by Steve Habrat
When we look back upon the silent horror films that were emerging from both Germany and the United States in the 1920s, the visual differences between the two countries are absolutely amazing. Germany used exaggerated gothic landscapes that were Brechtian in their appearance yet brimming with an eerie atmosphere that emitted from the heavy shadows and sharp edges. When we look at the 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s glaringly obvious that what we are watching is taking place on an elaborate stage with a spiked and warped backdrop. Even though there isn’t an ounce of realism to the sets, somehow the film manages to lure us in and chill us with the idea that these images are merely the distortions of a disturbed mind. Even in 1920, it is highly unlikely that audiences weren’t noticing this. Around the same time in America, director John S. Robertson released the spit-shined Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a conservative bore when compared to the German Expressionist offerings. Based upon the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is never able to muster the terrifying mood that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does. It doesn’t even come close. However, despite its beige studio appearance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does benefit from a celebrated performance from John Barrymore, who hunches himself into a hideous monster born from man’s deepest, darkest desires. It’s through Barrymore’s performance alone that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is able to cover its other insipid features.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (played by John Barrymore) is an upstanding citizen. He is a workaholic who locks himself in his lab for hours on end, runs a free clinic in his spare time, and balks at the idea of ever having a good time, which irks his future father-in-law, Sir George Carew (played by Brandon Hurst). George believes that Henry isn’t nearly as good as he pretends to be, and he argues that Henry should indulge some of his darker impulses every now and then. After enduring an endless string of taunts from George and being forced to go to a seedy nightclub, Henry begins working on a potion that can separate man’s two natures into two separate bodies, one that is wholly good and one that embraces a darker lifestyle. Henry tests the potion on himself and he quickly transforms into Edward Hyde, a homely creature that haunts dingy nightclubs and has a fling with an Italian dancer named Gina (played by Nita Naldi). Meanwhile, Henry’s finance, Millicent (played by Martha Mansfield), begins to grow suspicious of her fiancés mysterious absence. She asks her father to help her track him down and get to the bottom of what he is up to. As Millicent and George race to find Henry, Hyde’s behavior grows more and more violent with each passing second.
The early parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde find the film struggling to find some form of momentum. Robertson expertly frames Barrymore and his performance as Henry Jekyll, presenting him as a bang-up guy driven by scientific progression and concerned with giving back to the community where he can. He’s likeable enough to point where he really spices up drab scenes of men sitting around a dinner table debating about man’s two natures while one-dimensional intertitles present us with their dialogue. The lack of a good set piece really doesn’t do much for the film either, making the opening twenty minutes a bit of a chore to sit through. Those with short attention spans will be contemplating hitting the stop button. However, after Henry ventures to that nightclub and lays eyes on Gina, things start to pick up. One of two highlight moments come when Henry transforms into Hyde, which was done without the use of special effects. It relies simply on Barrymore’s ability to morph into a horse-faced demon with curled lips revealing what appears to be hundreds of teeth. From here, the depraved behavior of Edward Hyde keeps the action interesting as he creeps into bars and sneaks up behind tipsy gals. Suspense is generated through Hyde’s increasingly erratic behavior, which slowly shifts from perverse to bloodthirsty.
Much of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s success rests on the shoulders of Barrymore, who outshines everyone else as he dances between good and evil. His transformation is tragic, and the poisoning of his squeaky-clean soul does make him all the more sympathetic. The most painful moment for his character comes when he is forced to watch Gina perform her dance routine, a lust slowly blossoming despite the fact that he is engaged to Millicent. With a role that demanded so much, it isn’t difficult to see why Barrymore is the stand out. He is doing more acting than anyone else in the picture. This film could have been a real disaster had the filmmakers not found someone able to glide so smoothly between a malicious parasite and an upstanding do-gooder. Naldi adds a bit of sex appeal to the film as Gina, the erotic Italian dancer who gets tangled up with the hunchbacked Hyde. Martha Mansfield may as well not even be in the picture as Millicent, the angelic love interest who strains to find something useful to do. Brandon Hurst fares a bit better as Sir George Carew, who taunts the mild-mannered Jekyll any chance he gets. He has a particularly unsettling run-in with Jekyll that seriously makes him regret dragging his future son-in-law to that nightclub.
