Robert E. Kent’s production
of Invisible Invaders is merely one
of a long string of modestly budgeted 1950’s science-fiction films. As such it’s almost inevitable that at some
interval during the film the healthful actor John Agar will turn up. In this movie
the always dependable Agar – rocking a serious military buzz-cut - is cast in a
leading man role as Major Bruce Jay of the United States Air Force. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, this sinewy,
lantern-jawed actor would star in a number of bona fide sci-fi classics as Revenge
of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955),
and The Mole People (1956). The score of sci-fi and horror movies he
would appear in from 1955 through 1962 weren’t all of such high cinematic or
popular culture caliber to be sure; nonetheless most were enjoyable programmers
if you happened to be a popcorn-munching juvenile or a mostly uncritical adult
with a soft spot for low-budget monster movies. In this latter category you might find apologist fans – and I’m one of
them, truth be told - of Agar’s turns in Daughter
of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Brain from
Planet Arous (1957) and Attack of the
Puppet People (1958). These films
weren’t bottom-of-barrel offerings, but they could hardly be considered
particularly buoyant either.
I suppose that part of the
reason I love the low-brow end of 1950’s science-fiction is that there’s always
something much worse out there still to be discovered. We already know of the complete calamities,
the cinematic trash that nonetheless never fails to entertain. Maybe the on-screen monster we’re supposed to
fear is little more than a gorilla wearing a deep-sea diving helmet (Robot Monster) or perhaps a rolled-up
carpet with pasted-on eyes (The Creeping
Unknown), or the busty but empty-headed Fire
Maidens of Outer Space. These films,
for all their charms, are simply not good – at least not in any conventional
sense. The true fans, of course, will
generally excuse or explain away a film’s shortcomings and wince-producing missteps. Hey,
the producers did what they could with what they had; the film’s production
schedule was too rushed etc. etc.… This is willful, but empty devotion and I confess that I suffer from it.
If the appearance of John
Agar isn’t enough to sound your preliminary bad-film alarm bell, I suppose the additional
presence of the skeletal Shakespearean actor John Carradine in the cast should alert
one that there might be some cinematic rough-sledding ahead. Of the hundreds of films – and television
shows - Carradine would appear in over a long but sadly only occasionally
distinguished career, only a handful are truly great. Carradine is fifth-billed in the ending
credit roll of Invisible Invaders, and
I guess this placement is fair. The
veteran actor only appears in two scenes of any real consequence (and the first
is so brief that it might be missed in the blinking of an eye). During his too-brief portrayal of military-scientist
Karol Noymann, the lanky Carradine is seemingly incinerated in the film’s
opening montage. But as this is a
borderline horror film, the ill-fated scientist’s fiery demise proves to be
merely temporal. It’s clearly too early in the film to confidently write off the
possibility of a second appearance.
That second coming arrives
soon enough when Carradine – or, at least, something in the personage of
Carradine – comes knocking on the door of his old friend and scientific colleague
Adam Penner (Philip Tonge). Technically,
Penner is not visited by Noymann; instead he’s met by an alien who is temporarily
utilizing the scientist’s corpse as an agent of mobility. The gaunt, expressionless corpse-shell of
Noymann coldly informs Penner (in that peerless Carradine basso tone) that the
earth will be destroyed in twenty-four hours time by a merciless alien
invasion. This has been deemed necessary
since the previously “slow scientific developments” of the earthlings – their
activities having long been monitored by the aliens from their outer space
perch - have recently accelerated… as has their misuse of atomic energy. The aliens are now prepared to invade earth and
set up a “Dictatorship of the Universe.” It seems as though 20,000 years prior – just in case our planet’s
inhabitants started getting too smart for their own good, I suppose – the
aliens proactively established on the moon a conveniently invisible and
“impregnable base for its space ships.” The militarists and scientists on planet earth never picked up on these
moon bases as… well, they’re invisible and we couldn’t see them.
