The Invisible Man Appears (1949)/The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly (1957)
Studio: Arrow Films
Release date: March 16th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It makes sense that The Invisible Man would prove to be like a chameleon when adapted to the screen. Reimagined a countless number of times, transcending generations and geography, H.G. Wells’s famous creation has inspired films that are as varied as they are bountiful. Even its most famous incarnation—the Universal Studios films of the 30s and 40s—didn’t serve up conventional sequels, with the studio opting instead to reimagine the core idea as different types of films: a wrong man thriller, a screwball comedy, even a propaganda spy adventure. Coincidentally, these Hollywood films would prove popular during America’s post-war occupation of Japan, striking a chord with the locals and inspiring effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, now blacklisted after making propaganda films himself. After losing his post at Toho, Tsuburaya formed an independent effects company that Daiei Film would contract for The Invisible Man Appears, an interesting genre-jukebox approach that puts its own stamp on the familiar theme. While it starts in the expected domain of science-gone-haywire, the film eventually sprawls into gangster/ film noir territory, right down to an overwrought plot that boils down to a thief simply trying to steal a valuable necklace.
Professional rivals Segi (Daijirô Natsukawa) and Kurokawa (Kanji Koshiba) are competing to discover the secret of invisibility, all while vying for the affection of their boss’s daughter. Little do they know, however, that Dr. Nakazato (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) has already created a viable but untested formula for invisibility. When he spills his secrets to local gangster Kawabe (Shôsaku Sugiyama), he inspires the crook to hatch a scheme to swipe a famous (and very valuable) necklace. Most of us would probably set our sights a little higher when given the chance to exploit invisibility. But what Kawabe’s plan might lack in ambition, it makes up for with sheer intricacy. Because the formula is untested, he has to abduct Nakazato and an unwitting test subject he can turn invisible and manipulate into stealing the necklace—all while sidling up with the necklace’s rightful owners, who are friends and family of the professor himself. The whole thing comes this close to being a comedy of errors as the plan blows up in his face, forcing him to scurry for various, increasingly convoluted solutions.
But for a while, though, The Invisible Man Appears delivers the elemental thrills expected of its title. When the mysterious title character appears, wreaking unrepentant havoc with a maniacal laughter, it evokes the memory of James Whale’s original film, going so far as to ape Claude Rains’s iconic look. Tsuburaya’s effects work shines here, too, as he dips into a familiar bag of tricks that allows him to move objects around the frame. I think The Invisible Man concept endures because it feels the most like an actual magic trick on-screen, and this movie absolutely delights showing off for its audience. al release poster. Nobuo Adachi’s direction is also lively during these sequences, utilizing frenetic POV shots to capture the Invisible Man’s madness and desperation as he seeks the necklace.
When it’s time for the script to reveal its secrets—including the identity of its Invisible Man—in the middle of the movie, the plot’s moving parts and the large cast become a bit unwieldy. A long flashback both illuminates the plot and grinds the film to a halt before yielding to a slipshod backend that’s at least bustling with incident as the characters piece together an increasingly byzantine puzzle involving an invisible doppelganger among other distractions. But The Invisible Man Appears does rebound nicely down the stretch when its title character clearly becomes a desperate victim. The performer (whose identity I’ll withhold to preserve the experience) does an especially nice job here of capturing this manic desperation only by using his voice, which becomes more haunting as it becomes clear his condition might not be reversed. A somber denouement brings into focus the film’s central thesis: “there is no good or evil in science, but it can be used for good or evil purposes.” As Dr. Nakazato somberly disavows his creation, lamenting its twisted use, it anticipates similar philosophical musings that would accompany Tsuburaya’s most famous creation to the screen five years later in Gojira. In the shadow of that landmark, it’s hard to see The Invisible Man Appears as anything more than a curiosity piece—but what a curiosity it is.
