[Creepy Crypts] 'Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man' Signaled the Fading of the Title Villain
Welcome to our column Creepy Crypts, in which our writers exhume the old, the forgotten, and the long dead horror some of us have forgotten...until now...
...Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) introduces the sixth of Universal’s invisible persons: heavyweight boxer Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz). Framed for murder by the mob, Tommy’s only hope of escaping the law is taking the formula invented by the late John Griffin and making himself invisible. He still needs further assistance in thwarting the gangsters, however, and so recruits a pair of detectives—who, unfortunately for him, turn out to be Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Directed by Charles Lamont and written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and John Grant, this film is a continuation of the Abbott and Costello/Universal monster crossovers that began in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which, incidentally, included a brief cameo from an Invisible Man voiced by Vincent Price). The Invisible Man was the most logical addition to Universal’s line of self-parodies, as the earlier entries in the series had their share of humour. The 1933 original was filled with James Whale’s camp sensibility; The Invisible Woman was an outright screwball comedy; and even Invisible Agent—which, with its backdrop of Nazi Germany, had the potential to be the most horrific of all—included an extended slapstick scene in which the title character threw food at a bumbling fat man.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, then, that large chunks of prior films turn up in this parody. The sequence in which Abbott has to cover for a tipsy, mischief-making Invisible Man goes over ground covered by both Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent, while the plot thread of Costello receiving invisible aid to cheat at boxing matches is ultimately an extension of the comic-relief darts sequence in The Invisible Man’s Revenge. The chief model of the Abbott and Costello parody, meanwhile, is clearly The Invisible Man Returns, the general plot structure of which—a wrongly-accused man turns himself invisible to escape the law, and is driven mad by the drug—is still visible behind the knockabout comedy. Indeed, the film even replicates a scene from its straight-faced precursor involving invisible guinea pigs.
At first, it looks as though the film is going to work. The early scenes of the two protagonists as comedy detectives—Costello cosplaying as Sherlock Holmes while Abbott aspires to be a more straight-laced noir type—have their charm. The plotline involving the soon-to-be-invisible Tommy and his associates is played straight, suggesting that the film is going to treat its monster with respect, as did Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. So far, so good.
But by the end of its first act, Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man has lost all direction. It lampoons detective films, boxing and even hospital dramas, but finds little interesting to do with its Invisible Man. It’s soon reduced to simply re-enacting scenes from earlier Invisible Man films, with the addition of Abbott and Costello but no sign of understanding what made the 1933 classic (or even its sequels) work. Meet Frankenstein benefitted from having Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. on hand to reprise their roles, but Meet the Invisible Man feels divorced from its source material. The only thing holding it together are Abbott and Costello’s slapstick routines, and only the most hardened devotee of the duo will find this sufficient.
The muddled nature of the film is summed up by its final joke: Costello briefly turns himself invisible, and when the effect wears off, his legs are on back to front—which, apparently, is now a side-effect of Griffin’s formula. Given that H. G. Wells died a few years before the film was made, we can only imagine how he would have reacted to seeing his name in the credits.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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