When 1940 rolled around, Universal had already started in unleashing a fusilade of sequels to the inpressive string of horror hits that they had accumulated during the 30’s. Both Dracula and Frankenstein had been sequelized already with The Mummy poised to also re-emerge from his crypt, ready for a dusting off – but inbetween these titles was a noticable shift in genre from various creatures stalking across moors or languishing in crypts and second entry in The Invisible Man series was about to change gears from a classic mad doctor movie into something far more thriller based.
But would making this new, transparent recipient of the invisible serum more of a tragic hero on the run than a crazed, murdering ego maniac dilute the power of the original, or would this noticable step away from out and out horror give the premise more focus?
The friends and family of Geoffrey Radcliffe wait, tearfully watching the clock, until the time comes when the young man hangs for the murder of his brother Michael. All hope seems lost and the chance of a last second reprieve seems ever further with each tick of the second hand – but all of a sudden, the unthinkable happens. It seems Geoffrey has simply disappeared from his cell with a pile of discarded clothes being the only trace he was ever there in the first place and the police are quick to start interviewing people at the mining operation the Radcliffe’s own starting with company doctor, Frank Griffin who seems to know more than he’s letting on. You see, it turns out that Dr. Frank Griffin is the brother of Jack Griffin, the scientist who managed to turn himself invisible nine years earlier and promptly went on a killing spree after the serum turned him crazier than a shit house rat and Frank has continued with his brother’s experiments ever since. Believing Geoffrey innocent, Frank pumped him full of disappear-o-juice (not the clinical term) in order to aid his escape with the understanding that he’ll be able to figure out how to change him back after Geoffery has used his new powers of consequence-free public streaking to solve the murder before his new condition drives him insane.
However, despite being able to run rings around the numerous weak chinned coppers with relative ease, getting enough evidence to finger the actual killer proves to be a tougher nut to crack and as time ticks by, Geoffrey’s sanity starts to disappear faster than he did after that fateful injection – can he get the justice he needs before he starts ranting about being ruler of the entire world and even if he does, can Frank even make good on his promise to bring him back to a more opaque existence?
Ok, so first things first. The switch from sci-fi psycho thriller to just a plain old thriller with a bit of sci-fi in it does mean that The Invisible Man Returns has a far lesser impact than its genuinely powerful predecessor – after all it was always going to be tough to follow the unhinged, bellowing insanity that roared out from under the bandages of Claude Raines formidable original. But while this follow up loses a lot of the initial majesty of H.G. Wells’ legendary premise, it still works as a decent murder mystery with a twist as our invisible scapegoat and his friends race against a ticking clock of his own fracturing personality like an episode of The Twilight Zone jumped the tracks and plowed into directly The Fugitive.
Also helping loads is the casting of velvet larynxed horror deity Vincent Price as the titular invincible dude as its crucial that whoever dons the mantle has an extremely versatile voice in order to counteract the fact that he has his bonce swaddled entirely in cloth and goggles or removed entirely by primitive effects that still just about hold up. Although weirdly, despite his unsurprisingly strong vocals, Price sounds a little different than you may be used to as I strongly suspect he deepened his trademark silken lilt for a deeper, more traditional hero voice – but never fear; his more familiar line readings return when Geoffrey starts to succumb to some grade-A lunacy and starts making more worrying proclamations than the Daily Mail…
However, the murder mystery aspect does get in the way of the primary plot point, especially considering that it’s pretty obvious who the villian is from the get go and also the movie boasts some truly impressive examples of bewildering police work. When confronted with the fact that the invisible Geoffrey might strip to escape, a perplexed copper amusingly replies “Take off his clothes? He won’t do that, sir, he’s with a lady!” with all the naivety of a six year old child who’s spent the entirety of his life in a coal cellar. Two films in, the movie also seems to be faltering already when trying to come up with different set pieces involving a guy you can’t see and a truly bizarre action sequence involving the invisible Geoffrey brawling with a man in a pitch black room where you can’t see anything ends up being unintentionally hilarious.
Anyway, The Invisible Man Returns is still a fun continuation of the legend and it opened the door for the franchise to explore other genres such female led comedies, spy movies and the inevitable run-in with Abbot & Costello which makes the different incarnations of the various invisible leads stand apart from all the Mummys and Phantoms and Wolf Men that made up the rest of the Universal Monsters stable.
A competent sci-fi thriller that explores its concept nicely, The Invisible Man Returns still sees the purity of the original start to disappear…