The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Joe May

Cedric Hardwicke - Richard Cobb
Vincent Price - Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe
Nan Grey - Helen Manson
John Sutton - Dr. Frank Griffin
Cecil Kellaway - Inspector Sampson
Alan Napier - Willie Spears

Genre - Horror/Mystery/Science Fiction

Running Time - 81 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Framed for the murder of his brother, Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is scheduled to hang. After a visit from his friend Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), he vanishes mysteriously from prison. Police Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) realizes that Griffin is the brother of the original Invisible Man and has given Geoffrey the formula to aid his escape. Can Geoffrey elude the police dragnet and track down the real murderer? More importantly, can Griffin discover an antidote before the invisibility formula drives Geoffrey insane?

With the new adaptation of THE INVISIBLE MAN out in theaters by the time you read this, I figured it would be cool to go back and watch some of the original Universal Studios films that popularized the H.G. Wells character on the silver screen. Since I already reviewed the first 1933 adaptation of THE INVISIBLE MAN directed by James Whale and starring the incredible Claude Rains, I figured I would take another look at the first sequel to that film - 1940’s THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS. It’s a film I hadn’t seen in many years and I was curious to see how it held up after all of these years. While not as iconic or as good as the first film, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is a sequel that’s probably better than it has any right to be. It’s no surprise this film made a decent profit at the box office, which led to a few more sequels and spinoffs down the line.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is not as much of a sequel, as it is a sort of reboot of the first film. It follows many of the same beats - Invisible Man running from the law while growing mad from the invisible serum, has a beautiful fiancee who supports him despite his condition, and he has to deal with a rival of sorts that’s doing him wrong. Unlike the first film though, the characters are a bit more grounded and developed despite a slightly lesser story holding everything together. THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is not really a horror film beyond the title character’s condition, but rather a revenge story and melodrama about an innocent man using his condition to find the real person who murdered his brother [a crime he’s framed for] while struggling with the invisible power that’s corrupting him and driving him insane. It’s pretty much an 80-minute soap opera in a lot of ways, focusing more on romance, friendship, and righting wrongs through violent means. It’s told well enough to remain engaging throughout, but it lacks the power of the original’s storytelling. There was a mood, an atmosphere, and even an obvious attitude in the first film that created this magical energy the old Universal Films had no trouble in creating. The fun factor of being sort of terrified by the Invisible Man is now gone, as we’re now meant to sympathize with his plight.

That’s not to say that the sympathy angle is a bad thing. In fact, I respect the writers of this sequel for taking a different avenue with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, making it stand out from the first film in a natural and refreshing way. The character of Geoffrey Radcliffe isn’t like the original’s Jack Griffin, who was unlikable from the start and reveled in causing fear for those around him. Radcliffe is a good person, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, yet he has no proof right before he’s executed. However Griffin’s brother, Dr. Frank Griffin, gives Radcliffe the formula to escape and find the real killer out of friendship. In a strange way, Radcliffe becomes a detective, haunting those who have wronged him while searching for answers as to who really murdered his brother. The insanity only comes when he’s under the serum for much longer than necessary, turning him into what Jack Griffin had become throughout the first film. Radcliffe doesn’t have a ton of development, but it’s obvious he has a sense for justice and loves his fiancee Helen and supports Frank when it comes to his scientific discoveries. You’re allowed, as the audience, to rightfully support Radcliffe and feel bad for the guy when the serum starts taking over.

It helps when the supporting characters are well defined in their roles. Helen is the typical token girlfriend who worries about Radcliffe. But she believes in his innocence and is willing to participate in helping him solve the case, even when the solution shocks her and tries to deny it. But she always has his back through thick and thin. Frank tries to make up for what his brother had done in the first film by giving the serum to Radcliffe to turn the wrong into a right. He’s also hard at working at an antidote that only half works when it brings the subject back to the visible spectrum before killing them accidentally. He tries to keep Radcliffe’s eyes on the mission, struggling to ground him when his friend slowly goes mad and paranoid. On the other side of things, Radcliffe’s cousin Richard Cobb doesn’t seem all that concerned that a family member is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. In fact, he seems to be trying to worm his way into Helen’s life as a replacement, which she’s blind to. And of course, you have the obvious police officers who are in disbelief that they’re dealing with an invisible man while doing the best to do their jobs. They use clues from the previous encounter with Griffin to expose Radcliffe and put him back in custody. All the characters have a distinct role that all flesh out the film’s narrative in a natural way, creating a world that’s easy to invest oneself into.

