#20 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
Here we are. This is really what I had been expecting for the last few entries in the Universal Horror franchise. A rote repeat of what had come before while missing all of the terror of the original without being able to supply anything new. Feeling like it was written by committee to blindly catch what had made the original special, The Invisible Man Returns follows formula with the kind of competence you would expect from Joe May (the man who got Fritz Lang his start in the German film industry) but also written by an assembly line of writers (there are two credited screenwriters, Lester Cole and Curt Siodmak) at the behest of a producer chasing financial success.
For a while, it feels like the first sequel to The Invisible Man is going to go in an interesting and new direction. The first film was about a man given the gift of invisibility while also being cursed with madness that manifested in a specific way, heavily inspired by the Dr. Mabuse character. This first sequel seems to want to head in a smaller direction, one more focused on a murder mystery, and I think that could have been a great direction for a movie about a man fighting the clock of madness while trying to figure out who the real killer is. Imagine Agatha Christie with this trope. That’s what I was thinking I’d be getting into. I almost got that. Sort of, but not really.
Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) has been convicted of the murder of his brother, Michael, and all of his legal remedies have run out. His fiancée, Helen (Nan Grey), and his friend Frank (John Sutton), the doctor at the Radcliffe mining operation and brother to Jack, the original invisible man in the first film. Together, they sneak in a vial of the composition that induces invisibility into Geoffrey’s cell, having the intended effect and giving him the opportunity to escape. I really, really felt like Geoffrey would use his invisibility to go through an independent investigation, but the movie is far more interested in the search for Geoffrey led by Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) and the going over the mechanics of invisibility, in particular talk about the descent into madness.
We do see some of the descent, voiced well by Price, but it feels generic rather than specific to the situation at hand. The actual mystery gets solved in a single, quick scene where Geoffrey decides to go after one of the foremen in the mining operation because he was rude to Frank. That Willie (Alan Napier) ends up having all of the information Geoffrey needs to figure out who really killed Michael (have you ever seen a movie before? Yeah, it’ll be easy to figure it out) is not all that satisfying as a search for truth in a mystery. He doesn’t follow any breadcrumbs. He stumbles upon the one guy with all of the information, and then it’s done. Heck, Geoffrey being invisible doesn’t matter to getting the information.
On top of that unsatisfactory way Geoffrey solves his mystery, his madness isn’t really all that important to it either. It only really manifests in one big speech about how he’s going to rule the world, a thin shadow of the original invisible man’s motives. I would have much preferred Geoffrey not being innocent at all, and his madness taking him to extremes to frame another man for his deeds, justifying it in twisted ways while keeping the focus of the madness at the right level of the narrative.
All of that complaining aside, it’s fine for what it is. The special effects are great, again, and they’re fun to watch. The mystery may not be much of a mystery, but Geoffrey’s motives are clear and his skirting of being an antagonist in his own story is pretty neat. The cast is perfectly capable, anchored by Price as the disembodied voice (the key is always to find someone with a great, distinctive tenor). It’s not a bad film, but it’s just not terribly interesting as it goes on. Joe May, apparently, spoke no English, relying on Price to act as translator for everyone back and forth, but, while he provides a handful of nice visuals that seem to extend from his German Expressionist background, he doesn’t seem to have any real control over the narrative which, if I had to guess, was driven by studio needs for a picture to recreate the success of the previous film (the only producer I can find is an associate producer, Ken Goldsmith, and I kind of doubt that an associate producer was the driving force behind that, so it was probably just some studio executive).
It’s not good, and it’s a disappointment as a sequel to what is probably the best movie in the entire franchise. However, it sort of works in the most formulaic of ways.