The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

MARCH 18, 2010


Often hailed as Vincent Price’s “first horror film”, The Invisible Man Returns is not really a horror film at all. First of all, the title is wrong - it’s more like AN Invisible Man ALSO Has Some Problems. Price does not play Jack Griffin, he plays a guy named Geoffrey Radcliffe, turned invisible by Griffin’s brother (why not at least make the brother the one who turns invisible? Or would audiences find it hard to believe that two guys in the same family would become invisible?). And unlike Jack, he’s not a loon who begins killing folks at random; he’s actually a pretty noble hero - the film as a whole is more like The Fugitive, or, even more apt, Memoirs of An Invisible Man.

It’s pretty obvious that the film was an influence on Carpenter and the various writers for that film (or H.F. Saint, who wrote the original novel for Memoirs, assuming the film followed his book at all). Many of the invisible gags in that film were introduced here, such as the rain making him “visible”, and the process to create them is actually pretty similar (just a different color - they used black velvet back then, but Carpenter used blue-screen). The effects actually hold up quite well; there are a few matte outlines here and there, but the overall effect is pretty believable, and I imagine it must have floored people back then.

Some of the effects are really clever too. I particularly like the dirt/soot depressing on ladder rungs as the Invisible Man climbs down, as well as the various object levitations (I didn’t catch any visible strings this time around). And they seem to have thought things through a bit more this time around - unlike in the original where they seemed to treat him as a ghost or something that they couldn’t grab onto, the pursuers are actually pretty pro-active this time around. They’re largely incompetent, yes, but pro-active all the same. Also, most of the time you can picture where he would be when he knocks something over or throws something, unlike the original where his position was not logically clear (such as when he begins throwing things from the center of a crowded table - was he laying down in the center?).

But it’s just a basic “wrongfully accused” story otherwise, with Price trying to clear his name while he eludes the police. At one point he seems to be going the Griffin route (i.e. mad with power, possibly dangerous) but it’s more or less abandoned after it’s introduced. Not long after that he gets his man, and even though the film is longer than most of the Universal classics (85 minutes!), the time isn’t used to add any significant wrenches into the story. Unless you count the fact that he gets his molecules back at the end, which makes this one of the very few (only?) invisible man movies with a completely happy ending. Chevy (the only other one I can think of who didn’t turn into a villain) got away, but he was still invisible.

As for Price, well, obviously, he’s not in the movie that much. Like its predecessor, he’s already invisible when it starts, so we only see him at the very end. But he seems to have fewer “dressed” scenes than Rains did (even when you factor in the longer running time), and as he wasn’t yet THE Vincent Price, he’s actually pretty straight, even romantic at times. Luckily, the disembodied voice effect editing is much improved over the original; it sounds like he’s really in the scene instead of in a hollow chamber like Rains did.

I don’t plan on watching Invisible Woman or Invisible Agent, as I understand they are even less horror than this one. But Invisible Man’s Revenge sounds promising - who here has seen it? Is that one back to a more psychotic Invisible Man? It’s a shame that Price didn’t get to cut loose and wipe out a train or whatever like his predecessor did. Stupid heroic heroes!

What say you?

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