The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) **½
After taking an unfortunate detour through parody territory with The Invisible Woman and The Invisible Agent, Universal’s Invisible Man series unexpectedly rallied for one last straight-faced outing before being cast out into the Abbot and Costello abyss along with the rest of the studio’s horror franchises. Of the three serious films in the series, The Invisible Man’s Revenge is, by a fairly wide margin, the least intellectually demanding, and is thus completely in sync with the rest of the Universal horrors of 1944 (House of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Curse). However, it is far better written than any of its contemporaries, and would have been a reasonably worthy last stand for the Invisible Man, if only the studio had allowed it to be.
It should surprise no one who has seen a few of the Universal monster flicks from the 40’s that continuity between this movie and its predecessors was not among screenwriter Bertram Millhauser’s concerns. Though the central character, a fugitive from justice in British Tanganyika, is called Robert Griffin (Cobra Woman’s John Hall, who had previously been rendered transparent in The Invisible Agent), he has no apparent connection whatsoever with the Jack Griffin who first perfected the invisibility serum in the original The Invisible Man. This Griffin has snuck his way into England to seek out his former partner in a business deal gone terribly sour. Some years ago, it seems, Griffin went to Tanganyika in the company of Sir Jasper Herrick (Lester Matthews, from The Raven and The Son of Dr. Jekyll), in order to find his fortune as the proprietor of a diamond mine. But something happened to Griffin out in the jungle, and he was left for dead by his companions. He spent the intervening time roaming Africa as an amnesiac, getting himself into all manner of trouble, before a blow to the head restored his memory. And now, his copy of the original contract with Herrick in his hand, he has come back to collect his share of the mining windfall.
Herrick and his wife, Irene (Gale Sondergaard, from Savage Intruder and 1941’s The Black Cat), are less than thrilled to see Griffin when their butler, Cleghorn (Halliwell Hobbes, of Gaslight and The Undying Monster), shows him into the parlor. Contract or no contract, Herrick is unable to pay Griffin a farthing, as he has long ago frittered away all the money the mine earned him on ill-considered investments, and was forced to sell the operation in order to placate his creditors. Hearing this news makes Griffin furious. He’d already halfway convinced himself that Herrick (or more likely Irene) deliberately left him behind, and indeed might even have been behind the unexplained accident that incapacitated him. He insists that Herrick hand over the money, threatening to take him for everything he has, and it is at this point that the scheming Mrs. Herrick makes her move. She offers to go get everyone a round of drinks, so that they might discuss the matter more coolly, and when she returns, the tumbler she hands to Griffin is drugged. When Griffin passes out a few moments later, Irene convinces her husband that the only way to protect themselves from Griffin is to send him packing while he’s still barely conscious, and to confiscate his copy of the old contract between him and Herrick before they do. With no proof in his possession, Griffin will have no recourse against them in the courts.
Irene’s strategy is a good one, but in the end, it almost costs the Herricks more than any court battle ever could. When Griffin is shooed away, still doped to the gills, he nearly drowns himself in a fall from a footbridge over a nearby creek. A passing drunk pauper named Herbert Higgins (Leon Errol) fishes him out, and it is to him that Griffin first tells his story when he comes around. At first, Griffin thinks his luck has finally come in, as Higgins claims to know a famously vicious attorney in town, who could probably be convinced to handle Griffin’s case. But the lawyer (Ian Wolfe, from Mad Love and Zombies on Broadway) is just as big a louse as Higgins himself, and the “legal settlement” he and Higgins try to force on Herrick is scarcely distinguishable from blackmail. That’s a real problem for Griffin, because Herrick is close friends with Sir Frederick Travers (Leyland Hodgson, from The Frozen Ghost and The Ghost of Frankenstein), chief constable of the town in which The Invisible Man’s Revenge takes place. And by a fortuitous coincidence, Travers happens to stop by to see his old friend while Higgins and the lawyer are attempting to put the screws to him. The result is that Griffin is kicked out, not only of Higgins’s shack, but of the village as well.
On his way out of town that night, Griffin gets lost, and stops by the nearest house for directions. This house belongs to Dr. Peter Drury (John Carradine, of House of Dracula and The Mummy’s Ghost), an eccentric scientist who has stumbled upon a way to turn animals invisible. He introduces Griffin to his invisible parrot, Methuselah, and his invisible dog, Brutus, and then suggests to Griffin that he and Drury might be able to help each other. The doctor finds Griffin’s tale of betrayal and double-dealing intriguing, and he is quick to point out how much of an advantage Griffin would have over his persecutors if, say, he could not be seen. And meanwhile, Drury would benefit, too, from turning Griffin invisible, in that he would at last be able to test his drug on a human subject. Griffin agrees, but when the process is completed, he reneges on his end of the bargain. Rather than stick around to become a medical curiosity and advance Drury’s career, he skips out to begin his campaign of revenge against Herrick.
