Joe May, 1940
Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, Alan Napier
Almost a decade after the events in The Invisible Man, Dr. Griffin’s brother, also named Dr. Griffin, attempts to save his friend from prison by injecting him with the invisibility serum he inherited from his brother. His friend, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, has been unjustly imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder of his brother. His newfound invisibility will give him time to escape and search for the real murderer, though he must do so before the serum’s side effect takes hold: insanity. Unfortunately the police force, wiser than in The Invisible Man, hunt him down with increasingly clever methods and his cousin, Richard, is trying to steal Radcliffe’s business and his girlfriend.
This is not Vincent Price’s finest hour, as he is young and inexperienced here in his first ever horror role, but fans of the wonderful actor will not want to miss his turn as one of Universal’s most memorable monsters. His appearance definitely helps make this an above average sequel, though he acts mostly via voiceover or from behind bandages. Though he does not begin to give Rains a run for his money, his makes the part his own and is more human and sympathetic. While this is Price’s most major contribution to a Universal horror film, he also worked with Frankenstein director James Whale on his jungle adventure film Green Hell (1940), during the same year as The Invisible Man Returns. He would also later briefly lend his voice to the Invisible Man character in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
One thing I can say about The Invisible Man Returns is that it benefits from a much stronger and more dynamic supporting cast than its predecessor. Nan Grey (Dracula’s Daughter) is a more interesting leading lady and the script is definitely strengthened by showing her revulsion and fear when Radcliffe first removes his bandages to expose emptiness underneath. While most Universal horror films suffer from some very annoying police/detective characters, particularly those chosen to be the plucky comic relief, Cecil Kellaway (The Mummy’s Hand, I Married a Witch, and many more) is excellent as Inspector Sampson and certainly gives one of the most compelling detective performances in Universal horror. He nearly steals the film from Price several times. As a side note, many of the actors from this film, including Kellaway, appear alongside Price in the Gothic murder mystery The House of the Seven Gables (1940), which was also directed by Joe May.
The antagonists, Alan Napier (the Batman TV series) and Sir Cedric Hardwicke (The Ghost of Frankenstein, Invisible Agent), are fittingly slimy and unsympathetic, though both this sequel and The Invisible Man suffer from the issue of trying to make the film’s protagonist (Griffin and now Radcliffe) both the bad guy and the good guy. This inevitably makes the overtly villainous characters less effective, though the script in The Invisible Man Returns works harder to rectify that.
Another positive thing to consider is that unlike the sequels to The Mummy, The Invisible Man series makes a solid attempt to at least write a new story for each film. Though The Invisible Man Returns certainly treads on some of the same ground as The Invisible Man, it is more than just a simple re-hashing and was penned by Universal regular Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man). The Invisible Man Returns also builds on the previous script. We know that Radcliffe is going to go insane, but we don’t know when. The need to solve a murder mystery before this happens gives the film a rushed, somewhat breathless feeling that is typically lacking in Universal’s usually slower paced horror sequels.
Special effects, again from John Fulton and again Oscar-nominated, are also built upon. Though the black velvet on black background technique is still used, the sequel forgoes the snowy setting of the first film and employs smoke and rain to help reveal Radcliffe throughout the film. The conclusion is also more effective. Radcliffe is dying because of a bullet wound, which Griffin is unable to operate on simply because he can’t see Radcliffe’s body. When he successfully gives him a blood transfusion, the new blood brings Radcliffe back to visibility, beginning with the circulatory system and moving outward in a lovely and impressive sequence.
This is certainly not a perfect film. It is a bit plodding in parts and suffers from some lackluster direction from Joe May, which pales in comparison to James Whale’s work on The Invisible Man. The many wonderful comedic and sometimes zany moments from the first film don’t appear as often in the sequel, though there is a nice sequence where the police department attempts to root out Radcliffe with a smoke machine. In response, he dons one of the full body police uniforms and gas masks and simply walks out the front door.
This film is available as part of The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection, which includes a documentary and all of the sequels, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. Anyone who enjoyed The Invisible Man or is a serious Vincent Price fan will find a lot to like here. Also, anyone skeptical that Universal could make a competent later-period sequel should check this out.