Premise: The owner of a coal mining operation, falsely imprisoned for fratricide, takes a drug to make him invisible, despite its side effect: gradual madness.
Nine years after Dr. John Griffin’s invisible rampage depicted in 1933’s The Invisible Man, his brother, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), helps his friend escape the gallows with an experimental drug that turns him invisible. Once Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) escapes, he sets off to find the person who murdered his brother while he waits for Frank to develop an antidote for the invisibility. The Invisible Man Returns is noteworthy for the improvements to the visual effects that nine years afforded the production.
Unfortunately, the story and mystery at its heart falls short by being much less engaging than its predecessor’s excellent characterization. Though performed by the brilliant Vincent Price, the film’s central character is at his most interesting when the film retreads and emulates some of the bigger moments of John Griffin’s arc in the original film. Although Price’s vocal work does lend an urgency and power to Geoffrey’s search for the truth about his brother, it is a performer’s heavy lifting of a plot line that just isn’t that engaging.
While the first film had the frenetic energy of a single character’s search for a cure while also descending into madness, The Invisible Man Returns splits that into two characters. Frank’s search for an antidote runs concurrently with Geoffrey’s revenge plot. The connection between the two arcs lies in Helen Manson (Nan Grey), Geoffrey’s fiancee with whom Frank forms a conspiratorial team with that’s set on aiding and healing the escaped Geoffrey. Frank’s search for an antidote is given the attention necessary to establish the stakes by way of an impressive test sequence with a Guinea pig that flexes some impressive visual effects.
The pursuit of the Invisible Man by the authorities, led by inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) rides the line between thrills and silliness. Sampson’s insistence on offering cigars to people so as to suss out the Invisible Man lends a delightful cleverness and confidence to the character that shines through in Kellaway’s performance. Although the authorities’ search for Geoffrey never quite reaches the levels of iconography that The Invisible Man delivered (particularly in its snowy climax), The Invisible Man Returns does include a clever gas mask apparatus sequence that carries its own unique flair.
The visual effects are fantastic and shows a marked improved from the original’s already impressive effects. The cleaner and smoother visuals of Geoffrey undressing into invisibility are only enhanced by Vincent Price’s body work and physical motion. The film also includes sequences that utilize extras in crowds to play off the invisibility to strong effect in the film’s climax.
Still, as impressive as the pursuit and visual effects are, The Invisible Man Returns still suffers from a lackluster mystery at its center. The film juggles the other plot threads well (the antidote and the authorities), but when it comes to the revelations Geoffrey uncovers about his brother’s death, the movie simply loses steam. It works best when the facts Geoffrey uncovers tangles with his slow descent into madness, leaving others to question his determination of what’s true and what isn’t. However, that’s only a small portion of the mystery plot and the rest ultimately feals immaterial.
The Invisible Man Returns may not be as engaging and thrilling as 1933’s The Invisible Man. But it does have the pedigree of having Vincent Price’s first horror movie performance and what a performance it is. Price enters the shoes of the Invisible Man well and embodies what it means to be this potentially tragic character even if the character beats are a bit muddled on the page. The Invisible Man Returns is a worthy entry in the Universal Monsters canon and a solid sequel, despite a few qualms.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.