While Tsuburaya didn’t return for Daei’s “follow-up” eight years later, The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly doubles down on the effects spectacle in realizing one of the most bizarre entries in the “invisible” canon. As is “tradition,” this one isn’t a direct sequel to Appears but instead imagines an entirely new scenario with a new set of characters. It toys with expectations from the opening sequence, where an airline passenger mysteriously dies. The authorities suspect homicide yet can’t reasonably find a suspect since nobody on board actually saw the murder occur. It’s the latest in a rash of unsolved murders that have perplexed the cops. Surely. It’s the work of the nefarious invisible man hinted at by the title. But what the movie actually supposes is...it’s not. In fact, Chief Inspector Wakabayashi (Yoshiro Kitahara) only entertains the notion when his investigation leads him to some scientists who are working on an invisible ray, which ends up being mighty convenient when he learns the murderous culprit is...well, let’s just say that the “Human Fly” in the title isn’t figurative.
I can’t help but wonder how much more delightful this movie would have been had its title been a little more cryptic. So much of the film involves the police piecing together clues about their culprit that it almost feels like a spoiler that we already know it’s a human fly. But it’s also no less delightful when all of this comes into focus, mostly because the sheer imagination on display is incredible—our bad guy here really is a lowlife who transforms into a fly to carry out murders on behalf of the film’s real villain, who’s seeking revenge for past grievances. Even in a “series” this wildly varied, this feels utterly out of left field, almost as if someone hatched a riff on The Fly or The Incredible Shrinking Man and crossbred it with The Invisible Man, except that it was released the same year as the former and pre-dated the latter.
Anyway, the invisibility only factors in towards the end, when Wakabayashi grows so desperate that he takes the unproven formula in an effort to ensnare the human fly. It results in an effects bonanza, with the typical Invisible Man parlor tricks bouncing off of miniature effects work. The intensity of Wakabayashi’s pursuit doesn’t get lost among the effects weeds, either—The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly is quite gripping down the stretch as it culminates in a rooftop showdown that has a surprise or two of its own.
Human Fly is more straightforward and pulpier than its predecessor; it foregoes the ponderous musings on science’s capacity for good and evil, opting instead to indulge its own genre-blending potential. With its witty, likable cast of characters, a pair of devious scoundrels, and plenty of mayhem to spread around, it weaves a film noir thread through its sci-fi trappings, eventually yielding an indelible crazy quilt. This is one of those movies where an abundance of familiarity still results in a singular experience: you’ve seen riffs on The Fly before, and you’ve seen plenty of Invisible Man movies before, but their collision leaves something delightful and unique in its wake. Waiter, there's a fly in my Invisible Man movie...but I'm not mad about it.
Despite their obvious intrigue, these Invisible Man films have been unreleased outside of Japan since their theatrical bow, a fate that becomes downright ironic considering the American influence on the duo. However, Arrow Video has rectified this by releasing both films as part of a Blu-ray double feature on what has become one of the more notable discs in recent memory, if only because it’s so rare that films this scarce suddenly emerge from the ether, nicely preserved in high definition. Technically, the transfer for both films derive from 16mm prints, which are the highest quality in existence, so set your expectations accordingly—especially since we’re dealing with 65 and 70 year old movies in the first place. The presentation is perfectly fine—I found that Appears suffered from more wobble and print damage, while Human Fly was in better shape. Both films are completely watchable, though, and the former’s presentation actually improves as the film goes on.
Supplements include a 24-minute chat with the always delightful Kim Newman, who delves into the invisible man sub-genre with “Transparent Terrors” and does so in his typically delightful, conversational style. A trailer for The Invisible Man Appears and photo galleries for both films round out the on-disc content. However, the liner notes feature three exhaustive and informative essays about the films and its cast and crew, with each author focusing on various aspects of the historical context, production, and legacy of the films. Considering how obscure these films are, the research is top notch, and I came away knowing more about these films than I ever thought possible—as Keith Allison says at the end of his essay, this duo was once considered so elusive that nobody would have ever thought they’d appear on Blu-ray, yet here we are. Allison also mentions the Daiei’s further exploits with invisible men, citing Invisible Demon and Invisible Swordsman as two productions that now remain even more obscure. Given Arrow’s commitment to the Daiei catalogue in recent years, however, hope remains that they’ll turn up these too. At this point, there’s really nothing quite like super obscure, strange films like this being suddenly unearthed after decades, especially when it’s done with the kind of care and attention Arrow lavishes upon its releases.
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