Having been raised by my grandparents - proud members of the Greatest Generation - I was privileged in a way my peers were not: I learned to know of and love a variety of films (as well as television shows and radio programs) that had become nothing more than footnotes in the entertainment history books before I was even born. Fortunately for me, I was growing up within the great boom of the analog video era - when thousands of motion picture titles were finding their way to videocassette for the older generations to rediscover, hopefully gaining a new audience in the process. One such motion picture format was the serial, which were essentially a precursor to the modern television show. Comprised of numerous chapters, these chapter plays were shown to young matinee audiences every Saturday at the bijou.
Every week, kids would see their new (limited) icons - from rocket-packed rangers to Mounties in the Great White North - duke it out with fedora-fitted henchmen, before finding themselves in a seemingly inescapable cliffhanger ending, prompting kids to return next Saturday to see how their hero(es) escaped certain death. Some escapes were highly original, executed via a little creative writing and fancy editing. Others were downright lazy and hilarious. A particular favorite of mine hails from the 1951 Columbia serial Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere, wherein its heroes are trapped in a pit on a foreign planet when flames erupt all around them; the next week, we discover that the flames on this planet are of a lower temperature than Earth's - and thus, harmless! (I mean, really? Really?!)
With roots as far back as the Silent Era, serials ran all the way up to the mid 1950s, when their number one competitor on the time - the television - emerged victorious. Likewise, despite enjoying a newfound popularity on VHS (and, in a few rare instances, LaserDisc) in the '80s and '90s, the advent of DVD seemed to arrive around the same time the aging men and women who had once flocked in to see these multi-chapter cinematic escapades as kids were beginning to shuffle off of their mortal coils. Today, serials only find their way to DVD thanks to niche labels such as VCI and the occasional shameless marketing tie-in (we have only seen the original Batman and Superman serials on DVD because of newer cinematic incarnations of both characters).
Naturally, you can imagine my total shock and surprise when I saw a serial was being released on Blu-ray.
You can imagine my further shock and surprise when I learned the first 1080p HD issue of a hokey ol' chapter play from yesteryear was Republic Picture's 1950 "quickie," The Invisible Monster. Made at a point in time when Republic's commitment to their own simplistic matinee fare for kiddies was, in a nutshell, not as hot as it once was, The Invisible Monster has essentially become a footnote in the history of serials itself. Therefore, the decision to make this the first official cliffhanger serial to ever be released on Blu-ray is mind-boggling. But also very, very cool. I experienced a complete nerdgasm when I saw Olive Films was putting this dumb little 12-Chapter outing in HD, and I am extremely happy that someone has decided to put something from the world of serials on Blu-ray.
And The Invisible Monster most definitely constitutes as being "something." Shot under the slightly less-ridiculous working title The Phantom Ruler, this rather effortless effort from director Fred C. Bannon, producer Franklin Adreon, and writer Ronald Davidson - all seasoned regulars to the trade - lacks the grace that was most apparent in the earlier Republic serials. Gone is the popular motif of the Mystery Villain - a diabolical mastermind of unlimited resources who is always shown in a mask (or off-camera), and whose identity is only revealed to the audience in the final chapter. Instead, we have the prolific (yet widely unknown) B western heavy Stanley Price as The Phantom Ruler: a grossly underfunded and incompetent subgenius who steps out of his invisibility light and takes his mask off for all to see in the first reel.
As ineffectual of a bad guy to ever gracelessly grace the screen, Price (a personal B favorite of mine, having been the only man in cinematic history to not only slap Shemp Howard, but the very first villain to visit the Batcave ever!) is unable to hire more than two inept men to carry out his harebrained scheme to take over the city. Perhaps his method needs work: he plans to do so with an army of invisible warriors. And in order to do this, he will need illegal immigrants from foreign (presumably Commie) countries he can force to work for him, and surplus body capes covered in a specially made (and presumably radioactive) formula that can only achieve its intended transparent effect by being illuminated by a heavily modified 1950s automobile headlight! Yes, while many serial villains are ripe for parodying, Price's Phantom Ruler almost seems to be an actual joke in itself.