While its cautionary deliberations and square performances weigh it down, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does manage to cough up one of the most horrific moments in horror movie history. Near the end of the film, Henry lies in bed and suffers a hallucination/nightmare that finds Hyde crawling out from under the bed and latching onto the terrified Henry. The effect is masterfully accomplished through layering, but it’s the look of Hyde that really shakes you up. He’s almost resembles a spider-like parasite, with tentacles hanging off of his bump back as he inches up onto the bed to latch to his host. It’s probably the best moment of the entire film and you’re left wishing for more inspired visuals scares like it. As far as the climax goes, there are a few scenes that get the pulse pumping, but it’s nothing compared to the hallucination/dream sequence. Overall, while it’s an artistic bore and it suffers from some sluggish stretches, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manages to overcome some of its weaknesses through a must-see performance from the gifted Barrymore and a handful of ghoulish scenes that make it a solid watch for cinema buffs, monster aficionados, and horror fans. Just don’t expect a few sleepless nights after your viewing.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While he may not be as popular as Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Mummy, the Invisible Man is still a pretty scary guy. I mean, you can’t see him and he could attack you at anytime! THAT, boys and ghouls, is pretty scary if you ask me. Rooted more in science fiction than straight horror, The Invisible Man is actually one of the best films in the Universal Monster collection. While the sequels didn’t stick as closely to the science fiction/horror mash-up as the original film did, they still managed to remain above average and impressive with their special effects. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of the original The Invisible Man, click here. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews for the sequels to The Invisible Man. Read on if you dare…
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Played by Vincent Price) has just been sentenced to death for the murder of his brother, a crime that he did not commit. While on death row, Radcliffe is visited by Dr. Frank Griffith (Played by John Sutton), the original Invisible Man’s brother, who injects Radcliffe with the infamous invisibility formula. Radcliffe proceeds to escape from prison and sets out to prove his innocence but along the way, he begins to slip into insanity, a horrific side effect of the invisibility formula.
Never as mischievous as the original 1933 The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man Returns doesn’t shy away from causing plenty of mayhem. Not nearly as heavy on the horror and leaning more towards a mixture of science fiction and murder mystery, The Invisible Man Returns is still given an aura of menace with the presence of Vincent Price, a legend that is mostly heard and only briefly seen. With his gentlemanly coos aimed at his fiancé, Helen Manson (Played by Nan Grey), and his sinister guffaws, Price’s Radcliffe is one unpredictable madman who will prove his innocence at any cost, even if that means killing a few people in the process. As the whodunit slowly unravels for the big reveal, we can’t help but wonder if Radcliffe is really any better than the individuals that he is trying to track down. Price has some great chemistry with Grey, but she isn’t really given much to do other than look worried about Radcliffe’s safety. Cecil Kellaway, another familiar Universal face, also shows up as Inspector Sampson, who pieces together Radcliffe’s disappearance.
Much like the original film, The Invisible Man Returns has some jaw dropping special effects, especially incredible for the time in which the film was made. The effects ended up nabbing an Oscar nomination but it sadly didn’t take the award home. Yet director Joe May doesn’t lean on the impressive special effects even though he very well could and no one would blame him. The film, which is based once again on the story by H.G. Wells, doesn’t find the original invisible man, Jack Griffith (Played brilliantly by Claude Rains), rising from the dead to continue his rampage. The film wisely elaborates and continues the story in a clever and respectable fashion. The Invisible Man Returns also runs a full eighty-one minutes, which allows the storyline to fully develop. Overall, it could have been scarier but there are still plenty of extraordinary shocks and thrills throughout The Invisible Man Returns to keep the story engrossing. Plus, it has Vincent Price and how can you argue with that?! Grade: B+
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Feisty model Kitty Caroll (Played by Virginia Bruce) is tired of being pushed around at her job by her insufferable boss. On a whim, she answers a newspaper add posted by the eccentric Professor Gibbs (Played by John Barrymore), an ad that asks for human guinea pigs for his invisibility machine. Professor Gibbs is on the verge of loosing funding from the wealthy playboy Dick Russell (Played by John Howard) but when the invisibility machine works successfully, he launches a campaign to convince Dick that the machine is fully operational. However, the real challenge comes from trying to contain the mischievous Kitty and fighting off local thugs who want to steal the machine.
What little traces of horror you could find in The Invisible Man Returns disappears completely in The Invisible Woman, which was released the same year as the Vincent Price thriller. A cheeky screwball comedy that is more of a wild party, The Invisible Woman is quite a bit of fun if you are in the market for a whole bunch of laughs, but if it is horror you are after, it is best you look elsewhere. It is a bit odd that this film gets lumped in with the Universal Movie Monsters but the film is still a pretty solid watch on its own terms. It is very difficult not to like Bruce as the playful Kitty, who enjoys getting some hilarious revenge on her snippy boss Growley (Played by Charles Lane). The second half of the film morphs into more of a romantic comedy, with Howard’s playboy Dick falling for the leggy Kitty. The budding romance is sweetly written and delivered by the actors, making it an easy pill to swallow. There is also plenty of silliness thrown in from Barrymore’s Professor Gibbs, who acts as a strict father figure for both Dick and Kitty. There is also plenty of physical comedy from Dick’s butler, George (Played by Charles Ruggles), who is constantly mortified or taking a nasty tumble.
