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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)

Sequels are a difficult proposition. As we know from the many bad ones that particularly bedevil the horror industry, it can be an excuse for a tacky in-name-only attempt to cash in on a surprise hit – or sail so close to the original plot that it might as well be labelled a remake. A worthwhile sequel has to somehow satisfy two opposing creative forces at the same time, which is why it is so hard to achieve. The music industry calls it ‘the difficult second album’ syndrome: giving the audience more of what they loved about the first release but with enough differences for it to expand on the characters and their world, to be valid and stand alone on its own merits. The films that have managed this are rare. This explains why The Godfather Part II, Aliens and Terminator 2 are quoted so often – there isn’t a lot of competition for the honour among film-makers with the necessary integrity and storytelling talent.

Universal had built up a roster of what we now know as potentially lucrative horror franchises since 1931, (featuring almost of their icons barring The Wolf Man series proper and the later Creature from the Black Lagoon) but they were forced to sit on them during the mid-1930s slump generated by a censorious climate backlash against such material. The studio also suffered damaging losses of almost $2m in 1936 and another million still in 1937. After an enterprising New York cinema owner double-billed Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, the returns were high enough to prompt a full-steam drive into a second horror wave. Inevitably there was a temptation to sacrifice quality for quantity to make up for their lean period. Universal did their best to control this to begin with, producing the excellent Son of Frankenstein in 1939 and then a considered sequel to The Invisible Man.

The Invisible Man Returns seven years in reality after the original but stated as nine in the film, and manages to be a quality follow-on to its predecessor if at times a little predictable in plot. It was written by Lester Cole and the German-born Kurt Siodmak (who would make a stronger mark on the Universal Hall of Fame the next year with his first of The Wolf Man series, birthing their third most popular monster after the Stoker and Shelley gruesome twosome). The director was Joe May, a Viennese early pioneer in German cinema working with such luminaries as Conrad Veidt and Fritz Lang who felt forced to emigrate to the USA, like many creatives, under his homeland’s growing sympathy toward Nazism. May took over from James Whale who superbly directed The Invisible Man and, as we shall see, makes a creditable job of continuing his predecessor’s themes and tone

The story begins below stairs at the impressive home of a Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe whose butler and other staff fret about his impending execution for murdering his brother Michael unless a last-minute reprieve can be sought. His fiancĂ© Helen (a soulful Nan Grey, who’d previously played a victim of Dracula’s Daughter in 1936) appeals to Richard Cobb, Radcliffe’s cousin, who is unable to use his influence in time. Cobb is played by the venerable Sir Cedric Hardwicke, one of the ‘Hollywood Raj’ colony of British ex-patriot actors, a great stage exponents of Bernard Shaw, much loved by the author, whose genre film roles would include Jehan Frollo in Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) as well as more illustrious work such as King Edward IV in Olivier’s 1955 Richard III.

As we become intrigued by how this will involve the eponymous anti-hero (especially since he died in the original film) in comes Dr Frank Griffin, the brother of said vanishing act. He goes to visit Radcliffe in hospital and the next thing we know the police are alerted that the prisoner has escaped, leaving his clothes in his cell. It is a nice touch that so far we are kept from seeing Radcliffe even before he disappears, preserving an air of mystery about him till the end as Whale’s film did This whole set-up is handled with confidence though John Sutton’s Dr Frank is noticeably the only performance lacking conviction.

The first welcome reminder we get of the previous incarnation is in the portrayal of police Inspector Samson, future double Oscar nominee Cecil Kelloway. A memorable aspect of The Invisible Man was in its handling of authority figures, crediting the intrepid senior law enforcement man with intelligence and cunning. Here as well Samson is remarkable for his unruffled composure and foresight on discovering Radcliffe’s inexplicable vanishing - he has already connected the Griffin name with the bizarre circumstances and suspects scientific assistance.

The other aspect of Whale’s film that the sequel pays homage to is the subversive pleasure of seeing blue-collar characters subverting the pomposity of their bosses with rebellious back-talk. These are not ineffectual, forelock-tugging drones but shrewd, energetic representatives and Radcliffe’s Yorkshire family colliery business is the perfect place to see them in action. The miners support their benign owner, not the uppity Willie Spears who’s been suspiciously promoted by Cobb in his absence. When Spears orders the men back to work instead of speculating on Radcliffe’s disappearance, his grandiose swagger is met with the mocking “Keep thi’ wig on, Willie!” and a sarcastic “MISTER Willie Spears” as they disperse. Alan Napier’s Spears is a textured, furtively earthy character turn, doubly impressive for being almost unrecognisable as the same actor who later played Adam West’s dignified Butler Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series.