But suits of clothes traveling down the street seemingly under their own power attract a lot of attention in a small town, and is isn’t long before a reporter named Mark Foster (Alan Curtis) has picked up the scent of a scoop. And by a stroke of luck of the sort without which B-movie screenwriters would be in big trouble, Foster is closely tied to the Herrick family; he’s dating Herrick’s daughter, Julie (Evelyn Ankers, from The Wolf Man and Captive Wild Woman). This puts him at odds with Griffin not only because of the natural enmity between reporters and invisible men, but because Griffin has a letch for Julie himself, and he has come to regard the girl as part of the spoils of his coming battle with Herrick.
It’s a good thing for Griffin his opponent is such a coward. Herrick caves to Griffin’s unreasonable demands almost the moment he sees (or, more properly, fails to see) him in his invisible guise, but he rightly points out that a transparent Griffin stands no chance of winning Julie away from Foster. The invisible man sees the logic of this, and having extracted his concessions from Herrick, he runs off to see Drury again. He arrives at the scientist’s house just in time to watch through the window as he turns Brutus visible again. But when Griffin demands that Drury do the same for him, he learns that the situation is a little more complicated than that. In order to make Brutus visible, Drury had to give him a complete change of blood; not only that, but the visible dog who supplied this blood died as a result of the transfusion. (Why Drury didn’t just pump Brutus’s blood into the other dog is never explained. In fact, no indication is ever given of what exactly Drury did with all that invisible dog blood, or what becomes of Griffin’s blood after he starts getting transfusions.) So for Drury to return Griffin to normal, it would be necessary for him to kill a man, and while Drury may be a mad scientist, he isn’t that mad. Griffin tries to force him to comply, threatening to use his blood if he does not place a call to Mark Foster and tell the reporter that he has captured the invisible man about whom the town has lately been so concerned. Drury dutifully makes the call, but it is the police he phones, rather than Foster. The constable working the desk is skeptical of the story, however, and when he calls Drury back to confirm it, Griffin answers the phone instead of the doctor, and discovers thereby Drury’s treachery. After telling the constable that it must have been a crank call, Griffin seizes Drury, pummels him unconscious, and steals all of the doctor’s blood. He then packs up the transfusion equipment (Drury had hinted that the effect of the transfusion might not be permanent), sets fire to Drury’s laboratory, and flees into the night.
But the cops decided to look into Drury’s call anyway, and they arrive at his house just in time to save it from complete destruction. Thus they are able to discover that Drury died of exsanguination, and when Foster gets his hands on that little tidbit, his news-seeking antennae start twitching like crazy. The next day, when Griffin comes calling at the Herrick place, forcing his old partner to take him in under an assumed name, Foster and the former invisible man get into an unexpectedly detailed discussion of invisibility and vampirism over lunch, with Griffin, in true evil-genius style, laying out every single detail of his scheme under the pretense of “speculating” what the invisible man might be up to. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his “speculations,” if true, would point the finger of blame directly at him (this visiting friend of Herrick’s whom he pretends to be is, after all, the only new arrival in town, and he conveniently showed up the very next day after Drury’s murder), but that’s okay, because Foster doesn’t make the connection either. But when the effects of Drury’s blood start to wear off, Griffin has to act fast, and he manages to convince Foster to meet him in the Herrick cellar, where (or so he says) he believes the invisible man may be hiding. Things look bad for the reporter, but in a credibility-defying denouement that could only have been written in the 1940’s, the day is saved by Drury’s faithful dog, who has tracked Griffin to the Herrick house, and who is allowed to enter by a chain of accidents too complex to bother explaining.
It certainly isn’t the equal of The Invisible Man, nor even (in terms of creative ambition, at least) The Invisible Man Returns, but The Invisible Man’s Revenge is still just about the best thing Universal was able to come up with in the genre the year it was made. In its favor are solid performances from all of the important players, some daring special effects work (check out the scene in which Griffin dips his invisible hand into Herrick’s aquarium), and a refreshing refusal to portray its characters in simplistic, black-and-white terms. The viewer is never allowed complete certainty as to whether Griffin is a wronged man pushed too far, or a delusional madman with a persecution complex. It is left to us to make up our own minds what Herrick and his wife did or did not do to Griffin back in Tanganyika, and enough evidence is presented to support several different interpretations. Even Drury, the mad scientist, is allowed to be a multidimensional human being, a departure from the formula so striking that it scarcely seems possible that it could be found in a Universal horror film of the 40’s. There is still a certain weariness about the proceedings, as though everyone involved secretly knew that the time had come to stop making these things, but on the balance, I’d say the good qualities of The Invisible Man’s Revenge comfortably outweigh the bad.