Universal Monsters in Review: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Taking a cue from the original The Invisible Man, the Return seems to keep with that same breakneck speedy opening, forcing the audience to catch up as the story progresses rather rapidly. I’m not sure if I was just totally exhausted before watching this movie last night, but it took me a while to figure out what was going on and who was who. Sure. It doesnt take Sir Sherlock Holmes to figure what the scientist is doing, or when the guards in the prison discover the remnants of Mr. Griffin’s clothes on the floor. It did take me though almost half the move to realize who Cedric Hardwicke was playing as. Was this intentional or just the style of classic Invisible Man tropes? Who knows. What I did enjoy, other than the superb acting on all fronts, was the overall deeper theme of the movie, much like the predecessor, The Invisible Man Returns discusses the ugliness of people when they’ve shed their masks, or keeping to the movie, when the masks become invisible. Who are we when our actions are no longer accountable? Similar, one might say, to the even more classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the abominable Mr. Hyde glares into the mirror and howls, “Free! I’m free at last!” Well, before I start rambling off topic, let me close my statements by saying that I did enjoy The Invisible Man Returns, the acting was a pleasure watching, both the voice acting of Vincent Price and the always impressive Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who would go on to play in another Invisible Man tale in Invisible Agent, and in The Ghost of Frankenstein. But the movie did drag on a bit, especially in the middle, and it didn’t have the same bite as the original. Okay, I’ve said my peace, and without further delay…let us see what our special guest has to say.
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
By Patrick Loveland
[CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A 76 YEAR OLD FILM, AN 83 YEAR OLD FILM, AND A 119 YEAR OLD NOVEL]
I’ll start spoiling right out of the gate by clearing up something I’d wondered myself when Thomas allowed me to choose this film—how could The Invisible Man return? He’d died at the end of the novel and the 1933 film based on it that this film was made to be a sequel to. So, I’ll explain it sooner than the film does—Jack Griffin, The Invisible Man from the first film did indeed die at the end. Griffin’s brother Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton) has been hand-waved into existence—having worked on the invisibility experiments with Jack (named John when referenced in this film), of course—and uses his matching knowledge of invisibility to help a lovely young woman and friend named Helen Manson (Nan Grey) free her fiancé, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), from death row for a crime he didn’t commit (the murder of his brother). There, now we’re on the same page. I actually enjoyed the vagueness of the situation in the film’s early parts, but found it was a bit too vague about the character relationships as it went on, until about—
Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. Alright, so…
The Invisible Man Returns was written by Curt Siodmak and Lester Cole, and directed by Joe May as a sequel to Universal’s popular earlier film, The Invisible Man, which was based on the novel by H.G. Wells. One thing that’s interesting to me about this sequel is that instead of the Invisible Man in this story being mostly concerned with curing himself of his invisible state, this character has been convinced by Griffin that the process can be easily reversed after his escape. That allows him to focus on clearing his name and getting revenge for his wrongful imprisonment.
The film begins in Radcliffe Manor’s kitchen with the servants looking morose as they bicker over the possible guilt and approaching state-implemented death of Sir Radcliffe.
Then we transition to Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) resting his chin on his hand atop a high chair back, watching something with obvious fascination. Helen Manson sits across the room from him on a couch, almost catatonic from worrying about Sir Radcliffe, her fiancé—as Cobb practically ogles her.
Helen rises from the couch and opens the room’s curtains in a shot that seems (to me) to be a visual nod to the intro scene in the first film, wherein Griffin closes the blinds and curtains in a deliberate fashion in the parlor he’s just begun renting.
Dr. Griffin arrives and he and Helen convince Cobb to call one last influential friend in hopes of stopping Radcliffe’s execution. The friend is away, Cobb says after hanging up.
Having failed to stop the execution of his friend, Griffin visits him in his cell. Radcliffe is given the invisibility agent and escapes his cell, probably as the guard who was in it with him opens to door to yell that he’s disappeared.
Radcliffe escapes the prison through the countryside and after some travel naked and on foot, reaches Dr. Griffin’s cabin in the woods and the waiting Helen. They meet and talk. The caretaker brings some food and catches Radcliffe with his dark glasses removed, eye holes in his bandage wrappings gaping and empty. After being rushed out, the caretaker calls the police and one policeman arrives. Radcliffe argues with him and closes the door. Radcliffe quickly gets undressed, causing a turned away Helen to faint when she peeks at him, seeing the strangeness of his invisibility herself for the first time. Radcliffe escapes.
Griffin experiments in his lab above the Radcliffe mining operation, turning an invisible guinea pig visible again. Shortly after turning, it dies painfully. Radcliffe arrives and they talk. Then a man comes by to harass Griffin and Radcliffe watches this, hidden in plain sight as he is.
I’m going to stop there because this film really is worth watching yourself, no question.
What follows is an investigation by Radcliffe/The (new) Invisible Man into who actually killed his brother, complicated by the horrible side effect of the invisibility agent—madness. Dr. Griffin is in a race against time and Radcliffe’s ever-growing madness—and escalating violence—to cure the invisibility he knowingly “saved” him with.
First let me Disclose with Extreme Fullness that I’m not well-versed on Universal Monsters. Before this, I’d seen a handful of the films (including The Invisible Man), but it had been decades since I had. At this point I’ve seen more Hammer films, but both houses have their own charms. I blame growing up in the 1980s and being terrified, chilled, horrified, and thrilled by the likes of Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Predator, Terminator, the Of The Dead trilogy, An American Werewolf in London, and many other films from the heyday of practical creature and makeup effects. I got it into my head, as many other young’ns like myself seemed to, that “old” movies were just totally corny and had little to offer, horror or otherwise—something I’ve heard younger people now expressing about those same 70s and 80s films I hold as a high water mark, with their “bad special effects”… Harumph!
It took a few friends and teachers in art/film school to open my mind to older films, one showing me things like The Lady From Shanghai and Sunset Boulevard, and another showing me one (because it was her father’s favorite film, so I had to like it (or be able to act like I did)) that would from that day on be a genuine favorite, The Third Man. Then came the film that convinced me all older horror and sci-fi films weren’t (fun but) cheesy and quaint, The Thing From Another World. Sure, I’m not fond of the actual creature effects in that one, but damn is it thick with tension and atmosphere (as it should be coming from the original novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.—which had a better creature they probably couldn’t have done justice to anyway). I saw Carpenter’s take on the novella first as a boy and it destroyed me and will always be my preference, but I was really impressed how well everything other than the actual creature held up in this first version/“original”.
Soooo, all that leads to me saying that even with my general open-mindedness at this point for older horror and sci-fi films, I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed this one. Maybe it was its sequel-to-an-iconic-classic status, or that it had a different lead actor. Possibly my confusion as to how there could be a sequel. Something had me uneasy about it. Gladly, other than some vagueness in the early parts that I’ve covered, I was very pleasantly surprised.
WHAT I LIKED:
Vincent Price, starting as a man given a new lease of life, then progressing through madness and murderous rage toward his ultimate goal. All of the main actors did well, actually. Other than Price, I’d say my favorite performance was Cecil Kellaway’s, as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Sampson. I also liked Nan Grey as Helen. I wasn’t familiar with her and was quite fond by the end.
The special effects were genuinely impressive. I’m not unfamiliar with practical trickery and old school post-production image manipulation, but there are shots where I really couldn’t begin to figure out on my own how they’d pulled them off. A favorite of mine is when Inspector Sampson is trying to calm Cobb down after escaping the invisible Radcliffe in an upstairs room. Sampson’s been giving people cigars the whole movie, so he gives one to Cobb as he smokes his own.
The inspector finishes a sentence, takes a big pull off his cigar, and blows it to the side of them—exposing the vague outline of a human form where nothing is visible, then that form turns its only-now-visible head. The smoke wafts around perfectly, suggesting the form without being too clear. I have to assume this shot and the next sequence I’ll describe were very influential on the obvious, loose Invisible Man remake, Hollow Man. More than the original film even.
My favorite chunk of the film begins with this blown smoke effect, which also touches on my favorite thing about the film—use of particles and other things to make the Invisible Man somewhat visible. After the inspector blows his cigar smoke at the invisible Radcliffe, he goes for a judo dive to grapple him into submission and make the big arrest. He misses and Radcliffe hides again, possibly in plain sight once more, but the inspector’s suspicions are confirmed—the man is actually invisible, and he can be seen with environmental tricks.
