My latest Agony Booth work looks at a film that's at the bottom of the list you'll find The Invisible Man (1933) at the top of.
I previously expressed my disappointment with Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. But I also noted how it’s understandable why that movie has the following that it does. The same cannot be said for Verhoeven’s follow-up to Starship Troopers, Hollow Man.
Its plot, concerning a scientist taking a serum he’s invented that renders him invisible and eventually goes crazy because of it, made comparisons to H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man inevitable. That book was made into an equally classic film in 1933 starring Claude Rains, and the movie was an intense thriller, with Rains proving a scary yet somewhat pitiable presence throughout using mostly his voice. Add to that some subtle humor, and it doesn’t take long to see why that movie, along with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, remains one of director James Whale’s masterpieces.
Now, remove all traces of thoughtfulness from the story and add a heavy layer of Verhoeven-esque sleaze, and you come up with Hollow Man.
Our film begins with a mouse being dropped into a maze. The creature runs around a bit before being picked up by an invisible hand. We then see the mouse being ripped to shreds as the bloody outline of teeth is seen.
Next, we see Dr. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) at home on his computer, attempting to work on computations for what we’ll soon see is a serum to reverse the effects of another serum he’s already invented, which has been able to cause invisibility in animals. He’s both frustrated at how his work isn’t progressing and how his attractive neighbor (Rhona Mitra) closes her curtains shortly after arriving home (and shortly before undressing).
But that frustration is short-lived when Sebastian goes back to his computer and manages to make whatever he’s working on come up right. He calls himself a genius before phoning his colleague and former flame Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue). After taking note via their webcam conversation that she’s now sleeping with someone else, Sebastian informs her of his progress, and asks her to alert their colleague Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin) to meet them at their lab. As it turns out, it doesn’t take long for Linda to fill Matt in, since he’s the guy she’s now sleeping with.
In the lab, we see many animals in cages, some of which are invisible. Matt tries to calm an invisible gorilla into going with him to the lab, but gets bitten on the hand for his trouble. Meanwhile, Sebastian gets chewed out by the vet assigned to their project, Sarah Kennedy (Kim Dickens). Their fellow doctor Frank Chase (Joey Slotnick) jokingly announces on the intercom that he’s God, and they’ll all be punished for “disturbing the natural order of things” like this. Sebastian shows how egotistical he is when he tells Frank, “You’re not God. I am!”
With their other colleagues Carter Abbey (Greg Grunberg) and Janice Walton (Mary Randle), they put the gorilla under and inject the new serum into her. After some moments requiring the use of a defibrillator, the gorilla becomes visible again, starting with the internal organs, then the skeleton, and slowly moving out layer by layer until the entire gorilla becomes visible.
The group then goes out to dinner to celebrate their achievement, although Sebastian is somewhat down, since this means their work is officially at an end now. And his failed attempt to get things going again with Linda is not helping him much.
The next day, we see Sebastian at the Pentagon explaining to his boss Dr. Howard Kramer (William Devane) and various generals how he and the others have been working on making someone invisible and then visible again for four years now. The hard part, he says, has been to bring the subjects back to being visible again. When Kramer asks if the team has achieved the next step, Sebastian, to Linda and Matt’s dismay, says they haven’t, but they’re close to doing so.
After Dr. Kramer threatens to replace Sebastian if he doesn’t deliver results soon, Linda and Matt confront Sebastian about hiding the truth. Sebastian counters that the Pentagon is going to take away the project once they get knowledge of what they’ve accomplished. To that end, he proposes that they go to the next step themselves, which is to make a human invisible.
Back at the lab, Sebastian lies to his remaining colleagues that the Pentagon approved this next phase, and that they allowed him to be the first test subject. Linda and Matt know the truth, but they keep it to themselves. Though, they do voice their concerns later that night, while making out with each other.
The next morning, Sebastian prepares for the procedure, and attempts to lighten the unease by telling a dirty joke involving Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Invisible Man that we all heard in junior high.
Sebastian strips down, and personally injects the serum into himself. Cool special effects take center stage as Sebastian slowly dissolves layer by layer and slips into unconsciousness. Sebastian awakens later, completely invisible.
Over the next couple of days, he amuses and even startles his colleagues. At one point, he peeps on Janice while she’s using the bathroom, and later gropes Sarah when she dozes off.
After three days, the team attempts to bring Sebastian back with their restoring serum. However, it fails, and he’s stuck being invisible. Linda and Matt try to find ways to bring him back. In the meantime, a latex mask is created for Sebastian, giving him the “Hollow Man” look of the title.
