The Invisible Man Returns directed by Joe May
Following the release of Dracula’s Daughter in May 1936, horror fans would have to wait almost three years before getting another fright picture from Universal Studios. With the opening of Son of Frankenstein in January 1939, however, the floodgates were opened for the second great wave of Universal horror. And in January 1940, still another sequel was released by the studio, The Invisible Man Returns. A fairly ingenious follow-up to The Invisible Man feature of 1933, which was itself based on H.G. Wells‘ classic “scientific romance” (as Wells preferred to call such tales) of 1897, the 1940 film was successful enough at the box office to spawn no less than three further sequels! The film is historically important today, of course, inasmuch as it was the very first horror picture to feature Vincent Price, the beloved star who, over the next 50 years, would carve out a place of honor for himself in the Horror Pantheon. But as with Claude Rains in the first film, we do not get to see Price’s face here until the final few seconds; otherwise, his mug is under wraps or, well, you know… invisible. That mellifluous voice of his, however, just cannot be mistaken!
The sequel picks up nine years after the original, in which Rains’ Jack Griffin, a noted biochemist, had perfected an invisibility formula employing the East Indian herb “duocane,” used it on his own person successfully, had rapidly gone mad, failed to come up with an antidote to his serum, and had been shot dead by the constabulary after killing many people himself. Now, his brother, Frank Griffin, uses the same formula on his good friend, Geoffrey Radcliffe, who is on Death Row after having been falsely accused of killing his brother Michael. While Geoffrey’s cousin Richard and girlfriend Helen fret uselessly — “They’ll shoot him on sight,” says the unknowing Richard — the invisible Radcliffe breaks out of jail and prosecutes his search for the real killer. Unfortunately, the same tendency toward madness that the formula had induced in Griffin nine years earlier soon starts to catch up with Radcliffe himself…
The Invisible Man Returns boasts any number of fine elements that combine to make it a perfectly valid and effective sequel. Foremost of all, perhaps, is its sterling cast of pros. Price, in his fifth film (the picture was released just two weeks before Green Hell and three months before The House of the Seven Gables), is just wonderful, whether swathed in bandages or completely out of sight, and his supporting players are all uniformly fine: Cedric Hardwicke, in his first film following The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as cousin Richard Cobb; Nan Grey (who had appeared in Dracula’s Daughter) as the pretty Helen; John Sutton (who had performed along with Price in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex AND Tower of London prior to this film) as the faithful and hardworking Dr. Griffin; Cecil Kellaway (who would also appear in …Seven Gables) as the dogged Scotland Yard Inspector Sampson, who delivers the most sarcastic comments with a lovable, twinkly smile; and an almost unrecognizable Alan Napier (unrecognizable, that is, for those who might recall him as Alfred on TV’s Batman) as Spears, the nasty enforcer at Cobb’s colliery factory.
The film has been expertly directed by Joe May, a German who in essence launched the career of Fritz Lang, and who would also direct Price and Kellaway in …Seven Gables, and features wonderful special FX that hold up marvelously well today. Especially impressive are the shots of our Invisible Man as seen through billowing smoke, when he becomes partially visible (it was only during a second viewing that it struck me just why Sampson was constantly puffing cigar smoke into the air), and Radcliffe’s materialization at the finale. The film has been beautifully shot in B&W by Milton R. Krasner, here at the outset of what would turn out to be a 40-year career, serving as DOP of such B&W masterpieces as The Set-Up, House of Strangers, All About Eve and Deadline U.S.A. His lensing of the outdoor sequences — such as the one in which the invisible Radcliffe torments Spears in a forest glade for information — is especially well done.
As for the Invisible Man himself, he is not nearly as nasty a piece of work as in the original film; not nearly as homicidal or maniacal. Still, his speech to Griffin and Helen regarding “a changed world with me as its guiding genius” tips the viewer off that the man is indeed starting to lose his invisible marbles! And as to the film’s central mystery — just who did kill brother Michael? — well, that conundrum should be fairly simple to figure out, even for the most dim-witted of viewers (I DID mention that the always hissable Cedric Hardwicke is in the cast, right?). The film is a fairly serious affair, with a bare minimum of the occasional silly humor to be found in many another horror outing of the ’40s; by contrast, one of the next films in the series, The Invisible Woman, is an out-and-out comedy, and a very funny one, at that! Fast moving, compact, highly clever and often beautiful to look at, The Invisible Man Returns is, ultimately, one sequel that really must be, um, seen…