It’s not particularly unusual for a franchise to pop the clutch and yank the handbrake in order to pull a complete change of tone – and in some cases, even genre – to give their series a facelift to prolong audience interest. Sometimes it works, other times you get C.H.U.D. II: Bud The C.H.U.D. (ce la vie), but surely one of the most whiplash inducing tone changes must belong to the third movie in Unviersal’s Invisible Insert word here franchise.
The 1933 original saw Claude Rains go absolutely batshit mental and hold a city to ransom with his invisible fuckery, while the sequel, The Invisible Man Returns, “saw” Vincent Price use the funky serum to help him escape from his death sentence by fleeing jail and trying to find the man who framed him of murder in a movie that could comfortably be described as a sci-fi thriller.
However the third film tried something noticably different aside from a gender change…
Wealthy lawyer Richard Russell is funding scatty old Professor Gibbs’ experiments into invisibility and to find himself a willing guinea pig he puts an ad out in the paper for any Tom, Dick or Harry to wander into his lab and get zapped by his invisibility machine. Incredibly, his blatent creepy ad is answered by Kitty Carroll, a store model who’s longing for adventure would no doubt also have her knocking on the side of a white van with “Free Hugs” written on the side she first heard about on Craigslist. To be fair her life, while decent, is frequently made hell by her tyrannical boss, mister Growley (subtle) who seems to be genetically programmed to coldly belittle employees and Kitty is dizzy at the thought of being made transparent as cling film in order to screw with him.
Kitty gets zapped and dutifully vanishes, but instead of hanging around so Professor Gibbs can perform any tests, Kitty zips off to her place of employment (in the invisible nude, no less) to torment her boss and actually manages to reform him by booting him repeatedly in the arse.
Matters are complicated by not only Kitty’s condition being exasperated by the consumption of booze, but also by the arrival of a gang of criminals who want to steal Gibbs’ technology for their own ends despite having the accumulated intelligence of your average Bugs Bunny villain and while Gibbs struggles to introduce Kitty to a disbelieving Richard, the crooks make their play.
Can Kitty utilise her powers to send the gangsters packing despite being as sloshed as Sam Peckenpah at a test screening?
The all or nothing lunge into full, screwball comedy is somewhat a left field choice by the producers and to understand it, it helps to remember that while Universal Studios was banging out all the titles we eventually came to know as the Universal Monsters stable, no one was thinking of all these titles as a collective at the time. This goes a long way to explain why other movies released around the same time (aka. The Mummy’s Hand) stay firmly in the realms horror while The Invisible Woman contains an invisible drunk fashion model bonking gangsters on the head. The shift isn’t particularly a welcome one, the constant huge double takes and utterly random bursts of prat-falling by an inexplicably accident prone butler are more distracting than funny and the farcical elements are hardly of the standards of, say, Billy Wilder, but the gender swap of the main character ends up being a major missed opportunity. While the invisible men are scientists and men of industry who use their see-through abilities to either create a city-wide reign of terror or fight for their freedom; Kitty is a bored model who’s first instinct is to physically assault her boss. Sure, its Kitty who saves the day by taking out all the bad guys in the climax (admittedly while drunk) and it is admittedly refreshing to have a female lead in this kind of thing – just think of the possibilities that could have been if they’d held their nerve and kept the series firmly in the thriller vein. The state of invisibility seems to no longer drive people nuts but imagine a story where a down trodden woman in the 1940’s is finally given the power to literally run rings around her male peers while in danger of her sanity starting to give as her ego exponentially expands. While we did finally get something similar to this thanks to the final twenty minutes of Leigh Whannell’s magnificent and radical Invisible Man redux, going so silly with a female lead feels like a huge own goal.
The performances are mostly cartoonish and the invisible effects, while still effective are used so show Kitty pulling on tights and whipping off her dress and while it isn’t as painfully sexualised as, say, the shit Jessica Alba had to put up with in Fantastic Four, actress Virginia Bruce is denied any kind of classic, dramatic Invisible moment that previous actors have enjoyed. No iconic unwrapping of bandages (no bandages at all, actually), no insane cackling laughter (not sober, anyway) and nothing even approaching the warnings that came from H.G. Wells original story.
Some may enjoy the silly, kickabout sense of fun, but not only are screwball comedies sometimes kind of annoying to me, The Invisible Woman is kind of like trying to follow up Training Day with Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment.
Kudos for a well meaning (if predictably clumsy) attempt at gender equality aside, if there’s a good movie to be found here, I certainly can’t see it.