May 3, 1975: The Invisible Man (1933) / Monster Zero (1965)

Synopsis: A stranger walks along a country road into the small English village of Iping. The man wears a coat and hat to protect himself from the late winter snow, but he also wears tinted goggles and his head is wrapped in bandages.

He enters an inn and rents a room. There he works feverishly on some sort of medical experiment.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (William Travers) , his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan) are trying to understand what has become of Dr. Cranley’s underling, Jack Griffin. Griffin had been experimenting on his own with a dangerous chemical called monocaine, a substance which, when injected into animals, bleaches them white — and drives them mad.

Back at the inn, a crazed and paranoid Griffin causes havoc whenever he is disturbed, and he is soon ordered to vacate the premises.

Refusing to do so, a group of townsfolk and the local police attempt to evict him. Griffin begins removing the bandages on his head — revealing himself (or perhaps not revealing himself) to be an invisible man. Causing considerable property damage and bodily harm, he removes the rest of his clothing and flees the scene.

At first, the people of Iping are held up as laughingstocks by the police and the media; but soon enough the reports of an invisible man on a rampage are confirmed.

That evening Kemp is visited at home by Griffin, who tells him that he had indeed discovered a monocaine derivative that causes complete invisibility. However, Griffin can’t reverse the process and he wants to use Kemps’s laboratory to work on a solution.

But Griffin has more than a simple problem of chemistry on his mind. He has clearly been driven mad by his formula, and when he isn’t imagining how he can “make the world grovel” at his feet, he is delighting in the chaos and destruction an invisible man can cause…

Comments: It’s been 88 years, but The Invisible Man works as well as the day it was released, featuring crackling dialogue, special effects that still hold up, a towering lead performance and a story that actually improves upon the novel it was based on.  

It was a smash hit when it premiered on November 18, 1933. “Photographic magic abounds in the production, the work being even more startling than was that of Douglas Fairbanks’s old picture The Thief of Bagdad“, wrote the Times’ film critic Mordaunt Hall. “The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner. Now that it has been done, it is a remarkable achievement.”

James Whale’s original Frankenstein did not capture the director’s wicked sense of humor, but this one does.  And The Invisible Man benefits greatly from the contributions of screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, who also wrote The Dam Busters, one of the best war movies ever produced.

It’s hard to even talk about the movie without considering the performance of Claude Rains, who vividly portrays the mad scientist who is, as the opening credits call him, “The Invisible One”.  It’s difficult to imagine how the movie would have worked with another actor in the lead; Rains brings such authority and urgency to his largely vocal performance that he winds up carrying a good deal of it on his own.  No actor of the time could have equaled that performance; even Karloff, who had been briefly considered, was not up to the task — he was primarily a physical actor, and his vocal range would not have been impressive enough to pull it off . 

Rains’ performance is even more impressive when you consider that the actors he worked with — especially Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan — were hapless examples of Hollywood cinema of the early 1930s: stuffy, stagebound and dull.   In spite of this, the movie clips along nicely, and nothing seems superfluous.  It’s one of the best movies of its era, one that simply improves on repeated viewing.  

Monster Zero

Synopsis: A new planet has been discovered just beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Dubbed Planet X, its dark surface has made it almost invisible to earth-bound telescopes. A spacecraft called the P-1, manned by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams), is on its way to explore the new world.

Fuji is a very serious fellow, and he spends much of the trip worrying about his sister Haruni (Keiko Sawai). She has been dating a goofy inventor named Tetsui (Akira Kubo), and Fuji worries that Tetsui, who fiddles with electronic gadgets but doesn’t seem very practical, won’t be able to provide for his sister.  Over the radio he admonishes Haruni not to get engaged without his permission.

Glenn, more informal and easygoing, seems to think that Fuji worries too much; but he is careful to stay out of his friend’s personal affairs.

Meanwhile on Earth, Tetsui is approached by an educational toy company that wants to purchase one of his inventions – an extremely high-decibel alarm. The company, represented by the mysterious Miss Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), won’t divulge what they want to do with it, but they seem eager to buy it and promise a generous payout as soon as the device is marketed. Tetsui, seeing a way to prove to Fuji that he’s a success, quickly agrees.

Landing on Planet X, Fuji and Glenn quickly discover that while the surface is barren, a race of humanoids survives underground and possesses technology far in advance of our own. The two astronauts find themselves in the alien’s underground city and meet their leader, who is called the Controller.

No life can survive on the surface, the Controller says, because it is continually ravaged by a giant monster that they are unable to repel, even with their technological prowess. At that moment, the monster appears, which the earth men immediately recognize as King Ghidorah. To the Xians it has another name — Monster Zero. When the attack has ended, the Controller proposes a deal: the Xians are unable to rid themselves of Monster Zero. The only force that can defeat it are the combined strength of Monsters Zero One and Zero Two — known on the Earth as Godzilla and Rodan.  If, the Controller says, they are allowed to bring those monsters to Planet X– by being allowed to operate freely on the Earth — then the Xians will provide Earth with a formula that will cure all disease.

Fuji and Glenn return to Earth with this message, which is quickly agreed to by Earth’s governments. Meanwhile, Glenn begins dating a mysterious woman named Namikawa — the very same woman who was so eager to buy Tetsui’s invention.

