Revisiting ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’ on Its 25th Anniversary

Memoirs of an Invisible Man sounds like a lazy joke in a comedy about 1985 Hollywood. A nameless executive is airing his daily grievances to an even more nameless assistant. Remind me to get John Carpenter and Chevy Chase on the phone about that invisible man picture — if the effects guys can’t make Chevy’s penis convincingly disappear by the end of the week, there’s no movie!

It’s bad Mad Libs. Pick a director. Pick an actor. Okay, okay, how about a director with three movies on Empire’s 30 Best Horror Movies, and Clark Griswold?

But it’s not Mad Libs, it’s not a lazy joke and it’s not 1985. Memoirs of an Invisible Man hit theaters in 1992, played to audiences almost as transparent as its hero, and disappeared into the filmographies of its two biggest names, marking the end of each’s most prolific period and the start of a decade in decline.

The 1980s were good to John Carpenter. The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, They Live. That’s how you bat 1.000. A handful of all-timers and the rest a fascinating collection of the weird and occasionally wondrous. But then again, that’s in retrospect. The 1980s weren’t as good to John Carpenter as he might’ve been to them. Two ambitious attempts (The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China) at breaking into big-budget studio filmmaking failed. By the end of the decade, he was back to work on what made him famous — independent horror movies at used-car prices.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man would be his first movie in the 1990s and his last attempt at studio filmmaking.

Appropriate, then, that its script was a product of the ‘80s. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was first a novel bought by Warner Brothers and turned over to the can’t-miss package of director Ivan Reitman (just after Ghostbusters), leading man Chevy Chase (just after Fletch) and screenwriter William Goldman (just after The Princess Bride). A zany comedy about the perils of invisibility served up by the hottest talent in town at the top of their game. 

The only problem was that Chevy Chase wanted it to be a drama.

Reitman, emphatically, did not. So he turned to Warner Brothers and gave them a choice: take him or take Chevy. Who’d turn down the director of the most successful comedy of all time?

Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers would. They kept Chase; Reitman walked; and Goldman, who was already noticing the stress fractures, got the hell out of Dodge just as fast.

Five years and several rewrites later, Chevy was still holding onto Memoirs, but his star power wasn’t as bulletproof as it had been. Sequels to Fletch and Caddyshack couldn’t touch the success of their forebears, and the original comedies ranged from great-in-retrospect (¡Three Amigos!) to the legendarily-misguided (Nothing but Trouble). He needed a win, and soon.

It was only a coincidence that the last-ditch attempt for both Carpenter and Chase would be a story about a man desperately fighting to keep from fading away.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man follows Nick Halloway (get it?), a stock analyst without a care in the world and about as many friends. He likes strong drinks, risky bets, and Alice Monroe, a documentary producer played by Daryl Hannah. Within an hour of first meeting, they’re making out in bathrooms and setting up the next rendezvous. Things are looking up for Nick. Hopefully he doesn’t accidentally turn invisible.

Nick accidentally turns invisible the very next morning while sleeping off a hangover at a shareholders meeting. How could that possibly happen at a shareholders meeting, you astutely ask? The company in question is a nondescript science lab by the name of Magnascopic, and a technician spilled coffee on the wrong keyboard — only, it should be noted, because Nick asked him for directions to the nearest office in which to nap. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Everyone evacuates, save Nick, and the entire building turns to Swiss cheese before their eyes. It’s only bad luck that Nick happened to be one of the holes.

This catches the villainous eye of CIA agent and villain David Jenkins, who, it should be noted, is an expert in villainy. We first meet him on trial for allegedly pushing various foreign officials off various tall buildings around the world. He kills witnesses. He intends to use Nick as his own personal, perfect assassin. He casually uses the word “iconoclasts.” I mean he’s a real bad egg.

From there it’s off to the races as Jenkins, played to sociopathic perfection by Sam Neill, hunts Nick from San Francisco to Santa Mira (a small, fictional town known to Carpenter devotees as the home of Celtic toy/murder factory Silver Shamrock). Cue the harried foot chases, budding romance, invisible antics, and paranoid dreams of a man fading out of existence.

Carpenter wrote off Memoirs before it even hit theaters. Apart from his earliest feature, Dark Star, it’s the only movie he’s directed that doesn’t carry his signature before the title. In a recent interview, and one of the only times he’s ever mentioned Memoirs since its release, Carpenter characterized it as another “audience-friendly, non-challenging” release from Warner Brothers.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is probably the director’s most accessible movie. There are no boogeymen, killer cars, or feature-length John Wayne impressions. But it’s hardly the vanilla multiplex-filler its reputation or director would suggest.

To his credit or fault, it is Chevy Chase’s most serious leading role. There are some trademark pratfalls and too-quick-to-counter insults, but they’re few and far between with melancholy voice-over and aimless wandering down dark streets to fill the gaps. In a more forgiving universe, Memoirs could’ve done for Chase what Groundhog Day would do for long-time rival Bill Murray a year later.

Part of the film’s failure must be credited to the trailer. It includes the slapstickiest gags cut to music that sounds better suited to a cartoon mouse outrunning a cartoon cat. Memoirs of an Invisible Man isn’t a comedy. As per Carpenter’s intent, it has some comedic moments, most of which work (Chevy Chase’s penis does indeed convincingly disappear in one of his dreams). But as per Chase’s intent, there are moments where Nick is forced to hear his so-called friends wistfully joke about his death. The result is a thriller with a light heart and a dark pulse. An occasionally touching romance rendered with groundbreaking special effects (the kiss in the rain is astounding even in our oversaturated-CGI times). A passing glance at the psychological toll that any “invisible man” picture worth its salt must explore, but only long enough to get to that invisible man comically pantsing a pompous moron.

It’s a movie not greater or lesser than the sum of its parts, but just that: a collection of mismatched parts that manage to fit together. The cast is a Carpenter-grade assembly of character actors at the top of their game, and Sam Neill almost steals it all. The cinematography by five-time Academy Award nominee(!) and lifetime achievement award-winner(!!) William A. Fraker is rich, smoky, and shot through with lens flares a mile long. Shirley Walker’s score, one of the first ever solely credited to a woman, deserves more attention on its own merits, managing to mix big, brassy adventure, gentle romance, and percussive doom with remarkable grace. Most of the special effects by Industrial Light & Magic not only hold up but impress even now. It’s John Carpenter’s North by Northwest with Chevy Chase as his sillier, transparent Cary Grant.

Twenty-five years on, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is an ambitious curiosity, an intersection of two talents reaching in opposite directions, watchable not despite but because of the resulting stretch marks. It won’t change anyone’s mind about Chase or Carpenter, or interrupt their favorites for either. But if nothing else, it’s an entertaining reminder of a time when even the most “audience-friendly, non-challenging” movies could be undeniably, unabashedly weird.

Jeremy Herbert lives visibly in Cleveland.