Universal Horror: The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Old Dark House

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When it comes to my home media collection, the Universal Horror franchise is probably one of the longest ongoing ‘relationships’ that I’ve had, perhaps second only to the decade and a half spent picking up classic Doctor Who stories on DVD.

I originally watched the 1930s and 40s horror classics when I was a teenager, when they were shown as a series of late night double bills on Channel 4. Sadly they then disappeared from the schedules (too hokey and creaky for modern audiences, no doubt) and it wasn’t until 2004 that a DVD boxset of 14 assorted Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man films plus one-offs from The Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man was released which I eagerly picked up despite the frankly exorbitant price. The rather excellent busts of the three top monsters included in the set actually made it worthwhile, and they still have pride of place on my shelf to this day.

After that it was nearly a decade before Universal released eight of their main classic monster films on the Blu-ray format as the Essential Collection (see review). The high definition restorations were truly spectacular, and far beyond what I had thought possible given the age and quality of the original materials. The only problem was that a lot of my favourite sequels such as Son of Frankenstein that had been in the original DVD boxset had been omitted.

Five years later and these films did finally arrive on the medium, although the way that Universal did this was via individual boxsets for each of the four top monsters – now including The Mummy and all four of its sequels for the first time, since it came out just before the dire Tom Cruise reboot of that franchise. It meant lots of overlap, with some titles appearing multiple times across the range necessitating a frustratingly complex analysis and roadmap of the most economical way to pick up the titles with minimal double dipping. And even then, there were two strands of the Universal franchise whose sequels continued to be withheld from the UK market despite being around for years in the US – The Invisible Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Finally this month that oversight has been addressed. Here then is perhaps the last piece that Taking The Short View will ever need to post on the subject of Universal Horror. Although to be honest, judging from past experience, I suspect not…

The Invisible Man: Complete Legacy Collection

The Invisible Man is arguably the most flat-out enjoyable and entertaining of the four genre films that director James Whale made for Universal Studios between 1931 and 1935. It’s much funnier than the relatively dour Frankenstein and lacks the out-and-out weirdness of The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein that can make those films a bit of an acquired taste for some.

It’s also the Universal Horror film most faithful to its source material, perhaps because author HG Wells was still alive and had script approval over any screen adaptation. It starts in the same way as the book with a solitary figure traversing the English countryside during a blizzard before finally taking refuge in a pub in the village of Iping. Shutting himself away in his rooms, his secretive nature causes mistrust among the local residents and he’s told he has to leave; at which point he reveals his true invisible nature and runs amok, small pranks soon escalating to murder as he descends further into insanity and megalomania. Even so, the film retains its sense of humour as things turn darker and deadlier.

The star of the film is Claude Rains in his first US screen role as Jack Griffin, although we only get to actually see his face in the final seconds. But even unseen he makes an indelible impression on the audience, partly thanks to his incredibly rich and expressive voice but also just as much down to a very fine physical performance which more than makes up for the gauze wrappings and black sunglasses obscuring his face. It’s easy to tell when he’s doubled by another performer for effects sequences, as the body language is completely different. Rains succeeds in making Griffin a real person, and an increasingly monstrous one as the film goes on: of all the Universal monsters, The Invisible Man is the most cold blooded and the one with the highest body count of slain victims. Its a compelling portrayal of a genuinely fascinating character; a dangerous sociopath without question, and yet thanks to Rains he’s also charming and funny.

We learn about Griffin’s background with a cutaway to the home of former employer Dr Cranley. It’s one of the poorest and most silted sequences of the entire film, with some flat direction and clunky staging together with peculiarly lifeless acting from Henry Travers who is lumbered with the task of delivering a pile of uninspired exposition. As his daughter Flora, Gloria Stuart seems out of sorts and disengaged. That leaves only William Harrigan putting in a passable performance as would-be suitor Dr Arthur Kemp who is swiftly put in his place. Harrigan gets much better in his later scenes with Rains as he’s terrorised into becoming the invisible man’s stooge and accomplice.

Instead, the film is rather stolen by the supporting cast which is a premium collection of Whales’ favourite English eccentric cockney-type character actors, led by the inimitable and utterly glorious Una O’Connor as pub landlady Jenny. There’s also EE Clive giving a typically EE Clive performance as the local constable, and Universal franchise stalwarts Dwight Frye and John Carradine putting in ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ cameos. You can tell that it’s here that Whales’ true affections lie and they get all the best lines, right from the opening minutes when we’re introduced to the Iping residents with a slow pan across the public bar of The Lion’s Head to meet them at play.

