Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Invisible Mom

Director: Fred Olen Ray
Writer: William C Martell
Producer: Fred Olen Ray
Cast: Dee Wallace Stone, Barry Livingston, Stella Stevens
Country: USA
Year of release: 1997
Reviewed from: UK disc (Boulevard Ent)

Often compared to Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Fred Olen Ray’s Invisible Mom certainly fits into the subgenre which that Disney film defined - the scientist dad whose invention causes problems when it affects his family. But given that this was made six years later in 1995 (and not released until two years after that) it can hardly be accused of cashing in on Honey. In any case this subgenre goes back at least as far as Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, possibly earlier.

More to the point, the biggest influence on Ray’s film is very obviously the 1933 Invisible Man, including an explicit and respectful homage when the mom in question takes a cab ride dressed exactly like Claude Rains in the James Whale classic. Fred (who cameos as the cab driver) also throws in a line or two of dialogue from the original film. In that respect, and taking into account also the deliberately Universal-esque black and white opening titles and a not entirely successful attempt to give the film’s production design a sort of Norman Rockwell-lite timelessness, this stands comparison with Tim Burton’s short film Frankenweenie as a film-maker who is also a film fan having tremendous fun when he is given the chance to put his own spin on a classic tale.

As well as Ray - whose eclectic, busy career means he made this around the same time as Masseuse 2 and Hybrid - there is a star-studded cast and crew list here: Brinke Stevens! Gary Graver! Russ Tamblyn! Bill Martell! Stella Stevens! And of course Dee Wallace Stone, one of the great movie mothers. There must be something you have to sign when you start making films in Hollywood which says: ‘I solemnly swear that I will do my best to cast Dee Wallace Stone as the mom in at least some of my films. Unless it’s a serious drama, in which case I’ll use Dianne Wiest.’ Stone’s busy genre career started with the original Stepford Wives and progressed through ET (of course), Cujo, Critters, I’m Dangerous Tonight, Temptress, Boo, Abominable, Bone Dry, the Halloween remake and a 2005 short film about the Loch Ness monster.

Fifteen year-old Trenton Knight already had an interesting collection of family fantasy films on his CV including Munchie Strikes Back, Charlie’s Ghost: The Story of Coronado and Andrew Stevens’ The Skateboard Kid 2 (where his mother was played by... Dee Wallace Stone!). Here he is Josh Griffin, put-upon son of government scientist Karl Griffin, played by Barry Livingston (Tremors 3) somewhere inbetween Rick Moranis and Chevy Chase.

While Josh suffers the low-level bullying of local hotshot Johnny Thomas (Giuseppe Andrews: 12:01, Prehysteria 2, Independence Day, 2001 Maniacs), his father is equally belittled by his boss Dr Woorter (Russ Tamblyn: West Side Story, War of the Gargantuas) who is in the habit of taking Karl’s inventions and claiming credit for them to military liaison Colonel Cutter (Christopher Stone: Cujo, The Howling - who died before the film was released). Mum (sorry: mom) Laura is exasperated with the pair of them. She tells Josh that if he is in the wrong he should back down but when he is in the right he must stand up for himself. It is obvious that she just wishes that his father would set an example.

Karl explains to Laura that whatever he invents at work belongs to the organisation that runs the lab so she suggests he works on something at home where he has a lab in the basement (complete with a skeleton wearing a hat). This he does and after some experimentation he comes up with a formula which he feeds to family pet Cosmo. The dog (played by director Ray’s own pooch) promptly turns invisible and has to be kept locked in the basement, leaving Josh to worry that the animal has run away.

Josh is an aspiring inventor himself and has rigged a bunch of ropes and pullies to automatically make his bed when he tugs a single cord. This leaves him time to do his homework while watching an old movie on TV (it’s Beast of the Yellow Night, starring John Ashley - who has a funny bit part as the long suffering husband of a nosy neighbour). But invisible dog Cosmo untidies the bed again and Josh is unfairly grounded for apparently lying to his mother.

