Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe has been sentenced to death for allegedly murdering his brother, Michael, a crime his friends and family are convinced he didn't commit. When the chance for a formal reprieve is lost, Radcliffe's fiancé, Helen Manson, and his friend, Dr. Frank Griffin, put into action an unusual and risky plan to save his life and allow him to find the real killer. Griffin visits his friend a mere hour before he's to be executed, per his last request, but when the time comes for it, Radcliffe has suddenly disappeared from his cell, leaving his clothes behind. News of his escape spreads among the locals and the mention of Griffin's name piques the interest of Scotland Yard's Detective Sampson, who later confronts Griffin at the Radcliffe family colliery, where he works as a physician. Sampson has looked up the file on Griffin's brother, the original Invisible Man, and suspects that he's injected Radcliffe with the same invisibility drug that also eventually drove his brother insane. Griffin denies having any interest in his brother's experiments but Sampson isn't convinced, and rightly so, as Radcliffe has indeed become a new invisible man, thanks to his scientist friend. After finding a box of clothes and bandages that Griffin left for him in the woods, he meets up with Helen at a small cottage in the woods owned by Ben Jenkins, a local gamekeeper. There, Radcliffe rests for a while, knowing that he has little time before the drug drives him mad and asks Helen to help Griffin to keep him from hurting anyone should it come to that point. Meanwhile, Griffin tries to come up with an antidote for the invisibility formula, trying it out on guinea pigs, but it ends up killing the subjects after restoring them. Back at the cottage, a local policeman becomes suspicious of Jenkins' actions and his dog's constant barking and barges his way into the building, coming face-to-face with the disguised Radcliffe. Radcliffe then discards his clothes, bandages, and dark glasses and escapes, as the officer informs Sampson. While they miss Radcliffe and the officer allows Helen to leave, Sampson decides to keep an eye on her, knowing that she'll lead them to him. After listening in on a heated conversation between Griffin and drunken night watchman turned superintendent, Willie Spears, Radcliffe becomes suspicious when Griffin tells him that his cousin, Richard Cobb, who's also next-in-line to inherit the company, gave Spears the promotion after his imprisonment. Following and frightening Spears, Radcliffe forces him to confess that he saw Cobb kill Michael and that he gave him the promotion in exchange for his silence. Now knowing who the killer is, Radcliffe sets out to deal with him, but time is running out, as not only is the very clever Sampson constantly on his trail but he also soon begins to develop the same signs of madness and megalomania as Jack Griffin.
Is it me or do the bandages look more benevolent on Price's
face than they did on Rains'?
Note how much he looks like the original Invisible Man
now that the madness has set in.
Being a naturally more benevolent person than Jack Griffin, Radcliffe's madness comes on much gradually. Instead of becoming a raving lunatic outright, he first becomes overly cocky and mischievous, playing with and teasing Willie Spears by chasing him through the forest and pretending to be a ghost, saying that he died a horrible death, before frightening him into confessing that Richard Cobb was the one who killed his brother, Michael, and tying him up at his own house. He then tries to make Cobb write out a confession while confidently sitting in a nearby rocking chair, telling Helen what he found out, giving Cobb an opportunity to escape. Upon evading Detective Sampson's men, as they try to find him in the house by using smoke, and making his way past the men guarding Griffin's house, it's clear that Radcliffe's overconfidence is growing and growing. That night, as he's having a "celebratory" dinner there with Griffin and Helen, he's loudly laughing about how he easily he was able to escape the police, ignoring the fact that there are a couple of detectives right outside, and then says something alarming: "You know, Frank, I'm beginning to get a new perspective on this crawling little animal known as man. Why, a dog or a cat or a bird is cleverer than any human. They sense me immediately, but these 'shrewd' detectives of yours... Take away one of man's senses and you render him helpless." When he insists that he has proof that Cobb killed Michael and that Spears is mixed up in it, Griffin suggests telling Sampson so he'll be off the hook but Radcliffe is now drunk with power, proclaiming that he's never been freer. He says, "You know, being invisible has distinct advantages. It gives one a sense of power that's exciting. Power for good, if you're so inclined, or should you feel perverse, for evil. You hold the balance and decide which way life should go. No one can stop you. No one touch you. You don't need any infantile little Sampsons to carry out your will. You're much greater than any of them." He goes on to rave about what he can do for, or with, his country: "Control it! Other nations will tremble before it, as this nation will tremble before me... I could sit in on the councils of kings and dictators! It makes me king! It makes me... nemesis." While Price's delivery of these speeches doesn't have the same strength and overwhelming feeling of malice that Rains' did, he's no less a joy to listen to and gets across the notion that, even though he's much jovial and laughing than Jack Griffin was, Radcliffe has lost his mind to the drug, making it clear that he intends to do away with Cobb and possibly Spears. He becomes quite defensive when Frank Griffin suggests that he's going mad, accusing him of being afraid for himself should the police discover that he's involved in this plot, and removes his bandages and puts on a robe to make it easier for him to escape. After he drinks the drugged champagne and temporarily loses consciousness, giving Griffin time to chain him up, he feigns being restored to normalcy in order to overpower Griffin and unlock the chains, escaping the house to deal with Cobb.