But surely the true star of the film is the invisibility FX devised by John P Fulton. They’re undoubtedly groundbreaking for 1933, although they would be improved upon and refined in subsequent films and there’s the odd scene here where shadows spoil the invisibility effect, plus the appearance of some heavy matte lines that are probably made more pronounced by the high defintion restoration on the Blu-ray disc that tend to cruelly pick out this sort of thing.

The video presentation is certainly rather awesome. It’s possible to critique it and point out shots where the quality dips as if taken from a slightly inferior or compromised source, and others where the optical processing for the FX has resulted in appreciable degradation for those short moments. However one look at the pre-restoration standard definition picture (which you can glimpse in the ‘making of’ featurette contained on the disc) and it’s astonishing just how much better this release is than anything which preceded it.

It’s worth mentioning that the disc for The Invisible Man contained in the Complete Legacy Collection is exactly the same as the one that was originally contained in the 2012 Essential Collection release and since sold separately, so there is absolutely nothing new here in terms of quality or extra features for anyone who already owns the Blu-ray; instead, it’s the release of the sequels for the first time in the UK that’s the point of interest.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Sequels

Surprisingly, it took six years before there were any Invisible sequels from the studio; and unlike the other monster franchises which maintained a certain level of basic film-to-film continuity there was almost no attempt at connecting them, either in terms of plot or tone. Instead, it’s John P Fulton’s optical and practical FX for the invisibility sequences that prove the main link and continue to be the true standout star of the entire series.

First up was The Invisible Man Returns (1940) in which a man accused of murdering his brother has to use the invisibility serum to escape from death row to track down the real killer; then there was The Invisible Woman (1940) which was a fast, funny romp with a remarkably all-star cast; and then after Invisible Agent (1942) there was The Invisible Man’s Revenge which was more of a mystery with a final act twist. It was penned by Bertram Millhauser, who had been working on several of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films including The Pearl of Death which introduced the inimitable Rondo Hatton as the Creeper, himself a sadly short-lived entry into the Universal monster milieu.

Invisible Agent

But to step back to Invisible Agent, this was a classic example of Hollywood co-opting literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Mr Moto and The Saint into the wartime propaganda effort against the Nazis and/or Japanese. It’s not subtle, and the way that one lone, plucky (and somewhat dim-witted) ordinary American joe can wreak havoc in Berlin and wipe out half the German airforce is about as blatant as it gets even for the era in question.

It means the film has the same sort of B-movie clunkiness as the other aforementioned franchises, despite looking like it’s a bigger budget movie than usual. As well as the invisibility effects (which took things to a whole new level and are still impressive even by today’s standards) there’s also some pretty decent model work including a night time bombing rain on a German airfield. At 80 minutes, the film is longer than the usual B-movie and has more ‘parts’ to it, although this results in a rather episodic and jerky narrative.

We start in pre-war United States where Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) is menaced in his print shop by undercover Nazi general Stauffer (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his Japanese counterpart Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre, outrageously and brilliantly scene-stealing every minute that he’s on screen) for the invisibility serum invented by his grandfather. Raymond escapes and later agrees to work for the US government, becoming invisible himself before parachuting into Germany, where after being hunted through the countryside by German soldiers he meets up with double agent Maria (Ilona Massey) in Berlin in order to get hold of top secret Nazi invasion plans in Stauffer’s possession.

After this fairly tense start, there’s then a lengthy comedy sketch in which Maria’s dinner with Nazi mid-level officer Heiser (J Edward Bromberg) is sabotaged by Raymond’s invisible pranks, which only serves to place her at risk of exposure. Quite why he does this is unclear: perhaps it’s a callback to the insanity of the original Invisible Man caused by the serum although this isn’t made explicit; also not explained is the increasing paranoia that leads Raymond to become convinced that Maria is actually working for the Nazis and turn against her. However, the script does make it plain that Raymond’s unfortunate tendency to narcolepsy at inconvenient moments is indeed a side-effect of his see-through state.

