The Invisible Man Returns

Rating: 7 out of 10.

(7/10) Horror icon Vincent Price takes over the empty shirt and trousers of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man Returns (1940). Universal was still making good sequels to their horror films, although this one does clearly fall into B-movie category. But this is a good B-movie, well acted, well filmed and well received, but a harmless Hollywood sequel nonetheless.

The Invisible Man Returns. 1940, USA. Directed by Joe May. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Joe May, Lester Cole. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier. Produced by Ken Goldsmith.. IMDb score: 6.5/10 Rotten Tomatoes: 82% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A. 


When Universal bought the rights for the novel The Invisible Man from author H.G. Wells for their first film (1933, review), they made a contract for several movies. But it would pass seven years before the studio re-opened the Invisible Man files again in 1940. By now Frankenstein had had both a Bride and a Son, and Dracula had a Daughter, so it was no more than fitting that The Invisible Man should at least have a Return, and later the same year The Mummy also got a Hand. Of course undead beings like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and The Mummy were easy enough to reanimate, but things were slightly more complicated with the invisible man, Jack Griffin, who was very much an ordinary man. So despite the fact that Claude Rains had made such an impact with his role seven years earlier, it was decided that a new invisible man was needed, as Griffin had very clearly died at the end of the previous film. And rather than bring in a Lugosi or a Karloff, Universal decided to do what they did with The Invisible Man – that is to cast a relatively unknown actor with a fantastic voice, and reveal his face only in the last scene. This actor turned out to be a young Vincent Price in his first major role, and once again the casting agents at Universal had scored gold.

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Cedric Hardwicke in a publicity shot.

The film tells the story of Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), the director of a mining company who has been wrongfully accused of killing his brother. Both his fiancée Helen Manson (Nan Grey) and Radcliffe’s cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) are convinced of his innocence, as is Frank Griffin, the mine’s doctor (John Sutton). Griffin is indeed the brother of the infamous Jack Griffin, who was driven mad by his invisibility in 1933. (For some reason his name is changed to John in this film.) And what more, he has acquired the formula for his brother’s invisibility serum, and is working on the same problem as he did – an antidote that will bring the subject back to visibility (and sanity) without killing him.

Suspicious of Cobb, Griffin seeks out Radcliffe alone and gives him the serum, thus turning him invisible and helping him escape.

With the help of Griffin and Manson, Radcliffe starts to investigate his brother’s murder, and the first clue leads to the ill-tempered bully Willie Spears (Alan Napier), who has been promoted to mine workers’ foreman by Cobb after his brother’s death. In a brilliant scene Radcliffe confronts the terrified Spears in a forest, convincing him that he is the ghost of Geoffrey Radcliffe come back to haunt him – and Spears spills the beans that it was Cobb who killed his brother. Radcliffe then ties up Spears when he packs his bag, trying to escape from his house.

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Vincent Price and Nan Grey.

Griffin and Manson fear that Radcliffe is turning mad, like the original invisible man, and indeed we get a ”I will be the master of the world” speech over a dinner, very much resembling the one in the first film, and despite their efforts to drug Radcliffe, he escapes and spends the rest of the film evading Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard (Cecil Kellaway) and his coppers in Cobb’s mansion, all the while trying to make Cobb confess his crime. This is where we get some of the best effects of the film, with Radcliffe appearing as a shady figure in cigar smoke and rain.

It all leads to a showdown in the coal mill, in an impressive fight scene on a high conveyor belt, where justice is finally served. Radcliffe is shot, and staggers off to a scarecrow, whom he speaks to while borrowing his clothes, the one of the few scenes that really conjure up the magic of the film’s predecessor, a scene that tries to reassure the viewer that Radcliffe is basically a likeable chap who is the victim of his circumstances. Mortally wounded, he seeks out Griffin and Manson, and is given a blood transfusion, as he has lost a lot of blood, while Griffin complains that Radcliffe will die unless he can operate, and he can’t operate since he can’t make Radcliffe visible. But lo and behold! The blood transfusion slowly makes Radcliffe’s arteries appear, and in a very impressive layered shot he gradually appears on the bed, finally revealing the young, handsome Vincent Price’s face for the first time – a carbon copy of The Invisible Man (1933), only this time the invisible man becomes visible only to survive and fight another day.

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Vincent Price appears.

To bring the new story to the screen, Universal hired two expats from the German film industry that were trying their luck in Hollywood – director Joe May and writer Curt Siodmak. Austrian-born May, born Joseph Otto Mandel, had been one of the powerhouses as producer and director in early German cinema, and one of the mentors of a young Fritz Lang, before he fled to the States in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power. In USA he made a few reasonably successful films for various studios, but was soon shunned by both actors and studios for his refusal to learn English and his dictatorial style. In 1939, when he was unable to find other work, he was picked up by Universal’s B-movie Unit, but didn’t last very long there, either.

He does do a good job with The Invisible Man Returns, though, although it is hard to tell how much of it is thanks to him and how much is thanks to the seasoned team at Universal, who had by now been cranking out horror sci-fi films for ten years. But the direction is fluid and inventive, with a mobile camera and some nice, atmospheric filming.

Curt Siodmak was an author and screenwriter who contributed to the German/British/French sci-fi film F.P.1. Does Not Answer (1934, review), as well as the British movies The Tunnel (1935) and Non-Stop New York (1938, review). In 1939 he made the move to Hollywood, and would soon gain fame as horror and science fiction writer.

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Writer Curt Siodmak.

He also wrote the sci-fi horrors Black Friday (1940, review, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and The Ape (1941, starring Karloff). Universal liked the scripts, and gave him the task of conjuring up a script for The Wolf Man, thought as a vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr, as well as a chance to introduce a new character in the Universal horror franchise. In writing the script, Siodmak invented a whole new mythology for the werewolf. It was Siodmak that first came up with the idea that only silver can kill a werewolf. He was also the first to tie in the werewolf with the wolfbane plant.

Curt Siodmak went on to write scripts or novels that inspired scripts of a whole host of horror and sci-fi films. These included Invisible Agent (1942, review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). In the fifties, the so-called Golden Age of American sci-fi, he penned the scripts for such B-grade films as The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), Riders to the Stars (1954, review), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956, review). His 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain became a bestseller and inspired a whole slew of films, including The Lady and the Monster (1944, review), Donovan’s Brain (1953, review), The Brain (1962) and Hauser’s Memory (1970).

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Director Joe May.

All in all, Siodmak and May create a worthy sequel to The Invisible Man. It is a bit ”tamer” than its pre-code predecessor, and although original director James Whale successfully combined pitch-black humour and horrors, this film plays up some of the comedy, and gives it a lighter tone. The film also goes to great length to set up Radcliffe as a likeable character, and for long stretches in the beginning where he talks to both Griffin and Manson he is shown as a good-hearted, charming, unassuming man, who begs them to restrain him if his mind should go. In The Invisible ManClaude Rains’ character was set up as an egomaniacal bastard from from the very start, and Rains also played his role with a darker, more dangerous and brutal edge. Price lends his Radcliffe a more poetic touch, and even when he turns insane, he still seems to be clinging to some decency, as he never kills anyone until the very end of the film, and then they had it coming. Jack Griffin killed out of sheer spite.

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John Sutton, Nan Grey and Vincent Price.

Where The Invisible Man was furiously paced, The Invisible Man Returns is unevenly paced, and many of the scenes drag slightly. The film really gets going only in the second half, and by then it has become a pretty typical crime mystery thriller, that could just as well have been filmed without an invisible character. This said, the special effects created by John P. Fulton’s crew are well done. There has clearly been some improvement since Fulton created the elaborate and ground-breaking effects for The Invisible Man. This time we get to see the shady outlines of Radcliffe in smoke and rain, and the objects seem to float more freely and effortlessly than in the original. That said, again, there are few scenes that conjure up the same sense of magic as in The Invisible Man. The scarecrow scene is good, and took hours to film, according to Price. The last scene with Radcliffe fading into visibility is impressive, and must have been painstaking for the post-production team ti make, as it consists of multiple fades and overlays of beautiful, three-dimensional paintings of arteries and muscle tissue. John P. Fulton was nominated for an Oscar for best effects, but lost to The Thief of Bagdad. He would later win two Oscars, though, for Wonder Man (1945) and The Ten Commandments (1956).

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Cedric Hardwicke.

Despite not playing the titular character, Sir Cedric Hardwicke was top-billed for the film, as he was by far the best known actor of the movie. Hardwicke didn’t dabble all that much in sci-fi, but when he did, it was based on H.G. Wells. Hardwicke appeared in a central role in the British epic Things to Come (1936, review) and later narrated The War of the Worlds (1953, review), and appeared in a few sci-fi series at the end of his career. Hardwicke is also the most nuanced of the actors in the movie, and creates a believable portrait of the double-crossing coward Cobb, drooling over Manson while trying to set himself up as her shoulder to cry on, while at the same time plotting to overtake the mining company.

Few actors could have taken over the reins from Claude Rains, and one of those few are Vincent Price. The American art-lover Price had found a love for theatre when studying in London, and this was only his fifth film – the previous one had been the 1939 Universal historical horror film Tower of London. Just like with Claude Rains, Universal went for the voice and dictation, and even though Price doesn’t quite hit the nuances as well as Rains, he still rises as his most fitting successor (catch that reference, if you can!). All in all, Price isn’t as menacing as Rains – the Rains Invisible Man would not have played at ghosts and jumped around saying boo! He coldly told people he would kill them, and then laughed maniacally.

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Vincent Price.

Although some commentators would have this film as eternally typecasting Price as a horror staple, it isn’t quite as simple as that. In fact, he did almost no horror films for the following ten years. It was more likely his memorable performance in the 1953 film House of Wax that sealed his fate as a true horror icon, as well as his brilliant roles in The Fly, The Return of the Fly and House on Haunted Hill in the late fifties. He would gain fame for his refined way of playing horror with a humorous twist, and often lent his voice to narration and music – most famously in Alice Cooper’s song The Black Widow and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In the sixties he did a string of highly acclaimed Edgar Allan Poe films, and found a new audience with kids when he played the villainous Egghead in the 1966-67 TV-series Batman – a role which he counts as one of his favourites.

Other significant science fiction roles include Captain Robur in the Jules Verne adaptation Master of the World, and of course the titular character of The Last Man on Earth (1964), later remade with Charlton Heston as The Omega Man (1971) and with Will Smith as I Am Legend (2007). He played the lead in another Jules Verne-esque tale, The City Under the Sea in 1965 and appeared on the TV-series The Bionic Woman in 1976, and then more or less dropped out of sci-fi until Tim Burton cast him in his last major role in Edward Scissorhands in 1990. He literally smoked himself to death and died of lung emphysema in 1993. Price was also a noted art collector and preserver, and was involved in political activism against racism and intolerance, and was also involved in projects aimed at preserving and encouraging Native American art.

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Vincent Price and Nan Grey.

Nan Grey may be known to genre fans as one of Gloria Holden’s victims in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). She had a short stint in prominent roles in the A-films Three Smart Girls and Three Smart Girls Grow Up in the late thirties, but spent most of her career making B-movies, until she quit the industry in 1941. She does do a better job than the sulking Gloria Stuart in the film, but mostly because she has a more nuanced and active role.

John Sutton as Frank Griffin is stiff as a board, but somehow it doesn’t harm the movie. There is a sort of brooding, dark energy in his eyes that make him work in the role. But on the whole, not a very convincing showcase for his talents. Sutton is a curious character, as he grew up the British colony in current Pakistan, and spent much of his youth more or less as an adventurer travelling the British colonies in Asia and Africa, working in various positions, before he moved to USA and became a Hollywood consultant on films set in the British Empire in the mid-thirties. Someone at Hollywood must have noticed his good, dark looks and placed him in front of the camera, often as a darker counterpart to heroes like Erroll Flynn. In the early forties he had a short stint as a lead when most big stars where helping the war effort. He also appeared in The Return of the Fly and the TV-series Men Into Space (1959).

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John Sutton and Cecil Kellaway.

Cecil Kellaway is superb as the knowing police inspector, blowing cigar smoke around himself as not to get surprised by the invisible man. Kellaway was a South African stage actor who got lured from Australia to Hollywood in the early thirties, and after a decade of doing mostly comedic characters in B-films, rose to fame as a sought-after character actor, and was nominated for two Oscars for supporting roles in The Luck of the Irish (1948) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He appeared in the sci-fi films The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and Destination Space (1959), as well as the TV-series The Twilight Zone (1959). He was actually offered the role of Kris Kringle in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), but turned it down. The role made Edmund Gwenn a major star, and earned him an Oscar. Edmund Gwenn was born Edmund Kellaway, and was the cousin of Cecil Kellaway. Let’s hope it didn’t lead to awkward Christmas dinners.

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Cecil Kellaway and Cedric Hardwicke.

One of the best characters in the film is the buffoonish foreman Willie Spears, played by the 196 centimetres tall Alan NapierNapier continues the comedic cockney characters of the original films, and even bears some physical resemblance to E.E. Clive, who played the dumb police officer Jaffers in The Invisible Man. The scene where Spears is first confronted by Radcliffe is absolutely priceless, and and Napier chews up the scenery (literally!) for all that he is worth.

The refined Brit, cousin of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and the great great grandson on Charles Dickens, was well out of character in this role, and continued to play very diverse supporting and bit-part roles over the decades, in everything from B-horrors to jungle adventures to Shakespeare, including films like Julius Caesar, My Fair Lady and The Sword in the Stone. But he will forever be remembered for a role he wasn’t even happy to take in the first place, that of the soft-spoken but surprisingly hardy and ingenious butler Alfred in the 1966-68 TV-series Batman. Thus he describes getting the role in a TV interview.

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Alan Napier.

– My agent rang up and said, ”I think you are going to play on Batman”.
– I said, ”What is Batman?” He said, ”Don’t you read the comics?”
– I said, ”No, never.” He said, ”Nevertheless, I think you are going to be Batman’s butler, I think you even get to drive the Bat Mobile.”
— This was all crazy nonsense to me. I said, “Bobby, no, no, no”. He said, ”If it’s a success it may be worth over $100,000.” I said “I’ll do it.”

And so he was Batman’s butler. Napier was actually a close personal friend to Michael Gough, who played Alfred Pennyworth in the first four Batman films. Some people see the Joker’s name Jack Napier in the first Batman film as an homage to Alan Napier, although this is unconfirmed.

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Alan Napier and Burt Ward in Batman.

The music for the film is effective and conjures up memories of the old movie. It was composed by Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner, who in between them have 11 Oscar nominations. Oscar-winning cinematographer Milton R. Krasner may be partly to thank for the film’s fluid camerawork and some of the more elaborate effects. He would stay well clear of sci-fi until his very last movie, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

Prolific art director Jack Otterson had just a year earlier helped revamp the Frankenstein mythos with Son of Frankenstein (1939, review). Otterson was nominated for Oscars eight times. Like on the previous film, he had help from set decorator Russell A. Gausman, who later won Oscars for his work on The Phantom of the Opera (1944) and Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) – and was nominated for 5 more. And once again Vera West is responsible for ”gowns”.

He’s invisible!

So to tie this all up: good or bad? Well, certainly not bad at all. The film is quite derivative of the previous The Invisible Man, and where it tries to deviate from that plot, the script is at its weakest, and falls into very standard murder mystery fare. But that said, it is a well-made, well-acted, well-directed, very entertaining and even a bit exciting piece of film, and as noted earlier, a worthy successor to the original. The special effects are a bit smoother in some places, but despite the advances in visual effects since 1933, John P. Fulton and his team are not quite able to conjure up the same feeling of awe and wonder at the invisibility. The film lacks the scintillating edge that the original had, something of the psychological depth has vanished along with the film’s darker, more aggressive tone. This is now a harmless Hollywood sequel – a pretty good one, but a harmless Hollywood sequel nonetheless.

Janne Wass

The Invisible Man Returns. 1940, USA. Directed by Joe May. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Joe May, Lester Cole, Cedric Belfrage. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Forrester Harvey, Billy Bevan. Music: Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner. Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner. Editing: Frank Gross. Art direction: Frank Otterson. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman.Sound: Herbert B. Brown, William Hedgcock. Special effects: David S. Horsley. Visual effects: John P. Fulton. Costumes (gowns): Vera West. Produced by Ken Goldsmith for Universal.

14 replies

  1. Hauser’s Brain is actually an adaptation of the sequel to Donovan’s Brain. It is currently on my to read list. It is also written by Curt and apparently stars Professor Allan from the first book.

    Liked by 1 person

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