One last noteworthy character is Ben Jenkins, the gamekeeper whose cottage Helen uses to give her fiancé temporary shelter after his escape. He's most notable in that he's played by Forrester Harvey, who appeared in the original Invisible Man as Hall, the innkeeper who really suffered from Jack Griffin's wrath early on. Here, he plays Jenkins as a sort of lonely, silly old gamekeeper who never has any company save for his faithful dog. While he's creeped out by Radcliffe's appearance when he arrives at the cottage, telling his dog that he can't blame him for barking and howling the way he does as he takes him away from the place, and gets a brief glimpse at Radcliffe's invisibility, he still tries to keep his promise to Helen and keep anyone from knowing that they're there. When a policeman brings his dog back to the cottage and becomes suspicious of his insistence that nobody's there, even though he said the dog had been keeping the whole place awake, Jenkins does what he can to keep him from barging into the place but fails. Fortunately, though, he is able to stall him long enough for Radcliffe to escape, although he's shocked as the officer when he sees that he took his clothes off in front of Mary.
Universal, either through faulty memory or simply not caring, had a habit in the 1940's of creating continuity errors between individual entries in series of films and this one has a few minor ones in its connection to the original Invisible Man, although they're not nearly as egregious as those that plagued their series of "Kharis" Mummy movies (check those reviews out if you haven't in order to see what I mean). The one that caught my attention when I first watched it is that the name of the drug in the invisibility serum that causes madness is now "duocane" rather than "monocane" as it was before, although its background is kept the same. Another one is that the name of the original Invisible Man is written as "John Griffin" in the file that Sampson looks up rather than Jack but, in order to maintain clarity, I've still called him Jack up to now (plus, the names Jack and John have a connection anyway, so I didn't think it was that big of a deal regardless). Also, the timeline seems to be not what you'd expect, since Sampson says that it's been nine years since the events of the original film, meaning that, if the original did take place in 1933, then this is 1942 rather than 1940. These little mistakes aren't that much of an issue; I just decided to bring them up since my brain is so thorough and has to discuss everything it can think of.
Most of the films that Universal made during the second half of their classic horror run were low-budget, B movies, enjoyable but, nevertheless cheap and with very little thought thrown into them; not so The Invisible Man Returns. Not only did this film have a bigger budget than the majority of its peers, mainly for its special effects, which are still top notch for the times, but it also feels much classier and sophisticated thanks to the performances by distinguished actors like Vincent Price, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, John Sutton, and Cecil Kellaway. That, plus the way the material is treated and the quality of the filmmaking, makes it feel more like an A-picture like the aforementioned Kharis Mummy movies or the latter Frankenstein films that were being produced around this time. Like James Whale's film, there's a large emphasis on humor here but the tone overall is much more lighthearted. That's mainly because this Invisible Man is much more likable and heroic than the original one and because he never does anything truly malicious, pulling harmless pranks and playing with people more than anything else. Price's performance as Radcliffe is so likable, funny, and campy that, even when he has a gun on someone, it's impossible to believe that he'd actually kill them, which you most definitely could with Claude Rains. Even when the madness takes hold of him, there's no intimidation factor to him, even when he's raving about controlling his country, because of his more lighthearted characterization. The comedy itself is more overtly silly too, particularly when Radcliffe is messing with Willie Spears by opening his car's hood while he's driving, taking the engine apart, and confusing him as to where his voice is coming from and telling him that he's a ghost. And you can't forget the way Helen keels over when she sees her fiancé undressing his invisible form, which is very much meant for laughs.
Like I said, the invisibility effects, the creation of which was once again headed by John P. Fulton, still hold up well given the times and were nominated for an Oscar, although I found them to be a bit more noticeable here than they were in the original. The effects were done basically in the same manner as they were before, with wires and special props used to simulate Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe's presence when he's completely invisible, which are very well done, I might add, and Vincent Price wearing a black velvet bodysuit under his clothes for the scenes where is undressing or only partly clothed. As in the original film, the matting and compositing of those latter effects isn't always perfect, as you can often see the vague image of Price's outline in the effect, and they use them more often here, such as when Radcliffe picks up a newspaper when he first enters Frank Griffin's laboratory or, most ambitiously, when he takes the clothes off a scarecrow near the end (which Price said took hours to get right) and walks back to the colliery wearing them. During those latter shots, the outline of the compositing is very apparent. However, there are others that are amazing, such as when Radcliffe looks at himself in the cottage's mirror and sees nothing behind the eyeholes in the bandages, when Griffin takes a blood sample from his invisible arm, when you see his silhouette in smoke and in the rain, effects that were only hinted at previously, and when he uses the telephone in Griffin's house, which is so well-done that it's hard to tell whether they used wires or the matting process. Fulton and his effects team also had to create invisible guinea pigs and then show one of them being restored to visibility. The shots of the invisible ones, which are portrayed by having them wear small harnesses which appear to be crawling around on their own, are very realistic and the movements make them feel as if there really are little invisible animals there. The visibility restoration of the one, which shows its skeleton reappearing before its flesh and hair do, is also pretty good, but it's nothing compared to the final effect when Radcliffe regains his visibility after the blood transfusion. It's a much more gradual restoration than Jack Griffin's at the end of the original film, as you first see the appearance of only a few of his veins and then, slowly but surely, you see the reappearance of all of his veins, his musculature, and finally his outer flesh. That alone, I think, was worth the Oscar nomination.