After being a comedy figure in his first scene, Heiser then becomes a tragic and almost sympathetic figure when we encounter him next in a cell awaiting execution for treason at Stauffer’s whim. Raymond rescues him and they become almost allies for a time, before Heiser then spies an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the Nazis – only to be shot dead by two guards for no particular reason other than that the film is almost finished and needs to quickly wrap up any remaining loose ends before the closing titles.

Meanwhile the film veers from an all-action showdown in Stauffer’s office to a very dark scene in which Raymond is captured in a net embedded with fish hooks which have to be surgically removed from his skin – made all the worse by the fact that the detail is implied rather than seen due to the invisibility. (The surgeon at work here is Keye Luke, a sad wartime comedown for the former Number 1 son of the Charlie Chan franchise.) Previous to this, Raymond’s bumbling had revealed the identity of another resistance agent to the Nazis whom we see being interrogated, after which he’s unable to sign his release papers because all his fingers have been broken during the questioning – surely a rather chilling moment for a piece of family entertainment, even in wartime.

The fluctuating tone and fragmented storyline probably points to a production that had been artificially lengthened during filming in order to meet studio requirements for a ‘bigger’ picture than it started out. But despite its flaws, the film is always enjoyable and entertaining, not least because of the top-notch invisibility effects.

As for the Blu-ray presentation, this is another example of some of Universal’s finest high definition restoration work. I think I actually gasped when I saw the opening scenes of the movie, because they are so clear, pin-sharp and contrasty to the point of being a true film noir, not to mention free of any dirt or blemishes. I’ve seen some criticism that the film might have been over-smoothed by noise processing but I can’t say I have any complaints; it looks so sparkling that it could have been made on the Universal Studios backlot just last week. The audio is also as good as productions of such vintage can sound, so all round this is top notch.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Creature from the Black Lagoon: Complete Legacy Collection

I’m going to be entirely honest and upfront about this: I’m not a big fan of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), either the film itself (although I know it undoubtedly has many devoted admirers) or the titular character, whom I’ve never been convinced really deserves a place in the pantheon of Universal Horror monsters no matter how many times the studio includes him in ‘essential’ and ‘legacy’ boxsets alongside the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy.

Part of my antipathy toward the film is that it simply came along too late, almost ten years after the last of the golden age franchises (Abbott and Costello team-ups notwithstanding.) As a result, Creature from the Black Lagoon eschews the slow, stylish build up of creepy atmosphere that made the old films so wonderful. It is instead far closer in tone and feel to 1950s science fiction films including Tarantula, The Shrinking Man and It Came From Outer Space – unsurprisingly since these defining films of the period were directed by Jack Arnold, who also helmed Creature in a similar style. The film even stops for a few of those trademark preachy science lessons we get in the likes of Them! and 20 Million Miles From Earth, one of which about evolution comes just after an opening Biblical quote about how the world began – a very strange ‘cover all your bases’ juxtaposition of philosophies that you wouldn’t try these days.

The 50s approach means we get sudden shocks and lots of action, but not much in the way of building horror or even general characterisation. Every appearance of the Creature is heralded by a shrieking three-note brass fanfare that certainly makes you jump out of your seat, but which quickly becomes grating and annoying. It’s even used when the Creature’s hand appears above the surface and waves around in the air like it just don’t care, for no good reason other than the director felt the proceedings needed a bit of a jolt to keep the audience awake after some dialogue scenes. Oddly, the one moment that the fanfare forgets itself is the first moment we see the Creature properly, shyly peeking through the sea bed plantlife like a coy lover on a school field trip – not the best or most auspicious of reveals.

The plot is simple: an expedition in the Amazon investigating fossilised remains of a possible amphibian humanoid creature instead finds a much fresher and deadlier specimen still alive. They try and capture it but the Creature doesn’t take the bait and resists, so they end up killing it. The end, at least until the sequel. As Dr David Reed, Richard Carlson was a familiar leading man for this type of offering in the mid-50s; meanwhile Richard Denning’s expedition boss Mark Williams is required to serve as the all-purpose bad guy in opposing anything that David wants to do, even when it requires them to adopt flip-flopping positions. When David says they should stay, Mark insists they go; later when David says they must go, Mark insists they stay. It’s a one-dimensional way of inserting conflict into the tale. More interesting is the simmering sexual rivalry between the two for the affections of assistant Kay (Julia Adams) who also attracts the attention of the Creature itself by going for a swim and unknowingly taking part in an underwater ballet pas de deux, by far the film’s most beguiling and wordlessly eloquent sequence. It’s surprising that Kay is more or less fully clothed after this, and it’s actually the two male leads who end up shirtless and/or in skimpy shorts for large parts of the movie, rather different from how you might expect things to be!

