the countryside. A big freight truck pulls up and the police hail it to stop. Asking to inspect the cargo of radios, the cops get a big surprise when the two truck drivers attack and subdue them, then drive off in a hurry. One of the officers exchanges shots with the men, but they get away. And it turns out that the truckís cargo was a little more nefarious than just radios. The boxes that were marked as containing the sets hid a secret chamber in the back of the truck with four men, all of them immigrants from Eastern Europe. The men are ushered into a basement chamber with a desk in it, a desk that is illuminated with a powerful light. The Europeans are understandably confused by everything: they left their countries seeking to get away from the tyrants that ruled them and want to be good Americans. They believe they are in the country legally, and donít understand what is going on.
Their confusion is soon put right when a mysterious, disembodied voice begins speaking to them. Then the light turns off, revealing a man in a black robe hood sitting at the desk. This mysterious man (Stanley Price
) identifies himself as the Phantom Ruler, and explains that the clothes he is wearing are coated with a chemical which makes him invisible under the beam of a special high frequency light. He explains that he has brought these men to the United States to help him build an invisible army that will take over the nearby city, and then the country. The men are understandably reluctant, but the Phantom Ruler explains to them that they are in the country illegally, and at any moment he could have them deported if they donít do what he says. They are going to help him, and he has secured jobs with them at local companies that will allow them to procure the money and material needed for his ambitions.
One of the men is given a position working for a safe company that is about to install a new vault door at a local bank. After using his man to learn the combination to the lock the Phantom Ruler turns himself invisible and steals a huge amount of money, although the henchmen helping him (somebody has to work the special light that allows him to remain invisible) attract the attention of a security guard. The badguys get away, but the Phantom Ruler had hoped the robbery would remain completely undetected for some time. Now the police are going to be looking for them.
As it turns out, the police are a much smaller problem than the Apex Insurance Company, with whom the robbed bank had a policy. The president of Apex, upon discovering that the bank was robbed by someone with a combination to the vault, suspects that it was an inside job, and assigns his top detective Lane Carson (Richard Webb
) to the case. He also introduces Carson to another investigator, Carol Richards (Aline Towne
), and the two start working together. But the Phantom Ruler means business and these two heroes are in for twelve chapters of non-stop gunfights, fistfights and near death mishaps before they get to the bottom of the case!
When approaching this review I made a very deliberate decision to stretch my viewing out over a period of two weeks. The reason for this is that serials are best appreciated when viewed in a manner somewhat resembling their original exhibition, where you would see one chapter a week for three to four months until the story concluded and the theater got a new one in. It is best not to sit down and try to watch an entire serial in one or two sittings. Iíve done that, and with most serials it becomes a repetitive and ultimately boring experience. And so I watched The Invisible Monster
one chapter a day, taking ten to fifteen minutes each night after work for another episode. Viewed this way, the serial never became boring. But it could not disguise the fact that this particular entry into the Republic canon is highly repetitive and ultimately hinges upon an idiotic gimmick.
I have seen some lame invisible man or invisible monster movies in my time. The worst are probably 1959ís Invisible Invaders
(invisible aliens in invisible spaceships) and 1971ís Orloff and the Invisible Man
(an invisible ape creature). In contrast, The Invisible Monster
is better than either of those movies in terms of production values but the invisibility gimmick is the worst that Iíve seen anywhere. The Phantom Ruler can only become invisible when wearing his black robe, and only after itís been doused in a certain chemical compound and only then after the high frequency light is shined on him. The chemical that enables the process has to be smuggled into the country, and then in order to stay invisible the Phantom Ruler has to mount the special light in a truck and have one of his men shine it along his path as he moves. The lamp itself creates a highly visible spotlight wherever it is pointed, and of course it does no good if the Phantom Ruler has to go into a building. In other words, itís utterly impractical, and one wonders how in the world his invisible army is going to work if each soldier needs to have a highly visible light pointed at them.
There is one moment in particular that stands out, which takes place in an abandoned mine where the badguys are hiding out. The Phantom Ruler and his henchmen have just made another batch of the chemical and are testing it out, with the Phantom standing in the middle of the room. The light is shone on him and he becomes invisible. Just then Lane and Carol barge into the mine, resulting in a knock down, drag Ďem out fight in which the Phantom Ruler, despite his invisibility, plays almost no part because he canít step out of that damn light. If he steps out of it to help his men he gives his secret away, but his invisibility is of no use unless Carson or Carol steps near the light. You have to wonder what is going through his head during this scene, as he stands there like an idiot, unable to do anything.
