The Invisible Man Returns hit cinema screens in 1940 and was the first of Universal’s sequels to their 1933 hit The Invisible Man. Their horror films of the later 1940s soon became characterised by somewhat tedious and laboured attempts at humour but when the studio, now under new management, first began to revive the horror cycle their approach was rather more serious. And The Invisible Man Returns benefits from this fairly serious treatment.
Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is about to be hanged for the murder of his brother, his motive presumably being to gain control of the family’s lucrative northern England colliery. He is innocent of the crime but the evidence against him was telling. On the morning scheduled for his execution Radcliffe mysteriously vanishes from his prison cell.
His escape was made possible by Dr Frank Griffin (John Sutton), the brother of the unfortunate scientist who had discovered the secret of the invisibility serum in the original film. The invisibility serum made Geoffrey’s escape easy but now he faces two awkward problems. Firstly, unless he can find his brother’s real murderer he will remain a hunted man. The second problem is even more distressing - the invisibility serum causes madness of the homicidal variety. Frank is working feverishly to find an antidote but time is against him.
Helen Manson (Nan Grey) loves Geoffrey and has always believed in his innocence. She shelters the invisible fugitive, now the subject of a large-scale manhunt under the direction of the determined Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard (Cecil Kellaway). Geoffrey gets a break when he extracts some vital information from the colliery’s drunken and none-too-honest watchman Spears (Alan Napier). This information casts suspicion on Geoffrey’s suave cousin Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).
While Geoffrey is making some progress towards clearing his name it is clear that the madness, the unfortunate side-effect of the invisibility drug, is starting to take hold. It is now a race against time to gain the evidence of his innocence before the madness takes over completely.
German-born writer Curt Siodmak, an important figure in 1940s Hollywood horror, co-wrote the screenplay with Lester Cole. The screenplay mixes subdued melodrama with (thankfully) restrained humour. Austrian-born director Joe May spoke little English, a potential problem that was somewhat eased by the lucky coincidence that Vincent Price spoke fluent German. May was however a painstaking director and this combined with the elaborate special effects the film required caused the production to fall behind schedule and run over budget. Despite this the movie was well received by critics and did well at the box office.
John P. Fulton’s Oscar-nominated special effects may have been costly but they proved to be money well spent and surpassed his work on the original 1933 The Invisible Man. They still look quite convincing today.
Cedric Hardwicke got top billing but has little to do. He is overshadowed by Vincent Price, despite the fact that we only see Price in the flesh for less than a minute. Price, swathed in bandages, did all the invisibility scenes himself and proves that even having only his voice to work with he could still dominate the screen. Price’s ease with comedy helps things along. Nan Grey makes an appealing female lead. Cecil Kellaway is less jovial than usual but provides solid support as Inspector Sampson.
Universal provided a fairly generous budget and the movie looks slick and polished. The coal-loader sequence required an expensive but very impressive set and provides an exciting and visually satisfying climax.
The special effects are the movie’s strongest asset and they are the major drawcard, along with the opportunity to see (or at least hear) a very young Vincent Price in one of his first horror roles.
The madness, and more importantly the fear of the descent into madness, induced by the invisibility serum probably should have been developed in greater depth. The desire to make Geoffrey Radcliffe a sympathetic hero was presumably the reason this element received relatively little attention.
Shock’s Region 4 DVD provides an excellent transfer without any extras.
The Invisible Man Returns lacks the stylistic flourishes of James Whale’s original but it’s a solid and entertaining sequel. Recommended.