The Invisible Woman’s overall quality is done in by the unnecessary addition of the gangster side plot, which finds sinister thug Blackie (Played by Oskar Homolka), trying to steal the invisibility machine. The only good thing that can be said about this side plot is that it gives Ruggles a break from the physical comedy and places it on the shoulders of a slew of extras. Many of the delivered jokes fall flat, mostly because Homolka just isn’t that funny as the jumpy gangster. Even if it technically isn’t a horror film, The Invisible Woman still applies the invisibility aspect smartly and there are plenty of sly remarks made over the fact that Kitty is nude the entire time. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this aspect but by today’s standards, it is rather tame. Overall, The Invisible Woman is a sweet little romantic romp that fits nicely in the romantic comedy genre but trips over a pointless gangster subplot that should have been left out completely. Grade: B
Invisible Agent (1942)
The Invisible Man’s grandson, Frank Raymond (Played by Jon Hall), has been trying to live a quiet and normal life in Manhattan. It turns out that Frank still possesses a small amount of the invisibility formula that drove his grandfather insane. Frank soon finds himself approach by secret agents from the Axis powers, who are determined to get their hands on the formula. Frank refuses and makes a narrow escape with the formula in hand. America is soon dragged into World War II and Frank decides to make a deal with the Army—use the invisibility formula to spy on Nazi Germany. The army agrees and Frank is sent behind enemy lines where he does battle with a slew of S.S. buffoons and falls in love with Maria Sorenson (Played by Ilona Massey), a British secret agent.
Stripping away the romantic comedy and acting as part of a war time propaganda movement to boost American morale, Invisible Agent is much more a thriller with some chuckle worthy aspects. Just as it was in The Invisible Woman, the invisibility is often times played for laughs rather than scares. The comedy really takes flight during a scene in which Frank terrorizes a pudgy S.S. officer who lusts after Maria. When Frank isn’t invisible, he is a fairly forgettable character and he even remains a bit dry when he has injected the formula into his bloodstream (shockingly). Massey is certainly the life of the party but her character often times seems too eager to fall in love rather than do anything constructive. Cedric Hardwicke shows up as Conrad Stauffer, an S.S. officer doing anything he can do get his hands on the invisibility formula. Peter Lorre is handed the job of playing Baron Ikito, a Japanese officer with a thing for amputation (just wait for THAT scene). There is no question that Lorre is the most colorful one in Invisible Agent but his character is so obviously American that it is almost hard to take.
Invisible Agent does have plenty of action to thrill us throughout its eighty-one minute run time. The film has lots of impressive aerial battles that find Frank trying to sneak out of Germany with Hitler’s plot to attack New York City. There are plenty of fiery explosions and narrow escapes to have you on the edge of your seat. The downside is that Frank is such a bland hero that it is hard to really care if he makes it out alive. Invisible Agent also boasts some of the most impressive special effects of the series yet, some of them mind-boggling for the time. Overall, as an action thriller, Invisible Agent executes the mission with ease but you will find yourself starting to long for the science fiction chills of the Claude Rains original. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Robert Griffith (Played by Jon Hall) escapes from prison and makes his way to London to find Jasper and Irene Herrick (Played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sonergaard), a wealthy couple that Robert believes cheated him out of a small fortune years earlier. When the Herricks turn him away, Robert seeks out Dr. Peter Drury (Played by John Carradine), who has created a formula that can turn a man invisible. After demanding that Dr. Drury test the formula on him, the newly invisible Robert sets out to get revenge on the Herricks.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge finds the Invisible Man series moving away from the comedy that The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were so fond of and returning to the horror that kicked the franchise off. Not nearly as absorbing as The Invisible Man or The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Man’s Revenge does wrap up the series in a fairly respectable manner even if the story is starting to fade right before our eyes. The real downside to the film is the fact that there is no sympathetic monster at the heart of the terror. The Universal horror films were notorious for including monsters that we actually felt bad for. The Invisible Man’s Revenge serves up a psychotic villain right from the start and refuses to make him a multifarious character. Claude Rains earned our sympathy through the fact that he was desperately trying to outrun madness but in the end he slipped into it. In The Invisible Man Returns, Vincent Price was a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit and his quest for the truth was causing his sanity to deteriorate.
Then we have Jon Hall, who picks up where Rains and Price left off. Hall, who also appeared in Invisible Agent, does a passable job with the role of Robert but he lacks the unruly insanity of Rains or the creeping terror of Price. Still, Hall manages to outshine everyone else in the film, as the rest of the characters seem to disappear from memory when the credits roll. Universal regular Carradine steps in as the gentle doctor who comes face to face with pure evil. Carradine is forced to take a stale role, one that completely takes away from his always-welcome presence. The effects here are just as solid as they were in the other films but near the end, it seems like some of the effects were getting sloppy. Overall, The Invisible Man’s Revenge is running on empty but director Ford Beebe still manages to send the character off on a dark and ominous note. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge are all available on DVD.