In fact, so lackluster of a supervillain is he, poor Stanley Price doesn't even rate above his number one henchman - Lane Bradford (the Robert Z'Dar of his day) - in the credits! The illustrious spot of Number Two Henchman is played by future familiar face John Crawford, cutting his teeth on that whole acting thing in this, one of several serials the late actor started out his long career with. Meanwhile, top-billed hero Richard (Captain Midnight) Webb wanders about the plains of rural Southern California in search of the bad guys causing all sorts of crime and death and stuff, all the while making sexist remarks to his unwanted partner against crime, Ms. Aline Towne - who appeared in several Republic serials, including the iconic Commando Cody series - holds her own as best she can in this, her very first serial outing.
Serials were primarily made for youngsters; mostly boys who didn't want to see any of that mushy stuff. As such, Ms. Towne's character is as sexless as can be. However, her part as Carol Richards - a criminal psychologist without the degree, since she's a woman in the 1950s and all - is far more progressive than what we would see in the later Commando Cody serials, wherein she primarily sat at a radio, kicking back the whole time while collecting that fat second-billing paycheck. She even gets to take part in a lot of the action and shoot a gun here - though most everyone in The Invisible Monster has aim as good as Imperial Stormtroopers; quite fitting, really, seeing as how Star Wars was born from the ashes of the cliffhanger serial.
Also featured in this Republic quickie are George Meeker and Dale Van Sickel as two of the foreigners given American names and identities by The Phantom Ruler (he can somehow smuggle four men in from abroad and give them new lives, but can't run a simple two-man organization?). The rest of the cast - despite prominent billing in the main credits, which never change from chapter to chapter - include western bit player Keith Richards (who shows up in the last half of the last chapter!), Tom Steele, Marshall Reed, Eddie Parker, David Sharpe, and Guy Teague. One credited actor, Charles Regan, does not actually appear in the serial. Special effects wizards Howard and Theodore Lydecker contributed to this silly little classic; most of their handiwork presented as stock footage from older titles.
Heck, a good 40% of the serial was recycled from other serials, but that's pretty much how Republic did things at that point in time! Why, even with all of the stock footage present, The Invisible Monster still receives the proverbial re-cap chapter, wherein our lead heroes have flashbacks about previous chapters to actor Edward Keane (who, despite being in almost every chapter, is not credited at all). One of 26 Republic serials to be re-edited into feature film length during the mid 1960s (at the height of the mania from the campy Batman television series, which was unintentionally spawned from college campus revivals of the original 1943 Columbia Pictures Batman serial), The Invisible Monster was re-released as Slaves of the Invisible Monster.
Now, as far as Olive Films' release of this 1950 160-minute guilty pleasure, it's hard to really judge the video presentation since there is so much footage lifted from other titles present in this one. That said, the 100% original shot-specifically-for-this-serial footage looks quite lovely. There is the occasional bit of natural dirt/debris present throughout, most of which will probably go by unnoticed. I did, however, observe something I had never seen before on the opening title card: the word "Republic" has a marbled look to it. I never spotted this on the VHS version (for reasons which I believe should be more than obvious, especially if you've ever seen a videocassette in action), and I don't reckon I noticed said pattern in any of the Republic LaserDisc titles made available for a limited time in the '90s.
Speaking of the '90s, one of the reasons The Invisible Monster has any sort of significance to me extends from a fateful day as a 16-year-old living in Ashland, Oregon. I was living with my older brother and his whacked-out girlfriend. Our electricity had been shut off. My mother mailed me $20 to have it turned back on (this was back when such a task could be achieved with a cool twenty bucks). What did I do? I wound up taking the bus to Medford, going to the mall, and seeing the freshly released The Invisible Monster on VHS in Suncoast. I couldn't help myself: it featured Stanley Price - the first villain to visit the Batcave on celluloid ever, and who got to slap Shemp, too - as the bad guy. I was so excited, it didn't occur to me that I couldn't actually watch the serial when I got home. Der.
Some time down the road, I was watching The Invisible Monster when my mother came to visit. Her only comment was "You spent the twenty dollars I gave you to turn the electricity back on… on this?" And while I know not everyone has the same absurd history with this throwaway serial from Republic, it doesn't change the fact that, as previously stated, The Invisible Monster is the very first serial to hit Blu-ray. Ever. One might think that this would cause for celebration throughout the entire world of film lovers. Truth be told, even most serial fanatics aren't fully aware of this subtle debut, but the good news is: it's here, and Republic's equally dumb (but far more enjoyable) Flying Disc Man from Mars is due out in October. Needless to say, I can hardly wait.
Thank you, Olive Films. And yes, I will gladly buy all the serials you can get your hands on. Keep it up.