As for the monster, I’m afraid he has no character to speak of and is dumb as a net full of haddock, immediately killing a number of the expedition team without provocation. Fortunately they’re only Amazonian natives and our heroes barely bat an eyelid over their loss; but when Whit Bissell’s Dr Thompson is injured there is much wailing and weeping about the possible loss of his vast knowledge and experience, confirming a very white man view of the world at the time. There’s no attempt to provide any rationalisation or motive for the Creature’s attacks, any more than you would to a shark or an alligator, although that doesn’t stop David being nobly intent on ensuring that Mark doesn’t put a harpoon through it at the first opportunity.

The unique selling point of the Gill Man (as he’s commonly dubbed these days) is his sub-aqua setting, and it’s in these sequences that the film comes most alive – largely thanks to the way that swimmer Ricou Browning embues him with a graceful, even playful body language. Above water the Creature is just another lumbering monster (where he’s portrayed by the taller, burlier Ben Chapman) although the way that he gasps for air augmented by inflating prosthetic gills is very well done. The difference in performance might very well be intentional, emphasising the Creature’s ‘fish out of water’ status when removed from his natural habitat. But without doubt it’s when we see him full length beneath the surface that we can appreciate the still-hugely impressive full-body monster costume worn by Browning, showing how much this sort of costume and make-up had moved on since the 1930s and 40s.

The other big selling point of the film at the time was that it was originally presented in 3D, and that version is included on the Blu-ray although I lack the compatible player and TV not to mention irksome glasses to try it out. You can certainly see shots in the film which are intended to play to the 3D effect, but I’ve never liked 3D myself even when used in modern blockbusters like Avatar and Gravity. In the Complete Legacy Collection release the 3D version barely rates a mention on the packaging as a special feature, let alone the big front cover splash it carried when originally issued in 2012.

The 3D processing might explain why the quality of the 2D Blu-ray restoration is quite significantly below what we’ve seen in previous titles such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera and The Invisible Man films – even the Abbott and Costello films polished up a good deal better than this has, despite Creature being by far the newest of the movies. The opening scenes are quite soft and lacking in detail, and many of daylight scenes in the mid-section of the film look flat and dull with all the midtones crushed into a narrow band of greys. This may have been an intentional artistic decision by Arnold, or maybe a mistake by the cinematographer, because the second half of the film is altogether a lot better on all fronts and starts to achieve the same levels of contrast, sharpness and clarity we’ve come to expect from the Universal Horror releases. Even so, the underwater sequences are inevitably less fully resolved and the Blu-ray struggles with blocking and banding at times.

The sound is also problematic, although again this is likely to be due to an artistic decision at the time: those blaring brass fanfares for the Creature’s every appearance are extremely loud in the mix, whereas the dialogue is a lot quieter and harder to hear. I found myself riding the remote control for pretty much the whole film, quickly lowering the volume before every appearance of the Gill Man in order not to annoy my neighbours. It’s amazing how quickly I got very adept at predicting when the Creature was about to show up, in time to take preemptive control of the volume – which also tells you a lot about the basic predictability of the film.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Sequels

There were two sequels to the original Creature feature. The first of them was Revenge of the Creature (1955), also directed by Arnold, in which a new expedition succeeds in capturing the Gill Man and returning him to civilisation where inevitably he breaks free and terrorises the city. A final rapid-fire follow-up entitled The Creature Walks Among Us (1955) sees the Gill Man genetically modified to live out of water, thereby wiping out at a stroke his one genuine USP as he becomes another boilersuit-clad monster at large.

Like the first film, Revenge was made in 3D even though the original fad for the format was already fading fast. The 3D version is also included in the Blu-ray boxset even though you won’t see it mentioned in any of the online listings, since 3D has once again dropped right out of fashion in the 21st century and is no longer anything like the selling point that it was just five or six years ago.