Hot on the trail, Samson goes to see Dr Griffin, heavily inferring he knows about the continuance of brother Jack (John here)’s invisibility drug experimentation and that he should come clean to avoid the gallows as an accessory. Griffin’s next generation serum here is neatly dubbed Duocane after the fatally unstable Monocane, but in trials with guinea-pigs still demonstrates an alarming tendency to restore visibility followed by a swift demise. As the hunt develops and Helen is freed from police enquiries, Samson patiently puffs on his cigar and teaches one of his underlings: “We can’t expect to catch the quarry if we…shut up the bait”.

Through a forest, swathed in bandages and goggles comes the familiar figure we’ve been waiting for of the Invisible Man himself. The fugitive Radcliffe has been given sanctuary by his colourful employee Old Ben (Forrester Harvey) – but who is the enigmatic actor charged with the peculiar demands of the role? Here, Universal could have had a problem since the part has the unique challenge in cinema horror of being conveyed largely through the spoken word alone. It required someone of enough vocal dexterity and sensitively to embody the disembodied, giving light and shade to compensate for often having no on-screen appearance. Even the awesome Lon Chaney, though bereft of sound for all of his signature roles, had the marvellously pliant instrument of his body to convey character. Claude Rains gave Jack Griffin varying scales of his mellow huskiness to great effect. The studio was fortunate though in having under contract a successor whose cultured vocal versatility would become a distinctive factor in his long horror career: Vincent Price.

Price had just come from his first horror film, 1939’s Tower of London (reviewed earlier) and here replaces Rains admirably to make the role his own. His Sir Geoffrey is a decent man gradually unhinged by the toxicity of the drug, seducing him into increasingly megalomaniac behaviour. His voice denotes tenderness with his fiancĂ©, teases and mocks his enemies amusingly and hardens into a granite edge of bitterness as he pursues vengeance upon them.  When he collars the treacherous Spears, he fakes an ethereal, self-piteous tone posing as the invisible ghost of his dead self hounded till he ‘died in a swamp’. He knows his faithless employee covered for Cobb’s guilt in the murder in return for money and promotion.

The invisibility visual effects are handled once more by John P Fulton, William Hedgcock and Bernard B. Brown, earning Fulton another of his three Academy Award nominations across successive sequels – (Danny Kaye’s 1945 supernatural comedy Wonder Man finally won him the statuette). Although with DVD resolution the fine wires are noticeable that hold up Radcliffe’s floating gun, most of the effect sequences are excellent – in particular the impressive optical view through his empty eye sockets into the inside rear of his bandaged head.

The plot device of clearing his name adds another dimension of audience sympathy and urgency to Radcliffe’s cruelty where the previous film solely made the serum the cause of his homicidal instability. This is not to say he isn’t turning into a hugely dangerous liability for his loved ones. Radcliffe has dinner with Griffin and Helen, and it quickly becomes evident that he is losing his mind to drug-induced delusions of grandeur. After topical ideas about harnessing his power as a weapon of war, his tightly-wrapped body betrays an unravelling mind. Griffin recalls his solemn promise to restrain Radcliffe if the Duocane sent him into a mad frenzy. With declamations such as “It makes me king! I am nemesis!” his friend is a saucepan that has well and truly boiled over, unreachable even to appeals to his friendship. “I don’t want friends! I shall have worshippers and followers!” After they dose his champagne, he pretends to regain his sanity but flees the scene to continue his revenge rampage.

In the manhunt’s building tension, there’s room for a touch more wit at the expense of junior coppers with the obtuse officer insisting: “I’d have to see ‘im before I can believe ‘e’s invisible” before Radcliffe corners Cobb at the colliery with the trussed-up Spears ready to squeal on him. 

Interestingly, in the lead-up to this Radcliffe spits out a surprisingly homophobic allusion to Spears being Cobb’s ‘boyfriend’, a nuance we hadn’t expected. He then strangles Cobb in a coal-cart chugging up the mechanised track that leads to the cuprit making a confession before dying.

Not until the last seconds of the film do we finally see a handsome young Price appear as the serum takes restorative effect. A neat dissolve shot layers in firstly his body map of blood-vessels, then the tendons and musculature until his full human form is revealed to embrace Helen and a hopeful future denied to his predecessor.

The Invisible Man Returns leave enough fresh footprints to make a worthy and entertaining sequel that justifies itself and sets up the franchise for more wthout Price, though he did provide a voice cameo of the role once more just for the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

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