John Agar against the INVISIBLE INVADERS: The Most Fantastic Battle Ever Fought!
“You would see nothing! We are invisible. We are invisible, Adam Penner! Long ago we learned to change the molecular structure of our bodies. You cannot see us.”
It’s difficult to say for certain whether 1959’s Invisible Invaders has an awful lot on its mind, or awful little. One suspects the latter, but whether genuinely trying to say something or just trying to fill time screenwriter Samuel Newman’s hyperbolic prose (excerpt above) pushes a dozen or so hot-button topics just the same, bemoaning nuclear proliferation and the militarization of science on the way to banding humanity together to squander the colonial ambitions of a dictatorial race of invisible extraterrestrial whatsits.
The narrative here is of pretty simple stuff: Peace-minded atom scientist Adam Penner (Philip Tonge, Witness for the Prosecution) makes a stink after a colleague is killed while conducting nuclear weapons research for the government, but is soon at work building weapons for peace (sort of?) after mankind finds itself in the sights of the eponymous menace. Along for the ride are Penner’s daughter and secretary Phyllis (Jean Byron, Jungle Moon Men) and his pro-MIC colleague John (Robert Hutton, They Came From Beyond Space), as well as John Agar (The Mole People) as requisite strong-jaw Major Bruce Jay. Together the four work tirelessly to repel the invaders and save Earth, all from the confines of a tiny lab buried below the intractable wilderness of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.
There’s plenty of parity to be found between Invisible Invaders and its contemporaries. That mankind’s unchecked scientific and military expansion into the upper atmosphere and beyond might invite an unwanted ultimatum from extraterrestrial civilization echoes the likes of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, while the unnamed invaders’ conquest and colonization of the moon as a base of operations recalls Toho’s color sci-fi spectacles The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space. That’s not to say that the ideas are ever substantially realized in Invaders, which treats them as little more than a bit of expositional window-dressing – a few big concepts to distract from the production’s own tininess.
Elsewhere Invisible Invaders reminds heavily of the earlier Sam Katzman-produced thriller Creature With the Atom Brain, in which an army of revivified and radioactive un-dead are unleashed upon the world by an ambitiously ego-maniacal criminal. That Invaders‘ own Edward L. Cahn also directed that picture should come as no surprise, nor the fact that both screenwriter Samuel Newman and producer Robert E. Kent were employed in Katzman’s script department at the time of Creature‘s production.¹
Invisible Invaders may substitute malicious invisible aliens for vengeful ex-mobsters, but the end result is much the same. Having no weapons of their own which work within the Earth’s atmosphere (something of an oversight, methinks) the invaders opt instead to possess the bodies of the recently dead, who rise to visit all manner of cut-rate havoc upon human civilization. There are some reasonable effects takes (including not one but two miniature dam demolitions) cut into the mix, none original to Invaders, but the majority of the footage is stock newsreel stuff – fires, riots, and assorted other devastation. That supervising editor Grant Whytock (here in the fifth decade of his film career) was not also veteran of Katzman productions is one of the bigger surprises of the picture – between Creature With the Atom Brain and Invisible Invaders, the montages of destruction are practically interchangeable.
That’s not to say that Invisible Invaders doesn’t have its own quirks and peculiarities. There’s a distinctly nasty edge to the “us or them” aspect that dominates the film’s second act, with Agar’s Major Jay coolly disposing of a meddlesome shotgun-toting farmer (Hal Torey, Earth vs. the Spider) to ensure the survival of the team under his care. While the sentiment would become common among the survivalist doomsday fantasies to follow (the derivative yet none-the-less formative Panic in Year Zero comes to mind) it’s a grim turn for a ’50s sci-fi, though Newman twists it to relatively banal purposes. In Invaders the killing serves largely to ratchet conflict between the more intellectual Phyllis and the action-minded Jay, but the tension is short-lived – by the end of the picture the two are an item. Even the farmer gets a second chance, his body immediately taken over by an invader in an effort to suss out the good guys’ secret bunker, but is sidelined once more when he and his possessor become the team’s test subjects.
