The Invisible Man Returns - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
Back when everybody's last name was in all caps
Geoffrey Radcliffe has a few problems. First, his brother was murdered. Second, Geoffrey has been arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime, despite his innocence. And finally, he is invisible. On the run, risking madness, and uncertain who to trust, Geoffrey must clear his name, protect those he loves, and not succomb to the homicidal insanity that plagued the previous invisible man.
This is the plot of The Invisible Man Returns, Universal's 1940 follow-up to its Claude Rains classic. Directed by the German director Joe May--an important filmmaker in his own right, though he lacked the gothic flair of the original's James Whale--this movie was part of a multi-picture deal made with Wells and was a clear attempt to turn his titular creation into a film franchise. I wouldn't say this movie is as good or as groundbreaking as the original, but it certainly succeeded in its aims, cementing The Invisible Man as one of Universal's main monster properties while laying the groundwork for three more sequel/spin-offs and an Abbot and Costello crossover.
Taking over for Claude Rains this time around is none other than Vincent Price, a similarly hammy actor with a great voice of his own. Price was relatively young at this point, but you can see shades of the horror icon he would become much later in his career. He shines in certain scenes, especially when his character is allowed to let loose and torment his deserving victims. That said, the invisible man of this film, Geoffrey, isn't much of a monster. He commits no murders (there are a pair of deaths he shares culpability for, but he didn't mean to kill either man), and though he clearly begins to go insane, he never crosses the line into irredeemable.
There are some clever new gags
For that reason, this film doesn't actually feel like a horror film. There is a little bit of horror in there, but it's mostly under the surface and represented by the threat of madness or the betrayal of a close friend. You never feel like Geoffrey could really become like Griffin, and indeed, he never does.
The movie also feels a bit cheaper and lazier than its predecessor, both in conception and execution. The effects, despite the benefit of seven years, are a bit worse, with more visible guide wires and the outlines of the black velvet they used in compositing. Granted, the film does try a few new tricks like showing the invisible man outlined in smoke or rain, both of which look great, but there are fewer effects shots overall. On top of that, the plot is more of a typical Hollywood thriller than the more provocative and interesting adaptation of Wells' original novel.
The love story works this time around
With all that said, The Invisible Man Returns is actually more entertaining and rewatchable than its more well-made predecessor. There's more frequent humor, more action, and a romantic angle that feels a lot more genuine than the tacked-on love subplot of the original film. Granted, it's predictable as hell, with obvious villains and a happy ending that feels a bit too neat and undeserved, but as an unpretentious Hollywood thrill ride, it's actually kind of a relief to just sit back and enjoy it, knowing full well what kind of ride it is.
We're nowhere near done with the invisible man, rest assured. Next week, we'll look at 1940's other sequel: The Invisible Woman, and after that, we'll look at some slightly more recent--and far more loose--adaptations of Wells' original novel. Check back soon so you don't miss it!
-e. magill 10/3/2019
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