Movie Postmortem: Memoirs of an Invisible Man


by John S

Movie Postmortem is a monthly series that reviews certain films that showed promise but misfired (critically and/or commercially) upon initial release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

The Casualty: Memoirs of an Invisible Man

The Case History: Somewhat based on the 1987 novel of the same title by H.F. Saint, this movie promised an entertaining blend of comedy, suspense, sci-fi, action and romance. Think Hitchcock meets Phillip K. Dick. Basically, we have a regular everyman named Nick Halloway (who just happens to look and snark brilliantly like Chevy Chase) who is rendered invisible when a lab explosion rips apart the sci-tech company he is visiting one day with a pounding hangover (don’t ask).

Sam Neill, in full-on sexy-silky mode, plays a mysterious government agent called David Jenkins who will stop at nothing to capture Nick and use his invisibility skills for…well, I’m not sure, really. But this is Sam Neill at the peak of his studliness, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, yo. Throw in Daryl Hannah at the peak of her gorgeous prime as winsome Alice Munroe, a statuesque blond who briefly met and sparked with Nick before he went all transparent and who subsequently goes on the run with his invisible ass, and you have a classic recipe for entertainment.

Let me also add that this whole affair was directed by one John Carpenter, veteran of thrills and action from such obscure flicks as Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From New York, They Live and Prince of Darkness, among others. Any of these sound familiar? Hmmm?

Unfortunately, despite opening at number 2 at the national box-office on the weekend of Feb 28, 1992, Memoirs of an Invisible Man failed to gain traction with audiences and ultimately dropped way behind in the box-office race that year.

What the hell happened?

The Autopsy Details: Truthfully, the movie actually lives up to its promise of mixing humor, thrills, danger, and romance. It’s very well-shot and directed by John Carpenter, who shows his dexterity not only with action/thriller moments, but also with more intimate character scenes and humorous beats. Chase is in fine form here and actually hints at the melancholy current under Nick Halloway’s breezy charm. He actually makes a great Hitchcock everyman. As for the female lead, Hannah makes a perfect foil for Chase, and gives Alice a nice innocence which contrasts well with Nick’s world-weary cynicism. Physically, they are also a match: they’re both tall and have a striking presence.

Sam Neill also provides a compelling villain in David Jenkins, calling to mind a younger James Mason. Neill’s seductive-sinister performance here proves the point that the best thrillers are the ones with the best villains. The supporting cast led by Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael McKean, Patricia Heaton, and Rosalind Chao are all vivid and effective in their small roles. Equally potent is Shirley Walker’s score, which wouldn’t be out of place in one of Hitchcock’s classic thrillers. John Carpenter usually scores his own film, but it was a wise move on his part to give the musical reins to Walker for this outing. Her music is perfect, and complements the movie’s droll-but-serious tone beautifully.

The flashback structure and narration by Halloway may take some getting used to, but it ultimately makes sense given the title of the movie. Also, the tendency to show Halloway in some scenes (for audience benefit) and then keep him invisible in others can feel a bit awkward and inconsistent-but then again they did the same thing with Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost two years prior. We know just how well that movie did. Basically, none of these nit-picks were deal breakers or fatal flaws.

So, once again: what the hell happened?

Possible Cause of Death: Ultimately, there is no clear-cut reason why Memoirs of an Invisible Man misfired when it was first released. As it is, it should’ve done much better. However, if we were to point to one (or a few) possible things it would be that the flick combines so many different genres that audiences at the time may not have been able to fully grasp what they were being marketed. Is it a thriller? An action film? A sci-fi flick? A romantic comedy? A character study of a man whose fear of commitment and lack of deep emotional attachments made him already invisible before the lab explosion actually made him invisible? The truth is, it’s all of these things. Perhaps the tapestry was just too elaborate for most folks.

Some have also posited that Chevy Chase’s casting in the lead might have kept some people away. They seem to think that any Chase movie without the word “vacation” in the title or not marketed as an outright silly comedy may not be a natural fit. That’s a shame, because he’s great in this, bringing his trademark cutting wit to the table – but also leavening it with some vulnerability and seriousness. It’s an underrated turn that actually anchors the story.

It’s also possible that fans of the book may not have been happy with the “Hollywood Treatment” it received. Haven’t read the novel, but I understand it’s very different and isn’t quite the Hitchcockian chase story that the movie is. There’s also speculation that the film’s ending might have been unsatisying for many viewers. Not going to spoil how it all turns out but I will say that, personally, I’m okay with it because it’s realistic. Well, as realistic as any ending to a movie with an invisible man running around in it could be. Still, the “wrong” type of ending can severely affect a flick’s reception—as we will see next month when we do a Movie Postmortem on the 1993 Sharon Stone voyeurism-and-murder thriller, Sliver.

The Conclusion: Memoirs of an Invisible Man, as made, doesn’t have much wrong with it and deserved a better reception at the box-office and with critics. Happily, it seems to be remembered better and better as time goes by. It is certainly a classier flick than its more successful descendant, the expensive but sleazy Kevin Bacon vehicle Hollow Man. At least I didn’t have to see an infrared image of Chevy’s invisible swinging dick in this movie, or watch him in transparent mode do really bad things to women. Ick.

Next Month’s Casualty: Sliver – “You like to watch. Don’t you?”

Hey, I think the Scarecrow Project should use that as its slogan from now on. Seriously.

That’s all.

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.

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