Horror Is Universal: “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940)

First of all, I’d like to begin this new article by giving a big shout-out to my new team of staff writers. They worked very hard to help me bring you this new piece, and their diligence is much appreciated. So give ’em a big hand!

Elsa, Boris, Orlok (our transfer from Germany) and Griffin

Second of all, Griffin wanted me to point out right off the bat that the title of today’s movie is at best a misnomer and at worst a blatant lie. For while there is an Invisible Man here, he is not the Invisible Man, and our loveable mass murderer from the original film has not in fact returned from the dead as so many of his fellow monsters keep managing to do.

Not having the iconic performance of Claude Rains may seem like it’s putting The Invisible Man Returns at a clear disadvantage from the very start. But our new Invisible Man is someone who not only became a major star in his own right but another iconic name in horror cinema. And that’s just one of the ways in which there is far more to this installment than meets the eye. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret — I think this movie is even better than the first one.

The Plot: There’s been foul play at the opulent and imposing Radcliffe Manor, and an innocent man is about to pay the price for it. Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) has been accused of murdering his brother Michael and is just hours away from being executed, even though no one believes he’s really guilty. His fiancee Helen Manson (Nan Grey) and his cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) are trying to save his life, but all hope seems lost…until Radcliffe suddenly vanishes from his prison cell, leaving only a pile of clothes behind. Radcliffe has turned himself invisible, thanks to his employee and friend Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), the brother of Jack Griffin from The Invisible Man. Frank has managed to recreate his brother’s invisibility serum, but not a viable antidote — nor has he figured out how to prevent the serum from driving a person mad. Now, with the help of Frank and Helen, Radcliffe sets out to find his brother’s true killer and bring them to justice. But the clock is ticking as Scotland Yard launches a manhunt for its escaped prisoner — and as the serum starts to take its toll on Radcliffe’s mind.

In March 1939, after the commercial success of Son of Frankenstein, Universal quickly began developing another follow-up to one of its past successes. For a while there were apparently plans to have Rowland V. Lee back as director, but the studio’s final choice was a guy called Joe May. Originally from Austria, May had been a prominent figure in German cinema since the 1910s. Eventually, he became famous for his epic, sprawling adventure films, like The Indian Tomb and The Mistress of the World, the latter of which was so big that it was released in eight parts. As an interesting aside, several of May’s films from this period were written by a now-familiar face: Fritz Lang, doing some of his earliest work in the film industry.

Fritz Lang did not write The Invisible Man Returns, as I’m sure you have guessed. But the writer here is someone worth taking note of, because he’s going to become a major player in the Universal Horror cast of characters. This is Curt Siodmak, a German-born novelist/screenwriter who had emigrated to the United States in 1937. He’d been writing short stories and screenplays since the late 1920s, and he already had two novels to his name by this point. But in 1940, he was just getting started in the world of Hollywood, and his biggest successes were still ahead of him.

Siodmak wasn’t the only person involved with this film who was just getting started on a long and illustrious Hollywood career. In June of 1939, Universal sent out the call for an unknown actor to play the lead role. According to a Hollywood Reporter article from the time, he had to be a “young, good-looking contender even though he would remain invisible until the last reel.” The man who answered the call was Vincent Price, a St. Louis native who had traveled to London to study art history but ended up on the stage instead. He had been doing plays with the Mercury Theatre for a while, but he didn’t break into film until 1938. Invisible Man Returns was his first leading role and his second horror film following the previous year’s Tower of London. Price, of course, would eventually become a horror icon on the level of Karloff and Lugosi, known for creepy classics like House of Wax, The Fly, Pit and the Pendulum, The Last Man on Earth and a personal favorite, House on Haunted Hill. And while those films were all a decade or two away in 1940, we can see early evidence of Price’s star power here in Invisible Man Returns.

There are a couple more familiar faces here on both sides of the camera. We’ve already met Nan Grey, for example: you may remember her as Lili, Countess Zaleska’s most infamous victim in Dracula’s Daughter. We also have John P. Fulton returning from the first movie to oversee the special effects, assisted this time around by Bernard B. Brown and William Hedgcock.

The best sequels are often those that build on the themes and ideas of their predecessors and try to continue a conversation started by the original story. Bride of Frankenstein managed that, and so does The Invisible Man Returns. In some ways, it feels like an evolution from what The Invisible Man accomplished, and this is due in no small part to the genre shift. I’m not talking about the murder mystery plot, because that part is super predictable. Oh, so Richard gets to take over the family mining business if Radcliffe dies and he’s obviously in love with Radcliffe’s fiancee? How convenient that Radcliffe has just been framed for murder!