Probably the biggest flaw of the story is figuring out who the real murderer is. If you read the character descriptions above, it’s easy to see who the villain of the film is. And we learn who it is during the film’s second act, pretty much taking away any sort of suspense or tension from the story. The rest of the film after that seems to be Radcliffe messing with the culprit to get him to confess, or just getting revenge by killing him. It takes away a bit of steam as the detective aspect is pretty fun, turning the film into your typical revenge flick without much revenge going for it. In fact, things get a bit slapstick which takes away something from it all. It’s still fun to watch, but you can just feel the inferiority compared to the original movie.

Like the first film, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS has a huge focus on its special effects, which probably impressed a lot of people in 1940. In fact, this film was nominated at the Academy Awards for that very category. And like the first film, they look pretty damn great for its time. We get the classic full-body bandage and all, creating an invisible illusion when they start to unravel from Radcliffe’s body. We get actors interacting with nothing or nobody, selling the dialogue or physical interactions with the Invisible Man. There is some green screen that works - in particular a scene where Frank takes Radcliffe’s blood from an invisible arm - while others are pretty bad, especially during the film’s final act. The newest aspect of the effects here involve when subjects become visible again. Unlike the first film, we get dissolves of the invisible subject displaying their bones first, then their veins, and then they’re visible form. It’s actually pretty damn cool to see, considering the film is 80 years old. It also reminded me of 2000’s HOLLOW MAN, which was obviously inspired by this film for that special effect alone. I do feel the special effects were used more creatively in the 1933 film, especially when it came to objects hovering on screen and just the action choreography of other actors reacting to something that wasn’t there. But the sequel is no slouch and still impresses for the most part today.

While he’s no James Whale, Joe May does a commendable job continuing what he had started. Like I mentioned, the use of the special effects is well done for its time, continuing the great visuals that the first film had presented. May also directs a well paced film with some decent action and good dramatic moments that keep you engaged throughout. I do feel that May plays things a bit safe, considering how far Whale pushed the use of special effects and the direction of the actors to interact with someone who wasn’t onscreen with them. There is also a sly wit and charm from the first film that doesn’t really exist in this sequel. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen most of this done slightly better before and expect the film to expand on those previous ideas. The dissolve into visibility is a great touch, but the film needed more than that. Even by 1940, the visual presentation feels old hat. May also has issues with tone, never sure whether to take things seriously or play them for laughs. That’s not to say that Joe May doesn’t do a good job, as THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is still well made and does what it needs to justify its existence.

The acting is also pretty solid here. It’s weird seeing Cedric Hardwicke get first billing here in hindsight, considering who else is in the cast that became a major star later on in his career. But Hardwicke is really good as Cobb, playing the antagonistic side of things and being a thorn in Radcliffe’s side. He plays smarmy and conniving very well, playing off of the rest of the cast entertainingly. Nan Grey is good as Helen, Radcliffe’s loyal girlfriend. She doesn’t really play a damsel-in-distress, helping Radcliffe prove his innocence while dealing with the surreal events around her. John Sutton keeps things grounded as Dr. Frank Griffin, taking the entire story seriously and bringing some gravitas to what should be a silly concept. But the real star here is a young Vincent Price as Radcliffe, showing early on why he continued to shine bright in the genre throughout his iconic career until his unfortunate passing almost 30 years ago. You don’t really see his face until the very end, as he’s covered in bandages or is invisible for the rest of the film. But his voice is so strong that it expresses a lot of what he’s feeling, even when you can’t see him. Price isn’t the Vincent Price the legend at this point, as his voice doesn’t carry that charming menace we’re used to - even though some of that does come out when he plays up the madness near the end. But the man is so good, even in his earlier films, truly carrying this sequel and making it worthwhile on all fronts. I’ve always been a huge fan of Price and this film is a good reason why.

While not up to the level of the 1933 film, 1940’s THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS still manages to be a good time. The sequel’s story follows similar beats, yet changes it up by having a protagonist who is sympathetic and is made invisible to solve a murder he’s been framed for. This is a positive, as it makes the sequel stand out as a revenge and love story rather than one meant to scare audiences. The special effects are just as good here as they were in the original film, with an added bonus of dissolves revealing veins, bones and an epidermis prior to turning fully visible that inspired later films like 2000’s HOLLOW MAN. And the acting, led by a young but still magnetic Vincent Price, carry the film well and keep you invested in the story. However, the film has competent, yet really safe, direction by Joe May who tries to be James Whale but doesn’t quite reach that bar with his inability to maintain a single tone, as well as not being able to charm and excite the audience like Whale had done with the first film. Plus, the mystery of the person who framed the lead character is easy to figure out and takes away a lot of the tension and suspense a film like this should be able to maintain until the film’s climax. Still, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is a worthy sequel that has something different to offer if you’re a fan of the original film and its concept.

3 Howls Outta 4

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