Invisible Invaders reserves most of its action for the third act, in which John Agar dons a radiation suit and a fancy wooden sound-gun, taking the fight to the invaders for god and country and what-not. As is the film in its other respects, the action here is pretty cut-rate stuff. Agar battles maybe a dozen radioactive zombies – only one of whom has the foresight to have brought a firearm (“We cannot be defeated. We have never been defeated!”) – and lays waste to an invader spaceship single-handed. The special effects, limited to a few opticals of the un-invisibled invaders melting into frothing goop, are the early work of effects tech Roger George (Repo Man, The Terminator), here working with a monster suit re-purposed from It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Details of Doc Penner’s newfangled sound-gun are eventually divulged to the rest of the world, the salvation of which occurs, as was most affordable, off-screen. One supposes that little more should be expected of a feature that conspires to both begin and end an alien invasion in little more than an hour, and I will confess to finding it all ceaselessly compelling as a child.
To that and, despite its distinct paltriness, I still find Invisible Invaders to be a perfectly watchable affair. A good deal of that is owed to Philip Tonge, an English actor whose substantial career had begun on the stage in 1902, who delivers his performance with a passion and sincerity well in advance of what the material deserves. Invisible Invaders has the inauspicious distinction of being one of his final films, if not indeed his last – Tonge died in late January of 1959, several months before Invaders went into regular release. The ever dependable Carradine helps as well, doing his usual level best in an appearance that must have taken whole hours to complete (what glamorous lives these working actors lead!). A brief scene as a stereotypical scientist (lab coat, test tubes) looks to have been shot almost entirely for exploitation purposes; stills from it were well represented in the film’s press materials. Carradine is only on-screen for one other scene, as the Marley’s-Ghost device through which the invaders deliver their surrender-or-else ultimatum, though he resurfaces from time to time as the (voice only, natch) vanguard of the invasion.²
Otherwise, the overwhelming silliness of the thing has appeal enough on its own. It’s tough to really hate a film whose alien invaders conspire to announce their nefarious intentions to the world at hockey games. Some game play footage was evidently handy.
Invisible Invaders looks great in its improbable Blu-ray edition, released by Kino Lorber just last year (a DVD is also available) and from which I reviewed the film. The new scan from MGM frames the film to 1.66:1, improving well upon the open-matte editions of the past, and detail and contrast levels tick up nicely. A few minor scuffs and bumps and the persistent stock footage aside, Invisible Invaders looks almost embarrassingly good in motion. I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to the provided commentary track, featuring B-cinema historians Tom Weaver and Dr. Robert J. Kiss, but its inclusion is welcome – Weaver is always a dependable presence, and certainly knows his stuff. Theatrical trailers for Invisible Invaders and The Magnetic Monster, also on Blu-ray from Kino, round out the disc. And for those less keen to purchase, Invisible Invaders is also streaming now (albeit in an older open-matte SD iteration) via Amazon Prime Video.
¹ Invisible Invaders may be the most singularly Katzman-esque production ever to be made without his direct involvement. In addition to Invaders‘ producer, writer, and director, cast members John Agar (The Magic Carpet), Jean Byron (Voodoo Tiger), Paul Langton (Utah Blaine), and Hal Torey (Crash Landing) were all familiar faces around “Jungle” Sam’s Clover Productions. John Carradine’s connection is more tenuous to this comparison, but goes back even further – Carradine had played under Katzman during his pre-Clover tenure with Monogram Pictures.
² Though credited as “Carl Noymann”, a mistake reiterated in Invisible Invader‘s opening narration, Carradine plays a character named “Karol Noymann” – also the name of the scientist (played by Edgar Barrier) who reveals the intergalactic anti-matter origins of the big bird from Fred F. Sears The Giant Claw. Both films were written by Samuel Newman, who has the name, in full, almost obsessively repeated throughout Invisible Invaders‘ early scenes.