Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Director: Joe May                                            Writers: Curt Siodmak & Lester Cole
Film Score: Hans Salter & Frank Skinner          Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Starring: Vincent Price, Nan Grey, Cedric Hardwicke and Cecil Kellaway

After the sequels to their first blockbuster horror films in the mid thirties, The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, had done so well one would have thought Universal would have immediately rushed in to do more. And they may well have, but a British ban on horror movies suddenly made excursions into the genre a much more tenuous financial proposition in the late thirties and so it wasn’t until Son of Frankenstein in 1939 that the studio revived the horror films that became forever associated with the studio. Their next project was The Invisible Man Returns but James Whale, the director of the original Invisible Man, had been unceremoniously fired by the new ownership that had taken over the company and so German émigré Joe May was given the job as director. One of the people May had worked with in Germany was writer Curt Siodmak, and so it was through May’s influence that Siodmak was given the first of many writing assignments at Universal, and would go on to pen another film in the series, The Invisible Agent. Siodmak worked with May on the story idea and with screenwriter Lester Cole on the script, and while it’s a very different kind of film than the original it still has its own charm.

One immediately senses a more atmospheric film than James Whale’s original, and more in keeping with Universal’s horror output of the forties. The credits open over a fog-shrouded hillside with dirt in the foreground that looks like a dead body. Then the camera slowly pans over to the entrance of a large estate. In the servant’s quarters they discuss with sadness the impending execution of Vincent Price, the young lord of the manner, for the murder of his brother. Upstairs Price’s cousin Cedric Hardwicke and his fiancée Nan Grey do likewise. John Sutton, the brother of Claude Rains from the first film, goes to see Price in his cell an hour before the execution, and a short while later Price is discovered missing. A call is put in to the head of Scotland Yard, Cecil Kellaway, but the inspector is unperturbed by the news. It seems that he was part of the investigation into Rains’ murder spree from the first film and realizes Sutton must have given Price the same elixir that Rains used to turn invisible. Price makes his first “appearance” in the countryside where Grey and Sutton have set up a secluded cottage for him to stay in. As with the first film, the race is on for Sutton to come up with an antidote to the invisibility before the drug turns Price mad.

Nan Grey is absolutely ravishing in the picture, and is a terrific actress playing her role with a subdued fear rather than the outright hysterics of most horror film spouses. She had a small but memorable role in Dracula’s Daughter, and would go on to work with Joe May and Vincent Price again in The House of Seven Gables. The subplot in the film involves Cedric Hardwicke’s infatuation with her, and his ultimate design to get Price out of the way, inherit the estate, and win her for himself. It’s a role that is similar to the one he would play seven years later in the Lucille Ball thriller Lured from 1947, a film that Alan Napier would work on as well. Here, he is the drunken foreman of the coal factory that Price owns, and has been given orders by Hardwicke to do away with many of the safety regulations. The film has a distinct moral undertone lacking in the original. While Claude Rains was already half-crazed by the beginning, he was also the scientist who did it to himself. Price, on the other hand, is a victim in the picture, something the screenplay does a lot to establish. Though it was one of his earliest films, Price does a solid job in the title role, wrapped in bandages or just a disembodied voice much of the time.

The direction by Joe May is good, and he even has some nice moments, like the lengthy tracking shot in the scene where Price is chasing Alan Napier through the woods. Special effects expert John Fulton would come up with a new trick on this film, showing the outline of Price in the rain and smoke. But while there are plenty of optical illusions featuring moving objects, there are relatively few effects shots featuring Price himself as they are quite obvious in the film. Nevertheless, Fulton along with sound engineers Bernard B. Brown and William Hedgcock were nominated for an Academy Award for special effects that year but lost out to Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad. The film score was written by Frank Skinner. He had already scored Son of Frankenstein the previous year, but this was the first he composed with the assistance of Hans Salter, prior to their classic work on The Wolf Man from the following year. Character actors include Mary Gordon as the cook at the estate, Forrester Harvey who plays a caretaker who hides Price for a while, and Billy Bevan playing his standard bumbling Bobbie. The Invisible Man Returns, while very different from its predecessor, still manages to be a success on its own terms, and is definitely one of the better entries in Universal second horror cycle.

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