Mary GordonCecil KellawayCedric HardwickeAlan Napier
The Invisible Man Returns
Medium: film
Year: 1940
Director: Joe May
Writer: Joe May, Curt Siodmak, Lester Cole, H.G. Wells
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, horror, Universal
Country: USA
Actor: Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Forrester Harvey, Mary Gordon [uncredited]
Format: 81 minutes
Series: << Invisible Man >>
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 31 August 2012
It's one of Universal's classy sequels, as opposed to some of the shoddier ones they'd soon be knocking out (e.g. The Mummy's sequels). However I don't think it works.
Firstly, it's a solid piece of filmmaking and I can see why it did well critically and commercially. Production values: impeccable. Special effects: Oscar-nominated. Cast: fascinating, although even the less well-regarded films in this series would also be impressive in this regard: John Barrymore, John Carradine, Peter Lorre...
The problem is the storyline. In fairness they've worked hard to create a proper sequel, not just a camouflaged remake. That's laudable, but the plot's unsatisfying. Firstly, their Invisible Man is neither mad nor evil. He's escaped from prison before his execution for murder (yay!), but unfortunately it looks as if he probably didn't do it. He's a nice guy. He doesn't want to cause any trouble. The first half of the film involves nice but colourless characters worrying about what to do next and never achieving anything. They also don't even think of addressing the real problem. There's a murderer out there! Shouldn't they be looking for him in order to clear things up with the law?
Theoretically there's tension because the Invisible Man's being hunted by the police. However that's, um... look, he's an Invisible Man. If he can't get away from a few coppers, they deserve to have him.
The movie's second half is more enjoyable, because the Invisible Man's going mad from the serum and saying things like "I don't want friends; I shall have worshippers and followers!" This happened to Claude Rains last time and from the start everyone's expecting it this time too. This lets our Invisible Man have invisible fun, which is after all the reason we're watching this film in the first place. I also liked the cat-and-mouse set-piece with the police, who are led by an intelligent, jovial inspector who worked out what was going on almost immediately and would have been good in a Sherlock Holmes movie. However at the end of the day, all this is unsatisfying. As a hero, our Invisible Man is a wimp. As a villain, he's a hero who's having a temporary (?) problem with his brain chemistry. Thus it's hard to get behind him full-bloodedly in either role.
I praised the cast. Most interestingly, in the title role is a young and downright rugged Vincent Price. It's thirteen years before he became a horror icon with House of Wax and you needn't expect to see much of his face, for obvious reasons, but it's interesting to hear his voice get more characteristically Price-like as his character gets increasingly unhinged. He also gets a voice-only cameo as the Invisible Man (again) in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. However to be honest, he's not as good here as Claude Rains and in addition I'm not convinced he's even trying to do a British accent.
Other people you'll want to look out for include Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who'd crop up later in this series in a different role, but furthermore was a much-respected Shakespearean actor, much in demand in Hollywood. He's also in Hitchcock's Rope and Olivier's Richard III, not to mention being Ludwig Frankenstein in The Ghost of Frankenstein. Other names include Alan Napier (Alfred opposite Adam West's Batman) and an uncredited Mary Gordon in the opening scene (Mrs Hudson opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes). Most entertaining of all though is the twice Oscar-nominated Cecil Kellaway as Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard, who's cool, jolly and wouldn't dream of wasting our time with "but that's impossible!"
The special effects are cool. I particularly liked the "smoke silhouette" shot.
I've been criticising the storyline, but I like the fact that the script's taking pains. Two apparent continuity errors are actually deliberate and cancel each other out, for instance. Claude Rains had to take his "monocaine" repeatedly over several weeks to turn invisible, yet here a single shot of "duocaine" does it immediately. Somehow I don't think the changed name is accidental. Furthermore nine years have passed since the first movie (making it 1906), in which time the original Dr Griffin's brother has been working on the formula. Kellaway's men find that fingerprint awfully quickly, given that Price had been bandaged up as usual, but then again they're being led by Kellaway. Finally I like the silver bullet at the end, which is so logical that it would have been a plot hole if it hadn't worked.
I haven't heard particularly good things about the Invisible Man series, to be honest. It descends into comedy as quickly as the second sequel, The Invisible Woman, which also came out in 1940. Thus in some ways, this was a pleasant surprise. It's a proper Universal horror movie. It looks the part, it did well at the time and everyone seems to like it. However an older Price would have done a better job of carrying the movie, while the storyline is well-intentioned but fundamentally weak.
"He took off his clothes! No wonder she fainted."