After Karl demonstrates that Cosmo is transparent - the dog is represented by a stiffened harness on wires - Josh and his friend Skeeter (Phillip Van Dyke: Halloweentown) decide for some reason that they want to use the invisibility potion on Billy’s pet lizard. Sneaking into the basement lab, they extract some potion from the bottle in a glass pipette but, when Laura discovers them, hastily dispose of the evidence into a half-empty bottle of cola - which Laura subsequently drinks. It’s a pretty contrived way of getting the character to actually ingest the stuff - and you do have to wonder (a) why there was a bottle of cola with no lid left lying around on a bench and (b) wouldn’t it be kind of flat and unpleasant?

Once invisible, Laura has to find ways to disguise herself, including a heavy face-pack smeared on her invisible skin when curtain-twitching Mrs Pringle, the previously mentioned neighbour (Stella Stevens - mother of producer Andrew - whose innumerable other genre films include Wacko, Glass Trap, The Matriarch and Monster in the Closet) comes round to investigate what is going on. But there is a positive side to Laura’s predicament as when Josh is once again hassled by Johnny Thomas who finds that an invisible force grabs his wrist and makes him slap himself.

Nevertheless, Karl heads into the government lab to attempt to find an antidote, using the lizard as his test subject, but that rotten old Dr Woorter has him fired, determined to claim the glory for himself. Just think of it: an army of invisible soldiers! But he has to demonstrate to Colonel Cutter that the invisibility formula is real and a cage with a little hamster wheel that rotates by itself isn’t sufficient proof. It could just be a trick (as, technically, it is).

When Karl and Josh sneak back into the lab at the weekend, Woorter calls security. Karl is raving about invisibility so he is sent to a mental institution where the staff consists of The Aftermath director Steve Barkett and make-up artist Pam Phillips and the other patients include legendary cinematographer Gary Graver, briefly stepping out from behind the camera. (I say ‘include’ but the low budget nature of Invisible Mom means we don’t actually see anyone else.)

With his father locked up in a loony bin and his mother nowhere to be seen (as it were), Josh is sent to an orphanage where Beth Ulrich (Fugitive Rage) is the stern matriarch (all pinned back hair, thick-rimmed glasses and tweed two-piece). There is a really touching scene between Josh and an unnamed orphan girl (Vanessa Koman: Little Miss Magic, Boogie with the Undead) which manages the rare balancing trick of pathos without bathos. Laura visits Karl’s lab but is captured by Woorter and imprisoned in a wooden crate to be used as evidence.

The story culminates at a hearing to decide Karl’s sanity, overseen by none other than Brinke Stevens (The Naked Monster, Witchouse 3, Dr Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots etc). Naturally, Dr Woorter and Mrs Pringle give evidence against but Laura, who has escaped, sneaks into the courtroom and makes Woorter look ridiculous by tickling him and making him slap himself. She also gives rotten old Mrs Pringle a kick up the arse on the way out. Karl, who has given the expected impassioned speech about how much he loves his family, is declared compos mentis and, with Woorter off to the loony bin in his stead, is offered the senior lab position by Colonel Cutter.

That just leaves the tricky problem of Laura’s invisibility which is solved when Cosmo turns up, fully opaque. After trying all the possible things that the dog may have eaten - including dog food of course - it is eventually discovered that a potion in the basement lab has been knocked onto a plate of food, which the dog has consumed. Tastefully arranging herself under a blanket, Laura is restored to normal (an early line of dialogue acknowledged Josh’s disquiet that his mum is walking around nude).

Running a full 90 minutes, Invisible Mom is both better and better value than the comparable kidflicks of Charlie Band’s Moonstone Entertainment. The script by the ever-reliable William C Martell (who has a cameo as a workman) is coherent, amusing and accessible, with characters that are simple without being simplistic. It’s a real family film, not just in terms of audience but also in terms of actually being about a family: mum, dad and son all carry equal weight. Though the morality is never laid on with a trowel, there is a lovely scene where Josh persuades his father to stand up against Woorter using the same arguments that he himself had been told by Laura. The supporting cast of characters all work well and the low budget rarely shows (one of the few exceptions being Mrs Pringle’s complaint about “that huge thing in your yard” which we never see).

The special effects are sometimes mechanical and sometimes managed through an effective blue screen technique designed specially for the film by Ray. No, they’re not as good as you would see in a big studio picture but that’s because this isn’t a big studio picture, it’s a straight-to-video B-movie. The effects are, in all honesty, considerably better than one would expect in a film of this scale.