Soon, Sebastian has been invisible for 10 days and is becoming more and more agitated. He angrily tells Carter that he’s going crazy and has to get out of the lab and leaves, despite Carter’s protests.
As Carter informs Linda and Matt of this, Sebastian drives home and chills out in his apartment for a while. And that’s when he sees his hot neighbor return again. He briefly, as in for a second, puts away any thoughts of spying on her, before finally deciding to strip down and pay her a visit. But then it seems he’s not content with just looking, and decides to brutally rape her.
Linda arrives at Sebastian’s place, but only sees his mask. She meets up with the others at the lab to try to track him down, although Carter briefly protests. But their plans stop there as Sebastian appears, saying he just needed time away from the lab. Linda then threatens him, saying if he does this again, she’s going to reveal what he’s done to Dr. Kramer, her own career be damned. Sebastian angrily darts off to his room. Sarah figures out that the generals at the Pentagon have no idea what they’re up to, and they’ve been lying to them all along, but Linda begs her to keep her mouth shut.
Even though Sebastian is clearly disturbed and capable of almost anything, no one is doing much to keep track of him or keep him locked down, because he’s able to leave again later by rigging the thermal video camera over his bed to make Frank think he’s still in the lab.
Sebastian goes to Linda’s place, where he gets pissed off at seeing her make out with Matt. This prompts him to smash the window of their bedroom before darting off. Linda calls Frank, but he tells them that Sebastian has been in the lab all night, because he can see him on the video feed.
Sebastian is next seen angrily pacing in the lab, thinking about Linda and Matt. A nearby invisible dog is barking in its cage, which is also pissing him off. This leads to thermal footage of Sebastian picking the poor thing up and smashing it against the cage wall, as if we needed more gratuitous violence to prove that Sebastian is now a bad guy.
I don’t know how much time passes between this and the next scene, because we next see Linda in the lab, where she figures out that Sebastian has rigged the thermal camera, and is apparently gone again. Linda then tells the team that she and Matt are going to alert Dr. Kramer and the other big shots, with, once again, Carter protesting. When Sarah reminds him that Sebastian killed a dog, Carter retorts, “Oh, you were here to see that?” (Well, the only other thing that could have done it is your lousy acting, pal, and since you weren’t around at the time, I’d say that narrows it down.)
Unbeknownst to the group, however, Sebastian is eavesdropping on them, and he follows Linda and Matt to Dr. Kramer’s house. Kramer tells the couple that they’re fired, and that he and the generals will handle Sebastian. After Linda and Matt leave, Kramer attempts to call the Pentagon, but Sebastian cuts all the phone lines before tossing Kramer into his pool, and holding him down and drowning him.
The next day, everyone is at the lab, with Sebastian calmly saying, “It’s going to be a busy day.” Linda and Matt soon learn that Kramer is dead, and then Sebastian cuts the phone lines at the lab, preventing Linda from calling anyone else. They join the other (visible) members of the group in the main lab, where Frank discovers that everyone’s access to the elevator (the only way to leave the lab, of course) has been cut off except Sebastian’s. They go to his room to confront him, but Janice lags behind the rest of the group, and Sebastian springs out and strangles her.
Of course, the others don’t hear her screams as they reach Sebastian’s room and find his discarded mask. Linda then gets on the PA system to tell Sebastian to stop. Sebastian replies, also via the PA, that he now loves the freedom he gets from being invisible, and doesn’t want to let it go, and that he killed Kramer before he could alert anyone.
The gang then realizes that Janice isn’t around and goes back to the lab to look for her, only to find her dead body in a closet. This prompts Sarah to give Linda a hard slap across the chops for allowing things to go on for this long. Once again, Carter (albeit indirectly now) jumps to Sebastian’s defense by saying that laying blame isn’t important, just rectifying the situation.
But Linda announces that they aren’t going to give up without a fight, and soon they bring out the tranquilizer guns, as well as thermal goggles. With Linda tracking him via a motion detection system, Matt and Carter set out to find Sebastian. After a false alarm involving a heating vent, Sebastian is seen on top of a steampipe, where he grabs Carter, throwing him down onto a steel bar, which tears the hell out of his neck. Matt then tries to shoot Sebastian with a tranquilizer, for some reason discarding his goggles in the process, but Sebastian escapes.
