Written by Lester Cole & Curt Siodmak
Directed by Joe May
Starring Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey
US Release Jan. 12, 1940
RT 81 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
The Universal sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940) was made seven years after The Invisible Man, but takes place nine years after the events of its story, with Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton) continuing his brother’s experiments in invisibility. Here, though, he’s doing it for the specific purpose of helping his friend, Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) escape from prison so he can find the perpetrator of the crime for which he was falsely convicted.
That’s already more story than The Invisible Man. While the style and direction of an end-of-his-career Joe May may not match that of James Whale, I think the screenplay by Lester Cole and Curt Siodmak is better than the one by R.C. Sherriff. That’s perhaps because of the dynamic of an additional villain who is not necessarily Radcliffe, even though there’s the same ticking time bomb of him being driven crazy unless Griffin can create an antidote.
Radcliffe’s love interest, Helen Manson (Nan Grey), is also a larger part of the story than her counterpart in the previous movie. She’s involved in the escape and helps hide Radcliffe when he’s on the run. His potential descent into madness carries more emotional weight because she is present to witness it instead of hanging around at home fretting about him. The typical Universal triangle in which she’s involved is also more effective because it’s less overt and more sinister.
The fact that Radcliffe is not already a giggling maniac when the movie begins helps us relate to him better than to Griffin in the first movie. He knows what’s going to happen and sadly asks, “How long do you think I have before I go mad?” Well, less than 81 minutes, because before too long he’s declaring that the nation will tremble before him and wanting Helen to drink to his invincible power.
When he goes on his inevitable rampage, it’s more focused. Having identified the real killer, Radcliffe targets him directly with his deadly pranks and revenge. In its file on the original Invisible Man, Scotland Yard must have found some clues for dealing with him, because they have become quite clever when tracking him. This results in some interesting special effects when a not-quite-invisible Radcliffe can be seen in smoke and rain.
The Invisible Man Returns has something big going for it: Vincent Price. This was only his fifth movie and, unless you count his voice performance in a later movie, his only Universal Monsters horror film. Of course, we don’t really see him until the end, but I sometimes forgot it was he who was playing the title role. Early in his career, his voice was deeper and not as familiar as it became in his later run of features.
There’s a glimpse of the icon Price will become at the very end of The Invisible Man Returns. Turning visible as the antidote is cleverly and inadvertently discovered, he awakens with a look of despair on his face, then relaxes into a smile when he sees his arm… I mean, actually sees it. With a sparkle in his eye, the young actor is already terrific. And he gives the movie something else missing from the original: a happy ending.