Soon the aliens locate and transport Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X, and as expected, the two monsters drive Monster Zero away. Earth’s part of the bargain fulfilled, the Xians give the Earth people a reel-to-reel tape which, they claim, contains the formula for a cure for all disease. But when the scientists play the tape, it turns out to be a demand for the Earth’s unconditional surrender….

Comments:  The sixth film in the Godzilla franchise was originally titled Great Monster War in Japan when it premiered in 1965. The title was changed to Invasion of Astro-Monster for international release, and turned up on the US armed forces theater circuit as Invasion of the Astros. By the time it arrived in American theaters in the summer of 1970 it got a punchier title — Monster Zero — and occupied a double bill with War of the Gargantuas (interestingly, Monster Zero appears to be the first — and as far as I know the only — Godzilla movie that doesn’t have “Godzilla” anywhere in the title). It remained Monster Zero when it was sold to broadcast TV and since the days of home video has been called Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, though Invasion of Astro-Monster has remained an alternate DVD title. The film falls about midway through the Toho’s Showa era — that is, the studio’s first cycle of kaiju movies, beginning with Gojira in 1954 and ending with The Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975.

Monster Zero introduced a couple of tropes that would appear regularly in subsequent films. First, alien invasion would become a standard-issue plot device in Godzilla movies. The antagonists here are a homogeneous bunch of arrogant, technologically advanced eccentrics (I am referring to the inhabitants of Planet X, not the Japanese, as you probably naively guessed). Second, the presence of American actor Nick Adams started a clever trend in which stateside box-office appeal was maximized by adding a washed-up (and therefore inexpensive) American actor to the cast.

The mystery of why Tetsui’s seemingly useless invention has been purchased keeps the earthbound plot moving along smoothly, and while the fact that Tetsui just happens to be dating Fuji’s sister might seem to be too much of a coincidence, it’s a small contrivance compared to the giant monster mayhem and the interplanetary intrigues that are going on all around us. Monster Zero is a phenomenally well-paced movie, and unlike many of the Toho films with this era it isn’t burdened down with a lot of dead-end subplots designed to pad out the running time; everything ties together neatly in the end.

The aliens are the most memorable of any Showa era film, with their pasty faces, eccentric uniforms and bizarre mannerisms. After all, can you recall the Keelaks from Destroy All Monsters, made just three years later?

The film boasts a number of Toho contract players who appeared again and again in Godzilla films. Akira Takarada was in many of them, starting with Gojira (1954) in which he played the young soldier Ogata. He also appeared in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), Mothra vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, Latitude Zero, and others. Akira Kubo (Tetsui) played a lot of minor roles in samurai films and was also one of the leads in Destroy All Monsters.

The beautiful Kumi Mizuno starred opposite Russ Tamblyn in War of the Gargantuas (1966) (putting her on both ends of the American double-bill). She also appeared in the equally eccentric Matango (1963) and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966).

Nick Adams’ story is an interesting one on its own; he was a keenly ambitious actor whose small roles in Mister Roberts and Rebel Without a Cause allowed him to cultivate friendships with A-listers like James Dean and Natalie Wood, which yielded a fair amount of attention from the Hollywood press. Despite a best-supporting Oscar nomination and a short-lived TV series called The Rebel his career quickly stalled, and he was often accused of being unusually needy and publicity-hungry, even by Hollywood standards. In the mid-1960s he did three films for Toho, including the deeply weird Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), and by all accounts everyone involved was happy with the arrangement. He got along well with his Japanese colleagues, had no trouble supplying the over-the-top acting style that was expected by Japanese directors (something the laconic Russ Tamblyn struggled with) and his height, which had been an obstacle to garnering leading roles in the states, wasn’t as much an issue in Japan (though to be sure, he was barely tall enough to be a leading man there either). He also appears to add lots of hep-cat ad libs (“Maybe Controller speaks with forked tongue, huh?”, etc) and appears to be having a good time in the role of Glenn.

All in all, this is an extremely fun and colorful Toho offering, one that balances the human and monster subplots so well that it became a template for later movies. Many kaiju films have struggled to achieve the narrative drive that this one achieved so easily. While it’s widely considered a minor Godzilla entry, I would argue that Monster Zero is more than underrated; it is, in fact, the Citizen Kane of giant monster movies.


  1. Spring of 75, I was in the 5th grade. My friend John, who was also my monster buddie had moved away (maybe a couple miles out of town, but it might as well have been Timbuktu. I am pretty sure we had seen this on a previous broadcast, as I remember wondering who this Monster Zero was. I knew Godzilla and Rodan, but was still trying to comprehend the various Kaiju. At this point my knowledge of Godzilla was limited to articles in a handful of Famous Monsters magazines. It may have been a couple years later that I understood that “Monster Zero” was actually called Ghidora. One memorable event, which was probably from the spring of 74, was when Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster made its way to my hometown of Willmar. I organized about a dozen of my friends to all go see it on a Saturday afternoon. My buddy John and I reconnected in Junior High School, just in time for Star Wars to change our lives.

    Thanks Mike! You keep me reliving my childhood.


  2. I love hearing stories like this. Amazing how the movie mags were our lifeline, especially if we lived in small towns. Monster kids had a way of finding each other. I never saw a copy of FAMOUS MONSTERS as a kid, though I remember having some old books I’d gotten at a library sale, one covering horror from the 1930s and 40s and another from the silent era.

    I envy you for having a Godzilla flick come right to your local theater. I do remember seeing TV ads for GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER and asking my dad if we could go see it. “You can wait until it’s on television” he told me, which was his standard response.


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