A scientific criminal who calls himself the Phantom Ruler (Stanley Price) has discovered a means of becoming invisible, and plans to assemble an army of invisible men to conquer America–after amassing enough funds to finance this project. To that end, he and his henchmen Burton and Harris (Lane Bradford and John Crawford) smuggle in four immigrant refugees from the Eastern Bloc (a chemist, a locksmith, a lawyer, and an aircraft engineer) and force them to use their talents to further the Ruler’s schemes. Despite this skilled staff and his own powers of invisibility, the Ruler’s potentially lucrative crime wave is soon derailed by insurance investigators Lane Carson (Richard Webb) and Carol Richards (Aline Towne), who thwart one villainous scheme after another through persistence, courage, and good detective work.
The Invisible Monster is a typically streamlined 1950s Republic outing, each of its short chapters filled with enough action (whether original or recycled from earlier chapterplays) to keep the serial moving at a satisfyingly fast clip. Unfortunately, Monster is weakened considerably by its attempt to meld an ambitious science-fictional “conquest” scheme with a series of standard cops-and-robbers encounters; the result is an assortment of incongruities that tend to distract from the serial’s better points.
Monster’s writer Ronald Davidson makes the mistake of giving the serial’s villain goals that are far too grandiose for his limited resources. The Ruler’s invisibility device (a special lamp-spotlight that makes his chemical-coated robes vanish when he stands in the lamp’s beam) is one of the serial genre’s more plausible-looking scientific contrivances, but it’s too cumbersome and conspicuous to be believably used for anything other than small-scale crimes. The Ruler’s master plan for creating an unseen army with the device is so misguided as to make the villain’s ambitions seem ludicrous instead of menacing; even a child can see that his hypothetical army of invisible men would lose the strategic advantage of their invisibility if they had to be followed everywhere by a spotlight corps.
Even had the Ruler’s plans for conquest been more plausible, the idea of a villain committing mundane crimes to raise money for hiring an army would have seemed rather silly; it would have been far better had Davidson made the Ruler a master criminal like the heavies of the Dick Tracy serials or Federal Operator 99, a villain with no goal other than pulling off daring robberies. In this scenario, the limited but useful invisibility device could have still been used to enliven the Ruler’s various acts of robbery, blackmail, and industrial espionage–but the Ruler would have had no embarassing delusions about its greater potential.
In other aspects, Davidson’s scripting is competent if repetitive, with the protagonists continually thwarting one unrelated villainous caper after another and periodically trying to intercept the villain’s shipments of invisibility-formula chemicals. As always, Davidson does a good job of coming up with plot situations that make use of footage from the Republic library, said footage being blended smoothly into the serial by Republic’s editors. Among the most notable pieces of stock in Monster are the limousine-through-the-wall scene from Federal Operator 99, the car-truck collision from The Purple Monster Strikes, the railcar explosion from The Masked Marvel, and the crushing-ships scene from Dick Tracy.
All of the aforementioned stock scenes–expect for the ship sequence–are utilized as chapter endings; most of the serial’s new cliffhanger sequences are good but predictably less spectacular–a safe door falling on the heroine, the hero’s apparent electrocution. One of the new cliffhangers, however, is unusually striking for a late Republic chapter ending: the hero and heroine’s extremely well-filmed Chapter Six flight down a mine tunnel, pursued by a coal-oil barrel (mounted on a mine-car) that’s bringing a train of flame in its wake; this excellent scene ranks as one of the best of Republic’s 1950s chapter endings.
The serial features plenty of the polished–if rather mechanical–fistfights typical of Republic’s later serials, with the stuntmen smashing the expected number of props as they battle in warehouses, garages, and–for a change–suburban living rooms. Director Fred Brannon handles the action capably, with help from the dependable Republic stunt team; the Chapter One living-room fight, the fight in the test lab in Chapter Two, the later living room fight and the big office brawl (both in Chapter Eight), and the Chapter Nine barn fight are among the highlights.