The shift I’m talking about isn’t from horror to mystery. It’s from one flavor of horror to another, and it all hinges on perspective.

In the first film, the invisible force was the antagonist throughout the story. Therefore, the horror of the situation came from what he could do to the protagonists. It was all about paranoia, not knowing if a man with the power to kill you was behind your shoulder watching your every move. But Invisible Man Returns switches that perspective: the invisible force is now the protagonist, the guy we’re rooting for. So how does that change the nature of the horror story?

Simple. It’s no longer about fighting the invisible, but about being invisible — what sort of physical and mental changes would happen to someone who couldn’t see themselves or be seen by others?

The dual conflicts in Radcliffe’s story form the core of the film. First, there’s his external conflict: find his brother’s killer, clear his own name, don’t get recaptured and/or killed. But then there’s the internal conflict, in which he has to grapple with the serum’s effect on his sanity. Radcliffe makes for a fascinating contrast with Griffin, and their stories unfold in very different ways despite the affliction they share. Griffin has pretty much gone full Looney Tunes by the time we meet him, though it takes a little while for this to become apparent. Radcliffe, on the other hand, is still sane when he’s first introduced. And while Griffin had no idea what he was getting himself into when he created the serum, Radcliffe knows what it will do to him when he takes it. So right away, we’ve got the setup for a different kind of psychological horror. Rather than just seeing the end result of mad science gone wrong, we’re following a protagonist as he tries to resist his inevitable downfall.

That’s a good enough segue into discussing Vincent Price’s performance. While there isn’t a genuinely bad acting job from anyone here, everyone ends up in Price’s shadow to an extent. This is the kind of movie that either comes together or falls apart based on the quality of the lead’s performance, and Price more than delivers here. In the first half of the film, he illustrates Radcliffe’s unease and fear at the situation he’s been forced into. He’s grappling with the paranoia of not knowing when he’ll start to go insane or what he may try to do to his loved ones when he does, as well as the discomfort he feels at his own reflection (or lack thereof) and the discomfort that others feel when they see what he’s become. During his initial rendezvous with Helen after escaping from prison, she tries to downplay her reaction to his invisibility, but she still ends up fainting when she sees him without his bandages on. There’s also a somber moment where Radcliffe reminds Helen of a promise she and Frank made to him: if he can’t be cured before his losing his mind, then they have to stop him by any means necessary.

That sets us up for Radcliffe’s inevitable slide from fearful and protective to stark raving mad, and wow, is it effective. You know it’s coming, but the way it’s written and acted really takes you by surprise and adds layers to the situation. It feels like there are multiple factors driving Radcliffe toward his insanity, not just the chemicals attacking his brain. There’s the way he starts to feel disconnected from humanity as a result of being invisible and knowing what he can get away with while invisible. There’s his desire for vengeance against Richard and how resorting to violence is not only easy but gets him the information he needs. Honestly, I think you could make the argument that these experiences play a bigger role in pushing him towards villainy than the serum itself does. This is also the point where the gloves metaphorically come off for Price, and he does an incredible job of bringing Radcliffe’s megalomania to life. In some ways it’s very much a Rains-esque performance, full of grandiose plotting and self-congratulation. But while Claude Rains as Griffin often went for the fun, goofy angle, Price as Radcliffe is a lot more sinister, aggressive and intimidating. He’s more prone to slink around, whispering instructions and threats in your ear while he’s got a pistol pressed against your back. And that laugh? Brrr! It’s no wonder Price went on to play so many bad guys throughout his career.

You know, being invisible has distinct advantages. It gives one a sense of power that’s exciting! Power for good, if you’re so inclined. Or should you feel perverse, for evil. You hold the balance and decide which way life shall go, no one can stop you! No one can touch you…Rather a magnificent idea to play with, isn’t it?

Geoffrey Radcliffe

Radcliffe first going full crazy is a great sequence, not only because of Price’s acting but because you’ve also got Grey and Sutton as the straight men trying to deal with him. They’re all at dinner together when Radcliffe starts making his big world domination speech, and his friends basically have to sit there and play along so he doesn’t suspect their plan to restrain him. Their awkward, pained smiles as they toast their new “invincible leader” are a wonderful bit of dark comedy, upping the tension while making you laugh at the same time.

