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Olive Films // Unrated // September 22, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
The motion picture serial had its heyday before and during WWII. In the 30's and 40's studios like Universal and Columbia were cranking them out like clockwork to fill out the Saturday morning program. The king of the serials, however, was Republic Pictures. With the extraordinary direction team of William Witney and John English behind the camera on many of their best serials (including Captain Marvel, Zorro Rides Again, and two of the Dick Tracy adventures) this poverty row studio put out a better product, in general, that the majors. Things declined in the late 40's however. With slimmer profits and competition from TV, serials fell into a decline. Budgets were cut, which meant that special effects and elaborate sets were out. Scripts became stale and footage was reused from earlier productions. The serials from the 1950's have a bad rep among aficionados, usually with good reason. Some of them are really pretty lame, but The Invisible Monster, released in 1950, is actually one of the better cliffhangers from this period. Olive Films has just released the whole adventure on a very nice looking Blu-ray disc (the first time it's been released digitally... there wasn't a DVD release), making this the first serial from the talkie era to make the jump to high definition.
The devious mastermind, The Phantom Ruler (Stanley Price) has invented an invisibility formula. Once he coats his cloak and face mask with a certain chemical, no one can see him at all... as long as a special light is shining on him. In ordinary light he's perfectly opaque. (Hey, he never said it was a good invisibility formula!) With the secret to become transparent he naturally decides to take over the country. He wants to create an invisible army and his first step is to smuggling for people from behind the Iron Curtain into the country. With these four people in places of importance, (one's a night watchman!) he'll be able to raise the funds he needs to equip his forces and rule America!
It would surely have all come to pass, except on their first job they have the bad luck to rob a bank that was being insured by the company that employs Lane Carson (Richard Webb, who would later go on to play Captain Midnight in the TV series of the same name) as an insurance investigator. He's a no-nonsense punch-first-and-ask-questions-later investigator that's determined to bring down the Phantom Ruler and his gang. Aided by Carol Richards (Aline Towne, in her first of five serial roles), the two foil the Ruler's plans every week all while getting into fights, having shoot outs, and surviving explosions, car wrecks, landslides, and falling bank vault doors.
Like most serials, this one tries to cram in as much action and adventure as they can into 15 minutes, and that's both its strength and greatest weakness. Each and every episode has Lane getting into a fist fight with some of the Phantom Ruler's goons. After a while those stop being fun and just become dreary. It's obvious that the fights were a cheap and effective way to pad out the running time, but there were just too many.
The serial also has a lot of cliffhanger endings that were copied from countless other chapter plays. If you've seen even one other one, you'll be sure to figure out how Lane survives his car going off a cliff or getting blown up. Having said that, there are good endings to a couple of chapters. In one Lane and a villain both fall out of a window half way up a sky scraper and they get him out of it in a creative and mostly fair manner. Those are the exception rather than the rule.
The serial is entertaining, especially if you only watch an episode at a time. It's filled with that great serial logic that makes these so fun to watch. Why did the Phantom Ruler go to the trouble to smuggle people into the country? Why not! Why does someone who is planning on ruling the country have so few resources that he has to constantly try to steal money? Hey, that happens. Of course the best part is the whole invisibility concept. The Phantom Ruler had to outfit a truck with a generator and a special spotlight just to become invisible, and even then he couldn't go inside. That would make it way too easy. Of course the reason they gave the formula that flaw was so that viewers would know what the invisible phantom was doing... just follow the spotlight that it tracking up a fire escape. That whole rig, added to the fact that the PR (as his henchmen refer to him at least once) has to recoat his clothes with the formula each time he becomes invisible, gives this serial a fun, innocent, feel that makes it quite enjoyable.
Olive Films AVC 1080p transfer preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and looks amazing... with some caveats. The first thing that will strike viewers who have seen a good number of chapter plays on DVD is that this HD release looks much better than any other serial that I can recall. The contrast is great, the image is clear, and the detail is very good. There is a bit of natural grain, which there should be. Those who have been burned when purchasing serials released by public domain companies and getting washed out marred video will be very happy with this.
Having said that, this serial does reuse a lot of footage (as was the case in the 50's) from earlier Republic productions and those sections aren't as crisp and clear. It's understandable; they just chopped out a scene from some dup of a serial and spliced it in. There's a slight shift in video quality when they splice in older material, but it's never distracting and it undoubtedly looked that way back when this was first making the rounds back in 1950.
Like the video, the DTS-HD two channel mono track is excellent when compared to other serials that have been released. The dialog is clean and clear, the audio effects come out well. No complaints here.
Unfortunately, there are no extras at all on this release. A series of trailers from this and other serials would have been good, and a commentary track over the first episode would have been wonderful. All we get is a menu with the choice between playing the whole serial and selecting a chapter.
While this isn't a great chapter play, it is a decent offering from the end of the serial era. The whole story is entertaining and fun, if a bit repetitive, and plays much better if you only watch an episode at a time. Olive Films Blu-ray (the first time a sound serial has made it to high definition) looks and sounds great. If you're a serial fan, you really should pick this up. It gets a very strong recommendation.