Tom Steele doubles star Richard Webb in most scenes, but relinquishes the “role” to another stuntman in at least one sequence, during which Webb’s character fights a henchman played by Steele. Surprisingly, Bud Wolfe–instead of the usual Dale Van Sickel–doubles lead action heavy Lane Bradford, although Van Sickel is still on hand as a double for secondary action heavy John Crawford. Dave Sharpe doubles both lead villain Stanley Price and supporting villain George Meeker; Duke Taylor, Eddie Parker, Ken Terrell, Carey Loftin, and Guy Teague (among others) take a hand as well.
The serial’s many chases and shootouts are quite good, particularly the Chapter Six car chase and ensuing avalanche, the gun battle and foot chase at Iverson’s Ranch later in the same episode, and the shootout outside the mine in Chapter Nine. The good guys’ quick cross-country hike at Iverson’s, which leads up to the mine shootout, is also interesting because of the novel idea involved: the hero and heroine must use a dog to tail another canine used as a go-between by the heavies in a ransom pickup. The hero’s Chapter Eight attempt to cut his way out of a wooden cell, as a fire threatens to engulf the surrounding building, is also a memorably distinctive sequence.
The serial’s leading players are–with one exception–ideally suited to their parts, and handle their extremely basic roles with flair. The square-jawed and deep-voiced Richard Webb both looks and sounds like an ideal serial hero, and it’s a pity that Monster was his only chapterplay outing; his confident, intelligent, and authoritative bearing lends needed vigor to his direct confrontations with the heavies and to his investigative ponderings. Aline Towne also does a good job as the heroine, conveying quiet capability and wry humor–the latter being especially noticeable in her first scene, during which she calmly reveals that she’s already performed substantial investigative groundwork as Webb tries determinedly but unsuccessfully to ignore her. This comic antagonism between her character and Webb’s is dropped in later episodes, but, like her co-star, she manages to make expository dialogue scenes seem pleasant throughout.
Stanley Price, miscast as the Phantom Ruler, still does the best he can in the part. It’s not that Price was incapable of playing a major villain (as some of Monster’s reviewers allege); he’s simply wrong for the type of major villain he plays here. Cast as a cool and collected heavy, he can’t indulge in the deranged raving that made many of his bits so memorable; his character is also a heavy who never interacts with the heroes, which prevents him from displaying any of the two-faced slickness he utilized in saner villainous roles. His best moments come when he cruelly and sneeringly threatens his unwilling European aides; in most of his scenes, however, he’s reduced to simply running over his plans with mildly sinister urbanity, occasionally flashing an evil smile in the process. Earlier serial heavies like Trevor Bardette or Eduardo Ciannelli could have managed to make this bland scheming seem menacing, but Price, in non-demented mode, is simply not intimidating enough to pull it off.
Lane Bradford, tough in appearance and coldly intelligent in manner, makes a formidable action heavy; John Crawford is also excellent as his sleek and smoothly confident partner in crime. The (strangely unbilled) Edward Keane is a welcome presence as Webb and Towne’s jovial, slightly pompous boss, and George Meeker is suitably furtive–though noticeably accent-free–as the Ruler’s imported European chemist; his character has the most to do of the four refugees and seems to take to crime more readily than the others.
The other Europeans (all more sympathetic than Meeker’s character ) are played by slickly dignified Douglas Evans, choleric John Hamilton, and (very briefly) Dale Van Sickel; of the three, only Van Sickel makes an attempt at a Continental inflection. Van Sickel’s fellow-stuntmen all make appearances as thugs, policemen, or watchmen; Marshall Reed also appears as a policeman, as does Charles Sullivan, a one-time regular in James Horne’s Columbia serials. George Magrill plays a hood, Harold Goodwin has a good bit as a garage mechanic who provides the villains with decidedly reluctant help, Roy Gordon is an aircraft manufacturer, and Keith Richards pops up as a remarkably two-fisted doctor.
Invisible Monster makes for enjoyable (if forgettable) viewing overall–thanks to the performances of its leads and supporting heavies, and to the skill and professionalism of Republic’s production team. However, it remains one of Republic’s weaker 1950s serials, due to its miscast lead villain and its painfully nonsensical plot.