“You know, being invisible has distinct advantages. It gives one a sense of power that’s exciting. Power for good, if you are so inclined, or should you feel perverse, for evil.”
We have an interesting film to discuss today. It’s our fourth sequel of the month, and unlike Bride of Frankenstein (1935) or possibly Son of Frankenstein (1939), I can’t really say it’s better than what came before it. What I can say is The Invisible Man Returns (1940) is a good film that isn’t afraid to try new things, even if it disappoints some of the time.
The Invisible Man Returns was the first of a series of films Universal Pictures hoped to make after the studio signed a multi-picture deal with H.G. Wells, the author of The Invisible Man (1897). Now I say series, but the movies have very little to do with each other story-wise. The common link is usually just the idea of making someone invisible.
Our film takes place nine years after the events of The Invisible Man (1933). Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), the co-owner of a family mining operation, has been sentenced to death after being convicted of murdering his brother. Geoffrey proclaims his innocence to no avail.
Those who believe in Geoffrey’s innocence, his fiancee Helen (Nana Grey) and his cousin Richard (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), fail to get him an appeal. Dr. Frank Griffin, a friend of Geoffrey’s, visits him in prison. Shortly thereafter, the guards are surprised to find no trace of Geoffrey in his cell except for his discarded clothes.
It turns out Frank Griffin is the brother of Jack Griffin, the title character of the first film. He injects Geoffrey with the invisibility formula to help him escape. The police, led by Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) quickly catch on to the ploy and begin their search, with nets and smoke machines (meant to reveal an invisible man) ever at the ready.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey has fled to an isolated cabin in the woods where Helen is waiting for him. He’s supposed to hide out until Frank can find a cure for invisibility. Geoffrey hates waiting around, however, and is desperate to find his brother’s real killer.
Things start falling apart as the known psychological effects of the drug start taking hold of Geoffrey, and he begins his descent into madness.
Neither insanity nor the police, though, will stop Geoffrey from doing whatever he can to find the true murderer. But what will Geoffrey, a normally gentle man turned violent, do with the killer once he finds him?
Let’s just get this out of the way: The Invisible Man Returns doesn’t have as good a story as Whale’s film. It just doesn’t. A story of a man wrongly convicted of a murder escaping prison to find the real culprit is nothing new, and even with invisibility thrown in, there isn’t a fresh enough spin here to make the story really pop.
That being said, I have endless respect for screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Lester Cole and director Joe May for doing something quite different from The Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man is a cautionary horror tale about a man who went too far with science. The Invisible Man Returns is a crime story with a science fiction and horror twist. We aren’t just retreading the story of the first movie.
It’s great the filmmakers are trying something different, but the execution of their ideas leaves something to be desired. The film’s opening half is very meh and does little besides set up the story and show off the invisibility effects.
Universal effects wiz John P. Fulton, who worked on The Invisible Man, continues to iron out the kinks from the last film and finds news ways to amaze with the invisibility.
The effect still isn’t perfect. Strings can be seen sometimes and a couple new techniques, like a stop-motion method, don’t always work. But the fact that he gets away with all that he does in a 1940 movie is mindboggling.
The story is still muddled in its second half and it’s clear the writers don’t always know what to do with their characters. But things pick up a lot when Geoffrey discovers the identity of the killer, which he finds out practically by mistake.
It’s worth mentioning that the scene where Geoffrey uncovers this little factoid is a tightly constructed, truly horrifying moment. It features a clothes-less, invisible Geoffrey chasing an accomplice of the murderer through a wooded area.
The man is terrified by the disembodied voice chasing him and eventually finds himself on his knees, blubbering for his life. It’s so fantastically eerie and creepy. It’s made only better by the terrific voice of Vincent Price, who, as Geoffrey, purposefully makes his voice sound like a scary ghost come to haunt this murder accomplice.
Price is solid in the film, by the way. Falling into boring melodramatics from time to time, Price doesn’t come close to the stellar job done by Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, though.
But when Geoffrey’s mind is beginning to be affected by the invisibility formula and we’re given a couple frightening moments, Price is truly terrifying and dark (oh my God, is he dark) in a way Rains never even approaches in Whale’s film.
In other words, when the movie goes for horror, it exceeds expectations. That doesn’t mean the film still doesn’t have many problems, but there are a lot of skilled people in front of and behind the camera.
While it wasn’t as good as the first in the series, The Invisible Man Returns should be commended for paving its own way and doing its own thing, a quality not often seen in sequels content with simply rehashing what came before them.