Horrormania: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

invisible man returns

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(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)

It took Universal seven years to produce a sequel to The Invisible Man, but 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns is quite an admirable follow-up to James Whale’s original. This time out, it’s Joe May in the director’s chair and Vincent Price in his first horror film role as the titular character based on the H.G. Wells novella.

Lester Cole and Curt Siodmak are in charge of the screenplay, with John P. Fulton, William Hedgcock and Bernard B. Brown’s special effects earning an Oscar nomination. The film is once again a dazzling achievement of special effects, with some noteworthy sequences like the scarecrow scene verifying the innovation of Fulton and Co.

Price stars as Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, a man sentenced to death for the murder of his brother Michael. Radcliffe is innocent, but that hasn’t stayed his looming execution date and he’s set to hang. His fiancé Helen (Nan Grey) hopes that he can find help with the invisibility drug crafted by Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), who just so happens to be the brother of the original Invisible Man.

Radcliffe escapes his predicament after he becomes invisible and Detective Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) is fast on his trail. Dr. Griffin and Helen try to hide Radcliffe from the authorities, which isn’t much of a problem initially because he’s imperceptible to the naked eye. But the doomed man soon falls victim to the drug’s side effects and goes quite mad, thereby putting his fiancé and pal in a tight spot.

The Invisible Man Returns keeps with the madness and horror initiated by The Invisible Man, which is important considering the comedic direction the series would head in for subsequent entries. Price’s character is a victim of the “duocaine” drug, what with its insanity-inducing properties, and is therefore a more layered character.

Together with Dr. Griffin, Radcliffe tries to ensure a series of precautions that would have him tied down if the drug’s side effects took him too close to the edge. But the lure of lunacy proves too heady for Radcliffe and he goes off the proverbial rails, giving The Invisible Man Returns its most spectacular scenes.

May’s movie wisely draws the audience to a compassionate foundation first, showing Dr. Griffin and Helen just trying to help Radcliffe get away from the inexorable noose. There is enough information to point toward Michael’s real killer too, with Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) fingered by mining employee Willie Spears (Alan Napier).

Radcliffe takes this data and runs with it, tormenting Spears in a frightening scene that blends Fulton’s special effects with Price’s already promising ability to terrorize with the sound of his voice. Radcliffe toys with Spears in a way that slides more into psychosis by the moment and one starts to wonder if he’s planning on letting the poor fool go or if he intends to kill.

It’s this pursuit of suspense and the unknown that makes The Invisible Man Returns a commendable sequel, but May’s empathy also has a part to play. Radcliffe isn’t just some nut on the verge of world domination. He’s a victim, one that demonstrates how quickly the thirst for retribution can prove overcoming with the addition of a little chemical magic.

There are many crafty sequences in The Invisible Man Returns, like when Radcliffe and Helen escape an array of shrewd policemen. The cops are using smoke and fish nets (not fishnets) to attempt capture of the indistinguishable bloke, but Radcliffe has better ideas and gives them the slip. Another scene finds Price demonstrating his ability to menace when the booze starts flowing and Griffin ties him up.

May’s ability to walk the line between humour and terror makes The Invisible Man Returns a horror treat. It’s a worthy sequel, one brimming with Price’s matchless style and Fulton’s still-special effects. It may not rumble with the same sheer dark terror as the original, but it’s a worthwhile exercise in menace and madness all the same.

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