The Phantom Ruler himself is a thoroughly modern badguy, which is to say, rather than being an evil super genius, he comes across much more like a corrupt CEO exploiting the labor and hard work of other people. Nothing is revealed about just who this guy is, but it is abundantly clear that he himself is not a scientist, and however he managed to get a hold of the invisibility trick, he certainly didnít invent it. He has to rely on others to formulate the chemical compound needed and to build the special lights for him. He imports illegal immigrants and then threatens them with deportation back to their despotic home countries if they donít do what he wants, but ultimately they have no loyalty to him and usually turn on him when the opportunity presents itself. No matter what he does he simply is not smart enough to stay ahead of the heroes but, like most villains, he has ample opportunities to simply shoot Carson and get it over with. Carson has a tendency to blunder into situations where he is taken captive, yet the badguys never get serious about eliminating him. Their few serious attempts at assassination are needlessly complex and thus always fail for the least excusable of reasons. Of course, this isnít so much a flaw with The Invisible Monster
as it is a structural flaw with the serial format itself, and is something that is apparent in plenty of other cliffhangers. But it becomes exceedingly obvious here.
Lane Carson himself has got to be the most recklessly brave hero that Iíve ever seen in a serial, and I say this because of his choice of careers. Unlike the Green Hornet or Batman - both of whom were featured in several serials each - he is not a masked vigilante fighting crime for personal or ideological reasons. Unlike Captain Marvel or Superman, both of whom also appeared in serials, he is not a superhero. And unlike the heroes of serials such as Dick Tracy
(1937), Don Winslow of the Navy
(1942) and G-Men vs. the Black Dragon
(1943), he is not a policeman, a military officer or a secret agent. No, Lane Carson is an insurance investigator, employed by a private company, and from the very beginning he is in the thick of the action. The very first chapter ends with him and Carol in a car chase with the Phantom Rulerís men, as they shoot at him and throw grenades, with a rather large explosion providing the cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Folks, I donít know about you, but if I was in Laneís shoes Iíd call the FBI and wash my hands of the case as soon as the bullets and grenades started flying. No matter how much money my employer stood to lose, it wouldnít be worth my life. Lane Carson, though, apparently has no such concerns, and his boss seems to have no qualms about the danger his man is constantly exposed to. I hope Carson at least got employee of the month for all his efforts.
The Invisible Monster
is not a terrible serial, but it does come across as highly repetitive. Too many of the cliffhangers are similar to each other, and the basic plot of most of the chapters is the same, with Lane and Carol smashing whatever the latest Phantom Ruler scheme is, but with the Phantom himself and his lead henchmen always getting away until what is essentially a lucky break at the end allows them to be stopped. Viewed in one or two sittings, this type of plot could not stand up to any sort of scrutiny, and even viewed the way I viewed it this is still weak story. But yet, despite its weaknesses, I was never not entertained. I always looked forward to getting home from work the next night and taking in another chapter, which is exactly the feeling that a successful serial should produce in its viewers. In that respect at least, The Invisible Monster
is a passable success.
For an interlaced VHS tape released in 1995, this presentation of The Invisible Monster
looks pretty good. The back of the box indicates that it was struck from the original negatives and the quality is fine by the standards of videotape. There is some noticeable damage on the film elements in the form of sporadic scratches and splices, plus intermittent speckling, but the majority of the almost three hour presentation is pleasingly clean. The two-tape set is recorded in the high quality SP mode and sharpness and clarity are perfectly fine considering the medium. Until thereís a digital upgrade this is a perfectly acceptable way to watch The Invisible Monster
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono, and is perfectly acceptable but not spectacular. There is some slight hissing and popping on the soundtrack and it has an overall flat sound to it, but dialogue is perfectly understandable and sound effects and music come through fairly clear.
No special features are present on either of these tapes.
Serial enthusiasts will want to check out The Invisible Monster
for the sake of completeness, although those who are new to the genre would be advised to start elsewhere, as Republic produced a number of better cliffhangers. This VHS release can be found cheaply and is of good quality considering the medium. With the Republic library now being mostly owned by Paramount, it seems unlikely weíll be seeing a DVD of this title, so interested viewers whoíve kept their VCRs should look into getting a copy of this tape.
Movie Ė C
Image Quality Ė B-
Sound Ė B-
Supplements Ė N/A
- Running Time Ė 2 hours 47 minutes
- Not Rated
- 2 Tapes
- Dolby 2.0 Mono