The aliens are using the science of invisibility to great advantage. When not inhabiting the corpses of the newly dead as convenient message-delivery vehicles, the invaders too can become invisible by changing the molecular structure of their own bodies. This is too bad for the mostly juvenile audiences who no doubt were the target audience for this particular celluloid adventure. This is, sadly, a 50’s sci-fi film without a literate scenario or a cool-looking monster to commemorate or justify its existence. The arrival of the invisible invaders is generally broadcast through three means: the undulation of an eerie Theremin on the soundtrack, a set of visible strings pulling back tree branches to suggest someone – or something - is passing between them and, most often, the disturbance of topsoil through the shuffle of footsteps. Not particularly thrilling on-screen visuals, whether you’re age 12 or 55. When one considers the incredible demonstration of invisibility camera effects brought to the screen by Universal’s John P. Fulton in the 1933 classic The Invisible Man, one really mourns the lost potentialities of this 1959 effort.
The corpse of Noymann tells his woeful colleague that it’s squarely on his shoulders to warn the people of earth of the pending invasion. Penner enlists the cooperation of his Daughter Phyllis (Jean Byron) and friend Dr. Lamont (Robert Hutton), though the latter believes the old man has lost all his marbles and along with it any sense of scientific credibility. The old man seems persistently sincere enough however, so they allow him to tell the story to the press. Not too surprisingly, the newspapers are cynical and laugh off the old man’s warnings of impending doom. One headline sarcastically boasts they’ve published the first photograph of the so-called “Invisible Invader.” The newspaper mockingly publishes a completely blank page as illustration.
They’ll be sorry soon enough. Though Penner misses the twenty-four hour deadline, it’s not for lack of trying. He’s re-visited by the disembodied, off-screen voice of Carradine/Noymann who suggests they’d allow “one more warning” before the apocalyptic onslaught would begin. The alien actually and generously allows for two more warnings, but both are pretty modest in design when one considers the intent is to broadcast this message world-wide. The invaders first send a fresh corpse of a U.S. pilot to the announcer’s booth of a minor-league hockey rink near Syracuse, New York. Grabbing the microphone, he warns a couple dozen hockey fans of the impending destruction. A second corpse, this time in the form of an electrocuted automobile driver, delivers a similar announcement at yet another sporting event in a much bigger outdoor stadium. I imagine that non-sports enthusiasts would be blindsided by the alien attacks, having no notion of the pending threat.
With the second deadline having passed, the invaders ruthlessly deliver on their promise. In a three-day rampage, they attack infrastructure all of kinds: bridges, dams, buildings, railroads, airports, army depots, communication stations. The scenes of destruction are cheaply splashed onto the screen via vintage newsreel footage with none of the emulsion or base scratches buffered out.
With the world on the brink of collapse, the world’s leading scientists huddle in a series of underground, atomic-blast proof bunkers so they can quickly devise a weapon to end the alien onslaught. Penner, Phyllis, Lamont, and Major Jay – now at long last aligned -- convene in Bunker no. 6. Together they reach the epiphany that the weapons used against them are the very same weapons the nations of the world created to tragically use against one another. They also decide, not irrationally, the only real strength of the aliens is in their invisibility… if only we could see them we could more effectively fightthem.
The “us against them”scenario of Invisible Invadersis familiar territory for the speedy Director Edward L. Cahn, a Polish émigré who, between 1955 and 1959, made no fewer than nine horror/sci-fi films and a staggering number of gangster and teen flicks also designed for the exploitation market.There will likely never be a “director’s cut” of Invisible Invaders made available, so I suggest you grab your copy of the Kino-Lorber Blu-ray while you can; I imagine the film’s 67 minute running time is roughly comparable to what Cahn photographed in real-time.The film’s message of international cooperation through the solidarity and good will of all members of the United Nations is a noble one, but it is delivered in such a heavy-handed and naïve manner that it comes off as preachy and annoying.I suggest watching the movie while listening to the informative and entertaining audio commentary track by film historians Tom Weaver and Dr. Robert J. Kiss.These two gentlemen will tell you more than you will ever need or want to know about this project.The set also includes bonus trailers of both Invisible Invaders and The Magnetic Monster, the latter also having been recently issued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber.