Framed for the murder of his brother, Geoffrey Radcliffe is to be hanged. But after a visit in prison from his friend Frank Griffin, Radcliffe literally disappears and escapes to the bewilderment of the police. Griffin’s late brother, the original Invisible Man, had discovered an invisibility drug before he went mad and his brother has now given Radcliffe the serum to aid his cause. As Griffin tries to find an antidote to the invisibility, Radcliffe sets out to track down the real killer before he goes mad as well.
Like their successful forays with Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolf Man, Universal Studios were always quick to capitalise on big hits and after their fantastic version of The Invisible Man, it was only a matter of time before the studio would see fit to sequelise it and get the tills ringing again. During their second wave of horror, with sequels to their major hits being pumped out like The Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand, Universal created an original story for H.G. Wells’ infamous literary character (having signed a multi-picture deal to secure the rights) and trotted him out in the first of many sequels, two of which were released in the same year. Though the logic behind Radcliffe taking the invisibility serum is a little far-fetched at first, once the film gets down to business this minor inconvenience is quickly forgotten about.
As it turns out, The Invisible Man Returns isn’t a patch on the original but it’s a solid sequel, let down by a sense that anything the film would try and do, the audience would have already seen before (‘seen’ being an inappropriate phrase!). There’s nothing here to match the first unveiling of Griffin in the original, nor his rampage through the small village. Instead, what was once a story about a madman loose with a startling new weapon has now been turned into a standard old school murder-mystery where a wrongly-convicted man seeks to clear his name – only with the added bonus that he is invisible. In fact being invisible doesn’t really add a whole lot to the narrative as the crime drama is nothing that couldn’t have been handled should the character been visible.
Though camera tricks had advanced in the seven years following the original, there’s nothing in The Invisible Man Returns which is a patch on what came before it. That’s probably being a tad too harsh on John P. Fulton’s special effects which were nominated for an Oscar and are still impressive. But you’ll not be completely blown away by anything you see here. There are some nice scenes involving the police trying to smoke Radcliffe out (showing some good continuity from the previous film in that they’ve learnt how to track an invisible man) and seeing the Invisible Man revealed by rain but they’re not jaw-dropping standout moments. The moment with Radcliffe and a scarecrow is more poignant than astonishing.
Legendary horror Thespian Vincent Price assumes the role of the man in the bandages and sunglasses in what would be his first foray into the horror and sci-fi genre, in fact one of his first major screen roles of any kind. Price’s distinctive vocal tones make for the perfect choice to be the Invisible Man because he can’t rely on body language for a great deal of the running time and needs to emote through his voice. But though Price has a sinister expression, it’s never been an overly menacing one and it lacks the thuggish threat that Claude Rains’ voice projected in the original. Instead of strangling you to death or psychologically tormenting his victims, Price’s Invisible Man is more likely to pretend to be a ghost and shout “boo” at you or invite you around for a cuppa so you can laugh at him when you see the tea draining through his invisible body.
But that’s part of the film’s main problem – the character is not meant to be a psychopath this time around but an innocent man, framed for a crime and desperate to put things right. It gives the character more empathy as one of the problems with Rain’s portrayal was that he was too much of a self-obsessed asshole to really root for. Price makes up for that by playing the role as a tragic, sympathetic hero but the film loses some of the excitement and terror of being hunted by an invisible man as a result. Whilst you know he’s capable of doing some things to clear his name (i.e. becoming invisible in the first place), you never get the sense that he’ll resort to outright murder to put things right. And this is what the film loses by turning him into a good guy. The freedom that invisibility brings lends itself to more darker intentions which are sorely underplayed here.
The Invisible Man Returns lacks the sinister edge that the original had and comes off as a bit of a pointless rehash at times, really harming its overall impact as an effective sci-fi horror. But it’s entertaining in its own right and is definitely a cut above most of the sequels Universal was churning out for its main franchises.