In my article on the first film, I mentioned how I had a problem with its inability to properly balance of comedy and horror, because it went too extreme in both directions. Elaborate slapstick routines would immediately be followed by shocking acts of violence and terrorism. Invisible Man Returns makes the wise decision of scaling back in both directions, making the comedy not quite as outrageous and the horror not quite as grim. The result is that both feel way more natural.

There’s really just one notable comedy sequence in the film, which is the midpoint confrontation between Radcliffe and Willie Spears, Cobb’s bumbling henchman. Radcliffe strands Spears in the middle of the woods by sabotaging his car and proceeds to toy with him until he gives up information on Cobb. It’s got some pretty entertaining moments, like Radcliffe grabbing Spears by his long scarf and dunking his head in a puddle to revive him when he faints. Radcliffe also passes himself off as a ghost, which leads to this great exchange when he sneezes:

Spears: What kinda ghosts sneeze?

Radcliffe: It’s cold in the other world, so cold!

One of the biggest laughs in this scene results from a bit of clever camerawork. As Spears is looking around trying to figure out where Radcliffe is hiding, all while Radcliffe is taunting him, the camera itself begins to dart around as though it’s also looking for Radcliffe. It’s a playful and very silly moment. On the whole, however, the comedy here is more restrained than what we got in the original film. It’s also laced with a hint of uneasiness, since this is the point in the film where Radcliffe starts getting a little too used to his own invisibility.

The horror/violence elements are also scaled back to an extent. We don’t have a substantial body count here: the only person Radcliffe outright kills is Cobb, and there’s maybe one or two other deaths besides that. Nothing on the level of the train sequence from the first film. But that doesn’t mean Invisible Man Returns is lacking in the shock department. Like in the original, there’s an immediacy and roughness to most of the violence. Most of it comes from Cobb, who grows ever more desperate to protect himself once he realizes that Radcliffe is on to him. He shoots at Radcliffe point-blank a few times, sometimes with another person in the room. But the most cold-blooded moment happens toward the end of the film, when Radcliffe takes Cobb to see Willie Spears. After the sequence I mentioned above, Radcliffe takes Spears home and ties him up with some rope to make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble. He’s still tied up when we see him again, only now he’s been placed on a stool with a noose around his neck. Yikes, Geoffrey.

But that’s not the worst of it. Spears, terrified out of his mind, is now willing to give up what he knows and implicate Cobb in the murder. Cobb, the second he realizes what Spears is about to do, knocks the stool out from under his feet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the low lighting in this sequence is the only reason the film was able to get away with showing this. It’s the lack of hesitation on Cobb’s part that makes it truly unsettling, though. And it cements that the “monster” isn’t the real bad guy here.

At this point, I’d like to step away from the script for just a bit and discuss some of the film’s technical aspects. You may remember the info I shared on the behind-the-scenes work that went into the original film’s special effects, specifically the “traveling matte” effect used to show off Griffin’s invisibility. The same method is used again here, with Vincent Price wearing a black velvet bodysuit and acting against a black velvet backdrop. This time, however, the film expands the limits of what it can do with this effect. There are instances where the matte is used to show Price interacting with props that would be too difficult to make move on their own, like a newspaper. And there are a couple of shots where you can tell that a whole group of actors was filmed on a separate backdrop and inserted into the final scene later. On the less high-tech side of things, we’ve also got some old-fashioned floating objects and even a bit of puppetry. I’m particularly fond of the invisible guinea pigs in Frank Griffin’s laboratory, created by rigging up tiny harnesses to move around in circles of their own accord. I’m also fond of the way you can see the wires holding up the gun that Radcliffe pulls on Cobb at the end of the movie, and I don’t mean that ironically. We even get what looks like a bit of stop-motion when Radcliffe ties up Willie Spears with some rope. It should come as no surprise that Fulton, Brown and Hedgcock were nominated for the Best Special Effects Oscar, the precursor to today’s Best Visual Effects category.

The movie seems to stumble the most when it’s trying to establish a direct narrative connection to The Invisible Man, a connection that ends up being tenuous at best. Frank Griffin is easily the weakest character in the film, acting as a means to reintroduce the invisibility serum into the plot. His connection to Griffin isn’t really explored at all: in fact, it barely gets mentioned aside from when a minor character holds up a photo of Claude Rains and says “Remember this guy? This new guy is his brother.”