Sarah and Frank tend to Carter, who’s rapidly losing blood. Sarah tells Frank to keep pressure on his neck wound while she gets blood (I thought she was a vet?). She goes to a freezer where bags of human blood are conveniently stored, but then sees a door close. This prompts her to tear open most of the bags she’s carrying, throwing blood everywhere, and with tranquilizer gun in hand, she dares Sebastian to take one step. When nothing happens, she hears him comment on the mess she made before he slaps her. Sarah tears another bag, tossing blood on him. A brief struggle breaks out, ending with Sebastian shooting Sarah with the tranquilizer, and then breaking her neck, and then groping her one last time for good measure.
In the meantime, Frank is hovering over Carter, telling him not to die. Of course, it may have helped if Frank was still keeping pressure on Carter’s wound like Sarah told him to do. Linda and Matt arrive and tell Frank that it’s no use, and Carter is dead, and then they go off to find Sarah.
Given the tone the film has taken by this point, I’m sure this was completely unintentional, but I can’t help but note a certain irony that the one person who was willing to give Sebastian the benefit of the doubt the entire time ends up suffering such a gruesome, deliberate death at his hands.
In the lab, they find blood all over the floor and the open freezer door. As Frank keeps a lookout for Sebastian using a fire extinguisher, Linda and Matt find Sarah’s body in the freezer. When Frank turns to look, Sebastian sneaks up behind him and impales him with a crowbar. He then embeds the bar into Matt’s side before locking him and Linda in the freezer.
Sebastian then dresses himself while Linda bandages Matt’s wound with duct tape (sure, that stuff is kept in a freezer, and can be used as a bandage). After wallowing in self-pity for a minute, Linda manages to come up with an escape plan: She uses their defibrillator, which I guess is also kept in the freezer, as a magnet to pull the lock open and get them out of the freezer.
At the same time, Sebastian prepares to destroy the lab with a timer-activated device full of nitroglycerin. Just as he reaches the elevator, however, he’s stopped by Linda, who blasts the hell out of him with a flamethrower she pulled out of her ass.
This burns Sebastian’s clothes off, but doesn’t keep him from darting away. Linda then uses her flamethrower on the sprinklers, but doesn’t see him until he attacks her from behind. Fortunately, Matt shows up just in time to save her by smacking Sebastian with another crowbar. In true slasher film form, Matt tosses his weapon aside, leaving Sebastian to pick it up, but he misses his targets and the bar ends up in a light socket, electrocuting him and causing him to materialize, but only up to the muscle layer.
Assuming Sebastian has been killed, Linda and Matt head to the lab, where they find Sebastian’s bomb about to go off. Matt says they can’t stop the thing (why they can’t, I’m not sure) so they head off for the elevator. They still don’t have access to it, so they get up on the roof of the elevator and climb up the ladder in the elevator shaft.
The bomb then goes off, causing flames to travel through the lab until it reaches the elevator, which causes the elevator to rocket past them. They dodge it, although it tears off a bit of Linda’s arm. The elevator then comes back down, but gets wedged in the wall just before crushing them. Our heroes climb around it, only for the partially visible Sebastian to suddenly reappear and grab Linda’s leg.
He forces one last kiss on her, “for old time’s sake.” She then grabs an elevator cable and tells him to go to hell, sending him and the elevator plunging into the raging inferno below as she hangs on (with her wounded arm, I might add).
The film ends with Linda and Matt, I guess, making it to the top of the elevator shaft, and they’re soon outside as convenient ambulances arrive to help them.
This is basically The Invisible Man redone as a slasher film, containing all the stupidity that this genre (unfairly or not) is associated with. In respect to the acting, Kevin Bacon has always been an underrated actor, and to his credit, he seems like he has fun with this role. What’s disheartening, though, is that we know that he, Shue, and Brolin have all proven elsewhere that they’re capable of better work.
In his review of this film, the late Roger Ebert claimed that the setup of the movie is somewhat reminiscent of The Fly, in that it involves a scientist who becomes trapped by using his invention on himself. But Ebert added that what made Cronenberg’s film special was the curiosity that story generated. Hollow Man has no such curiosity in its narrative, with scientists who could have only have secured jobs in this profession if they had emerged from the womb with diplomas clutched in their tiny hands. Once Sebastian becomes invisible, the movie resorts to pathetic clichés like having the monster get up over and over again like he’s superhuman, and having the people we’re supposed to root for doing stupid things in order to increase the body count.
Amazingly, this film got a direct-to-video sequel in 2006, which starred Christian Slater in the lead role. Not that it mattered much, since Slater’s tired Jack Nicholson-lite shtick and his run-ins with the law had kicked him off Hollywood’s radar by this point, and was a big reason no one gave that film the time of day.