The Invisible Man Returns (1940) ***
1953’s House of Wax marked the beginning of Vincent Price’s career as a horror film luminary, but it wasn’t quite the first horror movie he’d ever appeared in. Price made a handful of isolated forays into the genre early in his career, amid all the more or less serious dramatic work— all but forgotten now— that he did in the 30’s and 40’s. The Invisible Man Returns was Price’s second such film, and his low-key performance here is remarkable for how different it is from the Vincent Price we know today.
The Invisible Man Returns was also one of the last A-level horror/sci-fi movies Universal Studios would produce during its classical era. Lowbrow quickies like The Mummy’s Hand were already beginning to replace the likes of Son of Frankenstein and the original The Invisible Man. So it is equally remarkable that this is probably the most carefully thought-out sequel in the Universal canon, exhibiting tremendous attention on its creators’ parts paid to the thorny question of how to continue the story without merely copying it. The solution ultimately adopted was to give Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton, from Return of the Fly and The Bat), younger brother of The Invisible Man’s Jack Griffin, a wealthy friend who has been framed for the murder of his own older brother. This friend, Geoffrey Radcliffe (Price), is on death row as the movie begins, and Griffin pays him a visit in his cell shortly after learning that his last round of appeals has been rejected. Not long after Griffin leaves, Radcliffe vanishes from his cell. The guards don’t know what to make of it. They only turned their backs on Radcliffe for a moment, there is no sign of anything having been done to the bars on either the cell’s door or window, nor is there any indication of tunneling or another such means of escape. And yet the only trace of Radcliffe is his clothes, lying discarded in a heap in a corner of the cell.
Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, from The Ghost of Frankenstein, who also provided the voice-over narration for War of the Worlds) is nearly as alarmed to hear of Radcliffe’s escape as the police. Cobb had helped Radcliffe manage his coal mine, and when Radcliffe was charged with his brother’s murder, Cobb took the place over in the Radcliffes’ stead. Because Cobb had been using his influence with the local government to have Radcliffe’s sentence commuted, and because he is also a close friend of Radcliffe’s girlfriend, Helen Munson (Nan Grey of Dracula’s Daughter and The House of the Seven Gables), Cobb seems to fear that he may be suspected of helping the prisoner escape. (Or maybe— just maybe— he has other reasons for his unease.) His worries only intensify when Helen begins acting strangely, disappearing for long stretches of time with no explanation and behaving distractedly, as though she had some weighty concern pressing down on her mind. Cobb naturally believes that Helen has been in contact with Radcliffe since his escape, and indeed she has. During one of her “disappearances,” she met him at the home of a small-scale farmer named Ben Jenkins (Forrester Harvey, playing a different character than he had in The Invisible Man), apparently a longtime friend of the Griffin family. Helen is far from happy with Radcliffe’s invisibility, but she recognizes it was the only way for him to get free and clear his name. She just hopes that Frank Griffin can succeed where his brother failed, and devise an antidote to the invisibility serum before the duocaine in it drives Radcliffe mad. (And yes, you’re absolutely right— the madness-inducing component of the Griffin formula was called monocaine in the last movie. Sometimes I think Universal’s screenwriters adhered to an avowed policy of deliberate discontinuity between movies in a series.)
Meanwhile, Police Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway, from The Mummy’s Hand and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) is looking into the Radcliffe case, and he thinks he’s got it all figured out. The key was the name of the man who visited Radcliffe in prison. Sampson, you see, had avidly followed the case of the original invisible man, and he distinctly remembers both Jack Griffin’s name and his modus operandi. Sampson drops in on Frank Griffin at his laboratory shortly after the jailbreak, and drops enough hints during the conversation to make certain Griffin realizes that Sampson’s got his number. Recognizing that time is short, Griffin redoubles his efforts to find an antidote to the formula, and when Radcliffe stops by soon thereafter, the doctor informs his invisible friend that the police are on to him.
But Sampson’s isn’t the only investigation going on just now. Radcliffe has his own in the works, and he has his eye on mining foreman Willie Spears (Alan Napier, from The Mole People and House of Horrors). Willie used to be the night watchman at Radcliffe’s mine, and he was never even particularly good at that low-responsibility job— a bit too fond of his gin, if you catch my meaning. The fact that Spears, who was one of the witnesses against Radcliffe at his trial, was promoted to foreman immediately after Cobb took control of the operation gets the invisible convict thinking that Cobb may have been the one pulling Spears’s strings all along. Radcliffe hitches a ride on the foreman’s car as he leaves the mine one day and scares all the information he needs out of Spears by pretending to be his own vengeful ghost. (A pretty sly way to use his invisibility, I must say.) The problem is that Sampson, though he seems just a wee bit suspicious of Cobb himself, is nevertheless fully committed to catching Radcliffe, and knows just how to do it, too— there are ways to make the invisible visible, you know. After Radcliffe makes an unsuccessful attempt on Cobb’s life (the duocaine is starting to kick in now), Sampson takes Cobb into protective custody and assigns a whole shitload of cops equipped with portable fog machines to guard the Cobb mansion. This obviously makes Radcliffe’s task far more difficult, and far more dangerous as well, at the same time that his own thought process is becoming less and less effective at dealing with danger and difficulty. Griffin and Helen no longer seem to be able to control Radcliffe, either, and the doctor’s efforts to find a way to make Radcliffe visible again have met with no success whatsoever. Our boy Geoffrey is going to need some serious luck to pull his ass out of this particular fire...
All in all, this movie is a worthy follow-up to The Invisible Man. The premise is a bit contrived, but at least it shows that some real effort went into making The Invisible Man Returns more than just a half-wit rehash of its predecessor. And for the most part, that effort pays off. It lacks some the last movie’s intensity, and Price has a harder time with the title role than Claude Rains did, but this is still a vastly better film than it might have been, or indeed, than it probably would have been had it been made within the last fifteen years. I was especially impressed with the character of Sampson, one of the few cops in cinema history with a mind equal to the task of confronting the inexplicable. Think about it— most policemen in horror and sci-fi movies refuse to believe that anything out of the ordinary is going on until (and often even after) completely irrefutable proof is waved in front of their faces. Sampson puts the pieces together almost the moment he sees them. It makes for a refreshing change from the norm, in which characters of supposedly great professional acumen prove all but unable to cope with extraordinary situations to which their career skills are nevertheless directly applicable. That by itself would make The Invisible Man Returns worth a look.