As mentioned above, the fact that the film was prepared in 3D might partly explain why the quality of the high defintion restoration is disappointing. The picture quality of the sequel is even more variable than the original feature. It has its moments but there just seems to be something about the way that Jack Arnold’s films were shot and processed that has irrevocably impaired their quality beyond the talents of current digital experts to address, which is a shame. Interestingly The Creature Walks Among Us – made after the end of the 50s craze for 3D – has significantly fewer such issues.

This is the weakest of the Complete Legacy Collection boxsets in terms of quality, then, as well as slimmest and consequently cheapest with just two discs. However if I’m honest about it – as well being a little bit needlessly bitchy – it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving sub=par franchise than Creature From The Black Lagoon. Sorry, Gill fans.

The Old Dark House (1932)

Wait, what? Where did this one creep in from? It’s not an accepted part of the Universal Horror franchise and never has been, so what’s it doing in this article?

After my griping about Creature from the Black Lagoon not feeling like a ‘true’ Universal Horror, I couldn’t help but think that The Old Dark House (1932) makes for a much better candidate for inclusion. Not just because of the year it was made – right in the epicentre of Universal’s golden age of horror films – but because it’s the work of James Whale, the director of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and the original The Invisible Man film discussed above. It’s not much of a stretch to say that he was the man who laid the foundations and set the ground rules for Universal’s success in the genre.

But his fourth entry in the horror canon, The Old Dark House, has long been sadly overlooked and sidelined. That’s partly because for many years it was considered to be a ‘lost’ film, spoken of in hushed tones by aficionados many of who had never had the chance to actually view it. A battered print was finally uncovered in the Universal archives in 1968 but it was of poor quality. It was eventually released on DVD in the UK but the picture was very dark, the highlights blown out and so much damage to the print that it was genuinely difficult to tell at times what we were looking at. It certainly made it a very hard watch, and that difficulty rather obscured the merits of the film as a whole.

Fortunately a brand new restoration was released on Blu-ray by Eureka in 2018, and it’s transformed the experience of watching the movie. It’s finally possible to see the detailed sets, admire the floating camera movements, and study the faces of the actors and see their performances, meaning we’re able to follow what’s going on without screwing up our eyes and making a best guess. And it turns out that those aficionados who had hailed it a lost masterpiece were, on this occasion at least, in fact completely correct about its merits.

Based on the JB Priestly novel Benighted but comprehensively infused with Whales’ own visual style and dark sense of humour, The Old Dark House starts with Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) caught in raging storms and floods in the Welsh countryside. They are forced to take refuge in the titular home of Horace and Rebecca Femm (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore), who clearly don’t want them there and who provide food and shelter only under barely concealed sufferance.

The uncomfortable gathering is soon augmented by the arrival of self-made businessman Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his ‘friend’, chorus girl Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). And we also meet more of the residents of the house, including patriarch Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), eldest son Saul (Brember Wills), and fearsome mute butler Morgan who becomes violent when drunk and if there are pretty girls around. Unfortunately, both criteria are in place on this occasion. Morgan is played by none other than Boris Karloff in his first film after Frankenstein and the success of that movie means that he gets star billing here despite a fairly minor role.

Whale uses every trick in the book to make the old, dark house a frightening place and it all works very nicely indeed as layer upon layer of mystery is peeled away, until the final act when there’s real jeopardy and violence. Up till then even the most unsettling incidents have been shot through with humour, such as the way that Horace manages to be both grudgingly gracious and politely intimidating with his overly-enunciated repeated offer of “Would you like a potato?” to his unwanted dinner guests.

It’s both a parody of films of the haunted house genre and simultaneously a templete for the greatest of them. Underneath it all is some sly and subtle satire on British society at the time, with the ensemble delivering a cross section of the mannered but eccentric Edwardian aristocracy alongside Sir William’s crass, new money northerner of the 20th century, together with war veteran Penderel’s post-WW1 flippant cynicism in which nothing really much matters. That is, not until he finds love again in the arms of Gladys which culminates in a happy ‘morning after’ ending – which itself feels like it’s playing a trick on the audience or having an unsettling laugh at our expense.

Highly recommended, therefore; and if you’ve seen the dreadful 1963 William Castle remake on Talking Pictures TV recently then don’t let that put you off. There’s literally no comparison.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man Complete Legacy Collections were released in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD on June 10, 2019. The Old Dark House was released on dual format by Eureka on 21 May 2018.

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