Radcliffe lifts Spears up by the back of his coat collar, drags him over to a nearby puddle, and dunks his head into the water three times, waking him up. Spears at first thinks he had a nightmare but Radcliffe shows him it's real when he starts choking him with both sides of his tie. Spears asks him for pity, to which Radcliffe says, "Did you have any pity on me? Had you one thought for me, lying day after day in that prison of despair, feeling the rope around my throat, choking the very breath of life out of me? What was it to you? Nothing. You were promoted. You were made superintendent. There's an account to be settled, Mr. Spears!" Frightened and sniveling, Spears makes a full confession, telling him that Richard Cobb murdered Sir Michael Radcliffe in a mineshaft at the colliery. Pleading for mercy, Spears panics when he doesn't hear Radcliffe's voice anymore and runs off, eventually making it back to his own house, locking the door behind him. Radcliffe, however, enters through a nearby window, which Spears, completely unaware, closes the shutters on. He lights a candle in the completely dark room, grabs his case out of the closet, and begins packing his clothes, although he's unable to latch the case (whether the latch is broken or it's Radcliffe messing with him again is left ambiguous). Desperate, Spears grabs a nearby rope to tie it shut, when he hears Radcliffe say, "That's exactly what I've been looking for." He knocks Spears out with a couple of hits and begins tying him up, starting with his feet, a visual that's accomplished with the use of stop-motion animation.
Lastly, there's the climax, which begins after the now unhinged Radcliffe escapes Frank Griffin's house and makes his way back to Cobb's. He wakes him up at gunpoint and, after warning him not to try anything, he forces him to get up. He tells him that they're going out for some fresh air and, hiding the gun underneath Cobb's arm, tells him to act natural towards the guards. But, when Cobb opens his bedroom door and is faced with the guard outside, he grows too nervous to speak, forcing Radcliffe to knock the man out. He then marches Cobb downstairs, growling, "Surely, you can still lie. I recall you're being an expert." When faced with the guard at the front door, he tries to bluff his way out for some fresh air, but the guard refuses. He then calls upstairs to Bill, the guard Radcliffe knocked out, and when he doesn't get answer, he thinks Bill's in the kitchen, stuffing himself, and goes to phone Sampson about it, telling Cobb to wait. Of course, once he's gone, Radcliffe forces Cobb out the door. They drive to Willie Spears' house and Radcliffe forces Cobb inside the dark house, telling him to light a candle, which illuminates the tied up and gagged Spears. Per Radcliffe's demands, Cobb ungags Spears, who then confesses what he knows about the murder again, this time in front of Cobb. Seeing an opportunity, Cobb kicks over the stool supporting Spears, causing him to be hanged. Radcliffe drops the gun and appears to try to support Spears' body himself, only for Cobb to turn the lights out, boasting that he's now invisible too. The two of them get into a brawl in the dark, with a crowd gathering outside as they think Spears is tearing his own house apart in a drunken fit. Even in the dark, Radcliffe manages to grab an advantage over Cobb, knocking him out the window and only momentarily slowed down when he throws a piece of firewood at him. Radcliffe chases him into the colliery, knocking hoards of people out of the way as he goes, including two guards at the front gate, and is able to get around another gate that Cobb tries to close on him. Cobb climbs up the nearby conveyor belt of coal wagons as the guards fire blindly at the gate down below, only for Radcliffe to be heard laughing as he pushes through a nearby crowd. This throws the guards off-track, enabling him to climb onto conveyor belt and grab Cobb by the throat, choking him down onto one of the coal wagons. As he tries to choke Cobb into confessing, Sampson and Helen arrive, the former telling them to stop the machine. Despite Helen's protest, Sampson takes aim and fires, hitting Radcliffe. No longer feeling the pressure on his throat, Cobb excitedly asks if them got him, only for him to be dumped over the side of the tall conveyor with a bunch of coal to his death. This leads into the end of the film, with Cobb confessing the truth to Helen before he dies and the seriously injured Radcliffe appearing at the colliery wearing some clothes he took from a scarecrow, eventually regaining his visibility due to a transfusion of blood he received from the men there.
Something else that makes this film a breed apart from many of Universal's other horror flicks made around the same time is the fact that the music score, composed by H.J. Salter and Frank Skinner, is completely original rather than recycled from previous films. The music is fairly generic but there are some pieces that stand out, such as the great, bombastic opening theme as the title materializes, a memorable, creeping leitmotif for Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe's invisibility that leads into a more subtly humorous-sounding section and is often used to signify his presence, and a really speedy, string piece that covers the climactic chase between Radcliffe and Richard Cobb. In fact, those are the only parts of the score that I can remember period, as the others, which aren't many and are used to cover the more overtly silly parts of the movie, are very forgettable. However, this movie is well made enough to where the music score's less than memorable quality doesn't hurt it at all.