The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
As the 1930s went on Universal kept going back to the well with its various movie monsters, particularly Frankenstein's monster, but as the 1940s dawned things were changing and what scared people or seemed innovative in the early part of the decade seemed old hat. It didn't help that many of the scripts were subpar when compared with the originals, and that directors like Todd Browning and James Whale had either been frozen out of Hollywood or had grown tired of the business.
Whale's The Invisible Man was one of the most profitable, and most memorable, of the early 1930s Universal flicks, with Claude Rains in the title role. It combined action, humor and straight up horror to make something that was much different than other movies of the time, and the groundbreaking special effects were just the cherry on top. Although the first movie largely told the story that H. G. Wells had written, albeit updated to modern times and with a love interest thrown in, that didn't keep Universal from continuing the Frankenstein series going, even if Mary Shelley's material had been exhausted in Bride of Frankenstein.
Since the Invisible Man as a concept had not been done to death by 1940 it is no surprise that the subject was revisited. A major problem was that, instead of a monster assembled from corpses that could be brought to life from film to film with electricity, Jack Griffin had died in the first movie. Shot by police and lying in a hospital bed, he became visible for the first time in the whole film as the drugs in his body became less effective, allowing his skin and organs to resume their opaqueness. It was a wonderful special effect for the time as well as a perfect ending to the film.
This time around there is another Griffin - Frank (John Sutton) - who is working in the company hospital for a coal mine owned by his friend, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price). The problem is that Radcliffe has been falsely accused of murdering his brother, despite the efforts of his fiancé Helen Manson (Nan Grey) and business partner Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) to clear his name. In a desperate ploy to help Geoffrey avoid the noose as well as search for the real killer, Frank administers the drug that his brother created, hoping to find a way to bring his friend back to visibility before madness sets in.
This time the police aren't holding back based on the idea that invisibility is a hoax. After hearing the details of Radcliffe's disappearance and that he is friends with Frank Griffin, Detective Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) figures out what happened and begins a manhunt for a person he believes is invisible. Geoffrey's initial attempts to hide out, arranged by Helen, fail and he is forced to go off on his own, but that leads to his discovery of who actually killed his brother Michael. Unfortunately, like Jack Griffin before him, Geoffrey Radcliffe is succumbing to the negative effects of the drug, and Frank's attempts to reverse the invisibility have all failed.
Joe May was a veteran of German cinema, going back to the 1920s, and so it's no surprise that even though this is toward the end of his career the direction is still sharp. The special effects are still good as well, including pushing things a little further by showing Radcliffe's outline in the rain, something that seven years prior would have be been harder to pull off. Universal could have done a cheap follow-up just to make a quick buck off the reputation of Whale's film, but instead even indulged The Invisible Man Returns in going over budget. A few details are changed, such as the fictional drug monocane, which is a bleaching agent that is key to making the skin transparent, being changed to duocane. Also it seems like there is now a period for the drug to build up in the system to cause madness, where in the original it seems that it happened almost instantaneously.
The story itself is engaging, allowing further exploration of the idea without just repeating what happened in the first film. Unfortunately, directors in 1940 had to deal with something they didn't in 1933, which is the Hays Code. That meant things were naturally going to be more tricky, including the fact that anyone with invisibility had to walk around naked and the full-scale violence of the first. Jack Griffin kills around 122 people before he is stopped where, necessarily, Radcliffe is made out to be a good guy from the beginning. Necessarily something has to be done about the bad guy without turning Radcliffe bad as well, since the rules said anyone doing evil had to get a comeuppance.
This is one of Vincent Price's earliest roles. Like Rains he is not seen until the end, with clever editing not revealing his face even prior to taking the drug. The voice is unmistakable, although it sounds like his coach had him add a bit more American inflection despite the fact this movie, like the first, takes place in England. Still, it's a good beginning, and he gets to shine at the one point where the madness starts to kick in. The dinner with Helen and Frank is the one part of the movie that has some real tension. The initial interaction with William Spears (Alan Napier), the mine's superintendent, provides some much needed humor as Radcliffe frustrates the man's attempts to repair his sabotaged vehicle.
Although this movie is a solid and worthy follow-up to the original, it is sorely missing the humor of The Invisible Man. That was a lot of its selling point and what set it aside from other horror films at the time, and The Invisible Man Returns is much more a straightforward fantasy film with some police procedural and horror elements sprinkled on top. Universal seemed to have saved the comedy for The Invisible Woman, released the same year and not really a sequel to The Invisible Man Returns or part of the series at all, but still included in collections due to the invisibility angle. True to descending into almost parody, the next entry in the series found Jack Griffin's grandson - a person that never existed, since Griffin was killed before having children - using the formula to fight Nazis.
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Time: 81 minutes
Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway
Director: Joe May