Fred Olen Ray, who had nearly fifty films on his CV already, brings to the film a joy that is missing from some of the more cynically directed fantasy kidflicks out there and the cast all look like they’re having fun. Where the film disappoints slightly is in exploring its central premise. TF Simpson loved the slapstick scenes but they’re far too few and far between. Invisibility movies are a great opportunity for comedy but that’s largely absent in this film which is more of a light-hearted thriller. It’s enjoyable but it spends far too long before Laura becomes invisible and the comic potential of both an invisible mom and an invisible dog (not to mention an invisible lizard) is largely wasted.

That said, Ray did go on to helm three more films in this specific subgenre which I haven’t seen and those may have more of the potential for slapstick silliness which Invisible Mom merely dabbles in. The situation is, however, quite complicated...

Invisible Mom is one of a handful of family features directed by Ray for Stevens’ Royal Oaks Entertainment in the late 1990s, which also included Mom Can I Keep Her?, The Kid with X-Ray Eyes and Billy Frankenstein. This film was shot in ten days in 1995 for just under a quarter of a million dollars and was distributed domestically in 1997 through a deal that Royal Oaks had with Roger Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons. It was a big hit, topping the rental charts and it was also successful in foreign markets.

When Corman checked his receipts he ordered up a sequel from Royal Oaks so Ray and Stevens got all three lead actors back together for a new story (written by Sean O’Bannon); Mary Woronov and Mickey Dolenz were thrown into the mix too. Unfortunately, the film couldn’t be called Invisible Mom 2 because Fred and Andrew - even more on the ball than Corman - had already used that title for an unrelated ‘invisible mother’ movie written by O’Bannon and with a cast including Ariauna Albright and Robert Quarry. So the direct sequel to Invisible Mom was called Mom’s Outta Sight (and Fred took the pseudonym ‘Peter Stewart’).

In Europe however there was no problem with opportunistic distributors retitling the direct sequel Invisible Mom 2. After all, the Ray/Martell collaboration variously known as Cyberzone or Droid Gunner has always been called Phoenix 2 on this side of the Atlantic. (Other notable examples of this practise include Steve Balderson’s Pep Squad which became I’ve Been Watching You 2, an ersatz sequel to David DeCoteau’s retitled The Brotherhood, and DeCoteau’s own Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy which became Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy 2.) Which meant of course that the film shot as Invisible Mom 2 couldn’t be called that in those territories so it became... Mom’s Outta Sight! Filmography compilers have been trying to get their heads around this conundrum ever since.

Somewhere in the middle of all this came Invisible Dad, from a Steve Latshaw script and starring Karen Black (not as the dad, obviously). I’m not sure whether this has any direct connection with any of the other three films.

As well as a terrific name cast, Invisible Mom also boasts some legends behind the camera, not least the extraordinarily prolific and diverse Graver. Editor Peter Miller also cut Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, Cyberzone, Sorceress and Adventures in Dinosaur City while production designer Helen Harwell worked on Night Shade, Mystery Monsters, Hybrid, Totem and Planet Patrol. Jeffrey Walton (The Brotherhood I and II, Curse of the Puppet Master, The Werewolf Reborn!) provides a marvellously effective score.

‘Main title design and optical EFX’ are credited to David L Hewitt of Hollywood Optical Systems Inc (surely not the David L Hewitt who directed The Mighty Gorga?). Mark Rappaport of the Creature FX Shop is credited with ‘special effects’; he also worked on classics such as Tremors, Puppet Master I, II and III, Subspecies and Prehysteria but more recently has been forced to slum it on dodgy low-budget stuff like 300 and I am Legend.

The Inaccurate Movie Database (and many sites deriving information therefrom) list someone named Rennie Piccolo as co-writer but there’s no such credit on screen. Fred’s son Christopher Olen-Ray is listed as ‘assistant co-ordinator’ although it’s not clear whether he assisted with co-ordinating or co-ordinated the assistants.

The sleeve of the R2 DVD released by Boulevard Entertainment in 2007 lists Fred Olen Ray and Andrew Stevens as joint directors and includes Justin Berfield, star of Invisible Mom 2, among the cast. Good grief.

Invisible Mom is a superior (and relatively late) example of the family fantasy pictures that proved so profitable when VHS was king. It’s entertaining without being stupid, it’s moral without being patronising and it’s well-crafted without being overblown.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 12th April 2008

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