But there is one notable instance in which being a sequel enriches the plot of the film, and that’s the way Scotland Yard conducts its hunt for Radcliffe. See, they remember what happened last time, and they’re not about to let another invisible guy pull their pants down and swing them around like potato sacks. The result is that the police, largely personified by the character of Inspector Sampson, come off as a lot smarter than they did in the original film. They know that they’re dealing with someone they can’t see, and they adjust their strategies accordingly. Take, for example, the great moment where Radcliffe is standing right next to Cobb and Sampson, neither man noticing him…until Sampson casually blows a puff of cigarette smoke right at Radcliffe’s face, revealing his outline and giving away his position. And from there, the police come up with the plan to fumigate all of Radcliffe Manor so their target will have nowhere to hide. The more even playing field makes the whole movie a lot more suspenseful, especially since this time, we don’t want the invisible man to get caught.

Well, that just about brings us to the end of the film. I have mixed feelings about the ending, as I suspect many viewers throughout the years have. Either you’ll find it satisfactory, or you really, really won’t. But I think it comes down to a question of “Did the movie earn this?”

After a long and pretty impressive chase sequence through the Radcliffe family’s coal mine, Radcliffe manages to send Cobb falling to his death. Cobb lives just long enough to confess to the murder of Geoffrey’s brother before kicking the bucket. But it looks like Radcliffe isn’t long for this world either, having been fatally shot by Inspector Sampson during the final battle. Helen and Frank take him to the mine’s infirmary and try to save his life with blood transfusions from the mine workers. His internal injuries are too great, however: Frank could possibly save his life with an operation, but that’s impossible with Radcliffe being invisible…but wait! Twist incoming! Turns out the blood transfusions were the unknown antidote to the invisibility serum the whole time! Radcliffe becomes visible again, and Frank is presumably able to save his life, making this the first Universal Horror movie where things turn out alright for the “monster.”

Now, back to my question: does the movie really earn this ending? Personally, I don’t think it does. It’s not just because of the cop-out nature of how the antidote problem is solved. Mainly it’s because of how this resolution handles the problem of Radcliffe’s downfall. Despite all the build-up to him going insane because of the serum, he comes back to his senses pretty quick once Cobb is done away with. He goes staggering back to his friends and doesn’t need to be restrained, a sharp contrast from how he was acting just a short time earlier. There’s no solid explanation for this change, either. The conclusion which the film had been moving toward up to that point was seemingly a tragic one, in which Radcliffe clears his name and avenges his brother but destroys himself in the process. The sudden change in course feels somewhat out-of-character for the film.

And now for another twist: I don’t really care if this ending is earned or not. I like it either way. Although I was certainly expecting the movie to have a downer conclusion, that wasn’t really what I wanted. I wanted Radcliffe to get away with everything, I wanted him to outwit Cobb and Scotland Yard and get his life back. And the ending does that, even if it’s kind of weak overall. Do I find it satisfactory as a storyteller? No, because it comes out of nowhere and fails to tie everything together. Do I find it satisfying as a viewer? Yes, because it made me happy. And sometimes, being satisfied as a viewer is preferable to being satisfied as a storyteller.

The Invisible Man Returns may not be as groundbreaking as its predecessor, but it feels like an evolution from what James Whale and Claude Rains accomplished in 1933. By flipping the script so that the invisible man is now the protagonist, writer Curt Siodmak transforms the fear of evil lurking behind you into the fear of evil lurking inside you. Vincent Price turns in a wonderful performance as Geoffrey Radcliffe, making the character’s moments of quiet vulnerability just as powerful as his booming, grandiose monologues. While the story itself is fairly predictable, the comedy/horror balance is more consistent and manages to avoid the whiplash problem that hurt the original film. The special effects remain as impressive as ever. Some questionable story choices do pop up here and there, especially during the ending, and though they do keep the film from being truly great, they don’t keep it from being fun and satisfying. It’s an entertaining, rewatchable thrill ride of a movie that often feels more solid and fully realized than its predecessor.

Final Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The film made over $800,000 at the box office against a budget of about $250,000. Universal must have been pretty pleased with that! By this point, with two recent commercial successes to its name and two more projects set for release in 1940 alone, Universal Horror was back for a new decade. But could it sustain this momentum?

UP NEXT: The Mummy’s Hand (1940)


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