As rain pours down, Inspector Sampson receives special equipment delivery and has a team of policemen don gasmask rigs and smoke-throwers, then fill the house they’re in with fog machine-like smoke. Radcliffe had escaped out into the rainstorm apparently, because two police see his outline—from rain pelting his naked body—as he sneaks back in through a side door to the building Cobb is being held in.
Once inside again, we see the heavily geared policemen advancing down a corridor, smoke pouring from their throwers. A shot from behind them shows the smoke-outlined body of Radcliffe attack a policeman, knocking him out and disappearing into a room with him.
We move to Helen, worried as always. One of the geared, gasmask wearing policemen approaches her in a hallway, Radcliffe using the body and head covering gear of the man he knocked out to be invisible in a different way.
I love that whole sequence and wish there was a bit more of that kind of cleverness throughout.
Also, it’s actually pretty funny if you pay attention to the way things are phrased at certain points.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
Vincent Price takes top spot here as well, but not because he isn’t good. As a man wronged and trying to make things right, he does a fine job balancing that with the madness and anger the invisibility agent causes. I think I just really loved the barely-contained rage and Claude Rains’ delivery in the first film, as I feel it captured the novel’s Griffin really well. I know this is a different character, but I also felt this character was a little more light-hearted, then almost comically maniacal at times with barely any attention paid to transition. Which leads to my other issue…
Things happen a little too easily or conveniently sometimes. Even the best shot, the smoke blowing reveal, is a little too easy. How did the inspector know he was there? They also set up him giving cigars to at least two people, but I’m not sure if that was just to call attention to his own smoking so it would be in the audience’s mind in time for him to execute his brilliant smoke maneuver.
The pacing and build. It’s not boring before it, but things don’t really pick up until almost exactly halfway through the film. I understand the classic script structure halfway point power swap aspect, but in this it dramatically improves the film overall, instead of strengthening the arc of the protagonist in an already interesting plot. Radcliffe starts investigating who actually killed his brother, starting with a drunk former night watchman named Willie Spears (Alan Napier, in a fun performance) who Cobb has made superintendent of the Radcliffe mining operation. This is also where the audience starts to be shown possible motivations of those who have framed Radcliffe. It doesn’t ruin it, but this half and half feeling leads to an uneven presentation, even with rising action taken into account.
The ending. As I said, spoilery is my stock-in-trade today. Griffin dies in the first story, beaten by a mob in the novel, and shot in the film. His body is revealed after death, which I feel is poetic and tragic and part of why it works well. In The Invisible Man Returns, as far as we are shown, Radcliffe lives and there’s swelling music and it’s a relief and all that (even though Frank Griffin just said Radcliffe would die without surgery, but that’s none of my business…). I’m not saying I wanted a sad moral tale of an ending, but once again it did feel a bit too easy. I take into account that this character’s story is quite a different one with different motivations and crimes, as I said in the beginning myself, but something in-between might’ve felt more appropriate for the tone they’d set as the film went on.
This film is entertaining, decently thrilling, has fantastic special effects, and has some genuinely funny moments sprinkled in too.
I’ll give The Invisible Man Returns 7/10.
PATRICK LOVELAND writes screenplays, novels, and shorter prose fiction. He also draws somewhat disturbing imagery on Post-its. By day, he schedules classes, helps instructors get set up for class sessions, possibly draws said weird Post-its, and moves many furniture’s at a state college in Southern California where he lives with his wife and young daughter. His stories have appeared in anthologies published by April Moon Books, Bold Venture Press, and the award-winning Crime Factory zine. Patrick Loveland’s first novel, A TEAR IN THE VEIL, will be published in late 2016 by April Moon Books. You can connect with Patrick on Twitter: https://twitter.com/pmloveland Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pmloveland/ Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00S78LF9M Or Blog [under construction]: https://patrickloveland.wordpress.com/
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This entry was posted on July 20, 2016 by Thomas S Flowers. It was filed under Horror, Reviews and was tagged with 1940, author, Curt Siodmak, dark fiction, Guest author, H.G. Wells, Horror, horror reviews, movie reviews, Patrick Loveland, Radcliff, Reviews, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man Returns, Universal Classics, Universal Monsters, Universal Monsters in Review, Universal Studios, Vincent Price.