This month’s theme of invisibility leads us to a special anniversary. Earlier this week, 77 years ago, the Universal classic The Invisible Man received its first of several sequels and spin offs. I went back and revisited this often over looked film, this is my Sunday with… “The Invisible Man Returns.”
The Invisible Man Returns
Release Date: January 12, 1940
Run Time: 81 minutes
Starring: Vincent Price
Director: Joe May
Robs Score: 6/10
“I can’t believe it’s going to happen. Just two more hours and they’re going to kill him.” – Mr. Cotton
It is two hours before the court ordered execution of Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe; he was accused and found guilty of murdering his brother, Michael. Geoffrey did not commit this crime and now has no time to solve it. Enter Dr. Frank Griffin, brother of the original invisible man, who uses his brother’s serum to make Geoffrey invisible and allow him the time to solve the murder. The big problem is for Frank to solve the secrets of visibility before the serum drives Geoffrey mad. Now torn from the woman he loves it is a race against the inevitable. Will Geoffrey solve the murder of his brother, or will he succumb to the serum and fall the way of the original invisible man Griffin?
The Invisible Man Returns marked the first reappearance of the character since the 1933 classic. This film is a lot of things, the biggest being its difference from the original. That is not necessarily a bad thing as it made this vision a standalone instead of a poor rehashing. Whereas I look at the Claude Rains original as a dark comedy that perfectly mixes horror violence and comedy, the sequel is a combination of many different things. I would say it is more science fiction than horror; however it still has horror roots. It is also a who done it, redemption film, but even more important than all of that, it is a love story. The effect Griffins love interest had on him was only briefly mentioned or shown in the original, however in this film it is more or less the driving force. The female lead, portrayed by Nan Grey, was an essential part of the film and was given as much screen time as the Invisible Man himself. The decision to step away from the dark charms of the original was a gamble, however I think it was really the only way to go. The problem with most sequels is that they try either too hard to be different from the original or it simply feels like a cheap rip off. This isn’t the case here as they made enough small connections to the original, utilizing the Griffin name, as well as briefly mentioning the previous events to connect the films, but also to help this film be individual.
That isn’t to say that this film isn’t without its flaws. Especially for someone who has never seen this film, coming off the original this film seems quite slow. The beginning of the film is muddled and somewhat hard to follow and that somewhat removes the interest of the audience, The original film immediately threw you into the events; whereas this film attempts to do the same, it isn’t as gripping or successful. As mentioned before, it was a conscious decision to change the tone of the series. This film featured more of an emphasis on relationships that helped give a deeper backstory to the characters, however it took longer to get into the “monster movie” feel that audiences were expecting. That isn’t to say it didn’t have its dark moments, it just took longer to get there. This film also featured a much bigger emphasis on humor. The Invisible Man is playing pranks on the suspected murderer he is following, claiming to be a ghost. The over the top cockney accent of the police and towns people is also in full effect. The comedic approach also helped set the tone of the next follow up The Invisible Woman which is essentially a comedy. It all comes down to personal preference. The charm of the original to me was the dark comedy aspect of it. The Invisible Man is doing terrible things but he is so joyous and over the top about it that it comes across as humorous. This film is more light hearted in humor when compared to its predecessor. That isn’t to say it is bad, on the contrary it is a credit to Lester Cole, and Curt Siodmak (the film writers) and Joe May (the director) for creating a film that was similar enough yet could stand on its own two feet. I would say my biggest critique would be that The Invisible Man is a horror film where the monster is an invisible man, whereas The Invisible Man Returns is more of a comedy drama involving an invisible man.
My favorite aspect of this movie and something that I will admit is done better than the original is that we get to see the effects of the serum play out from the very beginning. The film starts with Geoffrey first taking the serum and we get to gradually see how it changes him. I don’t mean changes in the physical sense; I mean it in his personality. It was amazingly well handled and portrayed how we see this man who is wrongfully imprisoned change from a caring lover, to an erratic violent person. It is by far my favorite aspect of the film and truly gives the viewer a bird’s eye view of how it “corrupts” the user. It is also portrayed perfectly. Vincent Price delivers his lines from a slow normal pace and slowly injects it with a higher tempo or faster pace. It is delicately handled but the viewer can see the quirks. The last act of the film is my favorite as we get to see classic Invisible Man insanity finally break through. This is the crescendo audiences have been waiting for and the hour long build to it was beautifully crafted and definitely helped to improve and expand on the invisible man mythos.
Once again the practical visual effects are very impressive especially considering the time of its release. The film has some truly beautiful scenes, especially the scarecrow scene. In an interview Vincent Price said that it took hours to film for only three minutes of screen time, however it is one of the most memorable shots in the entire movie. John P. Fulton, Bernard B. Brown, and John Sutton headed the effects of the film and once again followed closely to the original using black velvet to create the transparency. Their efforts earned them an Oscar nomination in the special effects category. As mentioned before, this film included more of these transparency effects, and thus a little less attention to detail is shown as we can sometimes see parts of Vincent Price when he is supposed to be invisible, however this really doesn’t hamper the movie as much as it gives it a quirky feel that fans appreciate.
The film was headed by Vincent Price in what was his first “horror” film role. Price, as mentioned above, was wonderful and he perfectly captured the subtleties of a man in the midst of a complete psychotic change. Nan Grey played Helen, Geoffrey’s love, and gives a performance on par with Price. Her performance helped to establish the importance of character not only in the film but in the life of Geoffrey, something that if done wrong could have really hurt the film.
The Invisible Man Returns is a successful sequel that not only in part stays true to the original classic, but also helps establish future films. It is not in the same vein as the original which means that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is more than enough here to keep everyone entertained. The biggest credit I can give this film is that you can go into it without seeing the original and it would still be a solid standalone film.