Saturday, October 22, 2011

October 20th: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is to be executed in two hours for the murder of his brother Michael, a crime he did not commit. His fiancee Helen Manson (Nan Grey), his best friend Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton) and his cousin Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) believe he's innocent, but are unable to get a stay of execution.
Nine years ago, Frank's brother, Dr. Jack Griffin's (Claude Rains) experiments with mystery drug Monocane led to his creation of a drug that, when injected into a human's bloodstream, makes their entire body invisible. Having recreated his brother's formula, Frank visits Geoffrey an hour before his execution and injects him with the Invisibility drug, turning Geoffrey invisible.
Now a free man, Geoffrey spends the night with Helen before going out to search for Michael's true killer, while Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard (Cecil Kellaway) searches the whole country for him. Frank, well aware that the Invisibility drug turned Jack into a deranged, psychotic murderer, works around the clock to find a way to reverse Geoffrey's invisibility, before the Monocane drives him insane as well.
In the 1930s, Universal Studios was the reigning House of Horrors. With Tod Browning's Dracula, James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and Karl Freund's The Mummy, Universal was raking in tremendous profits, reinventing the monsters of classic literature, creating new monsters of their own, and giving audiences nationwide reasons to sleep with the lights on.
By the '40s, however, Universal Horrors was starting to wear thin. Films like Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz introduced audiences to technicolor films, making the old black-and-white films look cheap by comparison. Furthermore, Val Lewton had arrived on the scene and, with films like Cat People, The Leopard Man and The Seventh Victim, showed audiences horrors darker and more psychological than anything Universal had produced up to that point.
In response, the new regime at Universal started producing sequels to their established franchises. Frankenstein's Monster came back to life in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula lived on through his own flesh and blood in Son of Dracula, Kharis carried on in Imhotep's place in four Mummy sequels, and Claude Rains stepped into Lon Chaney Sr.'s shoes as The Phantom of The Opera.
In 1940, Universal followed up James Whale's The Invisible Man, one of their most popular films, with The Invisible Man Returns, a loosely connected sequel less interested in seeing a good man's psychological breakdown and more interested in the Invisible Man as anti-hero, setting out to find his brother's murderer(s) and bring them to justice; not exactly a typical horror sequel, but a fairly effective one, though upon closer inspection I feel it could have been a much stronger film.
The best thing The Invisible Man Returns has going for it is its script, writing by Lester Cole, who would go on to become one of the Hollywood Ten in the 1950s, and Curt Siodmak (misspelled in the credits with a K), who would give Universal a new horror icon in The Wolf Man the following year. Recognizing, unintentionally or not, that these Universal horrors were no longer scary, Cole and Siodmak wisely avoid trying to frighten in favor of crafting a fun murder mystery for our Invisible Man to solve.
As for our new Invisible Man, there's two clear distinctions between Geoffrey Radcliffe and Jack Griffin. Unlike the original film, we actually get to see Geoffrey coming to terms with his newfound invisibility and we get to actually see his gradual transformation from good man to psychotic, although Geoffrey never becomes as violent as Jack. In fact, the filmmakers make the rather curious decision to portray this Invisible Man not as a monstrous psychotic, but as an anti-hero seeking justice for the real monsters. Though it allows us to sympathize with Geoffrey in a way we couldn't with Jack, it also makes his growing madness less threatening, since it's obvious he'll never become the psychotic his predecessor was. At best, Geoffrey is eccentric and egotistical, but never evil.
The Invisible Man himself is portrayed by Vincent Price, making his first appearance in a horror film; in the 1950s, Price became the new leading man of Horror, appearing in such classics as House of Wax, The Fly, The House on Haunted Hill, The Pit and The Pendulum, and House of Usher. As Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, Price manages to showcase his rarely used ability to create sympathy rather than terror. Relying solely on his voice and body language, Price's Invisible Man is a far more tragic figure than the one Claude Rains originated in 1933.
The supporting cast is less impressive; Nan Grey, four years after playing Lili in Dracula's Daughter, plays the requisite love interest adequately, though she's thankfully less clinging than Gloria Stuart from the original film. As Dr. Frank Griffin, John Sutton conveys Griffin's concern for Geoffrey fairly well, but is otherwise bland and forgettable. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who would go on to play Ludwig Frankenstein in Ghost of Frankenstein two years later, is stuffy and looks uncomfortable for most of the film. On the other hand, Cecil Kellaway is quite fun as Inspector Sampson and, along with Price, livens up this otherwise dull cast of characters. Special mention should also go to Alan Napier, Alfred from the '60s Batman series, in a minor supporting role.
In addition to punching up the cast, the filmmakers could've made this more dramatically exciting as well. Save for some ego-boosting, Geoffrey never becomes menacing or psychotic; the audience is firmly on his side, never questioning his sanity. Given that is a horror film sequel, it would've been nice to see this character be more complex. We never get to see Geoffrey struggling with his growing insanity nor do we ever feel that he may cross that line and become a monster himself. I get he's not the true villain here and I'm not saying he had to become a murderer, but the script should've allowed him some moral ambiguity. It doesn't help that for much of the film, we know who the real killer is long before we're ever told, making the murder mystery angle obsolete. Instead, we're forced to sit and wait until the final confrontation.
Technically speaking, director Joe May, having just made The House of The Seven Gables, delivers a perfectly competent film, but his style notably lacks the vigor and energy James Whale brought to the original. The set design is well done, particularly the coal factory used for the climax. The biggest compliment, however, goes to John P. Fulton and his Oscar-nominated special effects. Taking what he had already done in The Invisible Man to new heights, Fulton creates set pieces that, though simple looking today, remain impressive given the era this film was made in, especially the Scarecrow scene.
Today, the Universal Horror films are something of an acquired taste; they're harmless, entertaining films lacking in the scares, shocks and gore their modern counterparts have. But for those like me who grew up on a steady diet of Sci-Fi Channel showings of Dracula and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, it's a nostalgic trip back to our childhood. While The Invisible Man Returns wasn't a part of my childhood, I greatly enjoyed revisiting the world of Universal Horror and, despite its flaws, found this to be a classy, entertaining flick that, if nothing else, paved the way for Vincent Price to become the new Godfather of Horror. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 21st: Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)

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