Written by: Howard Higgin & Douglas Hodges (story), John Colton (screenplay)
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Frances Drake
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“The universe is very large, and there are some secrets we are not meant to probe.”
If you were a movie-goer in the 30s and 40s, it must have only seemed like Lugosi and Karloff were popping up on the big screen every week. In truth, the two only appeared in eight films together over about a ten year period, with most of them coming under the Universal horror banner; most famously, the two featured in Son of Frankenstein and a couple of Poe adaptations, three films that represent some of the best the studio had to offer during that time. With the exception of Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher, the rest of the duo’s team-ups are the also-rans, partially because they failed to really capitalize on the combined star power (Lugosi was often sidelined). 1936’s The Invisible Ray is one of these perfectly serviceable middle-of-the-pack offerings, but it is noteworthy for featuring one of the earliest films to feature Karloff in the familiar role of the good-intentioned scientist gone mad.
In this case, he’s Janos Rukh, a brilliant scientist who’s discovered where a meteor once crashed in Africa thousands of years ago. He puts together an expeditionary crew that consists of his wife (Frances Drake)) and other scientists (Lugosi’s Dr. Benet is among them) to investigate the region. Upon arrival, they not only discover the site of the meteor crash, but also the presence of an extraterrestrial radiation (dubbed “Radium X”) that ends up poisoning Rukh and driving him insane.
And then…well, to reveal any more would actually begin to delve into the rest of the film. Like a lot of early horror films, The Invisible Ray unfolds rather deliberately, so much so that you could pretty much sum up the entire movie in one sentence. But if you’ve seen a few of these, it suffices to say that you’ll be treated to some common themes and motifs: betrayals, revenge, a tragic fall from grace. Universal’s Frankenstein series so impacted early horror that it was constantly in the shadow of its ambitious scientist shtick, and The Invisible Ray is no different; Rukh’s blind mother (Violent Kemble Cooper) practically acts as a vanguard for science by constantly reminding her son not to exceed its moral limits, though the film oddly opens with a foreword that insists that all science once “burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad.”
Rukh doesn’t heed any warnings, of course, and he ends up turning into a day-glo slasher with a warped brain hell bent on exacting vengeance on those who screwed him over during the expedition--or did they? At least one or two of them certainly did, and The Invisible Ray actually treads into martial infidelity (absolutely scandalous during the Hays Code era); meanwhile Lugosi’s Dr. Benet seems rather okay--he just wants to take their discovery of Radium X and use it to cure people. Granted, he kind of squeezes Rukh out, but I’m not so sure that justifies being stalked by a maniac. Somewhat ironically, Lugosi himself is squeezed out and marginalized in a rare turn that sees him playing a good guy; while he’s not yet relegated to playing a creepy butler operating in the background, he never quite feels like Karloff’s equal here, mostly because the film never commits to a through-line, nor does it sufficiently develop Dr. Benet or the other “antagonists.” It’s a bizarre setup, as the unusually hammy and theatrical Karloff doesn’t come off as tragic victim (despite a late attempt at cathartic pathos before the film’s combustible climax), and the clumsy plotting renders the last act a bit anticlimactic.
Instead, The Invisible Ray plays out kind of like an early slasher--except most of the slashing is kept off-screen, of course. Most of it occurs in the film’s last act, too, and it’s further sterilized by Rukh’s method of dispatch, which involves him simply touching his victims and instantly poisoning them to death. As a pre-atomic age look at nuclear paranoia, it’s neat enough, and, as always, the pseudo-science at work here exhibits so much early 20th century optimism and imagination. Not only does Radium X cure blindness and all sicknesses, but the scientists have other cool shit at their disposal, including a device that can scan the retinas of corpses to discover the last thing they saw before expiring. And this is not to mention Rukh’s invention that gets all of this started: a huge telescope that look into the Andromeda Galaxy and enable observers to see through time. This guy was sitting on million dollar patents and he went off to look for some rock? Maybe he had everything that was coming to him after all.
The director here is Lambert Hilliyer, who helmed Dracula’s Daughter that same year for Universal. Both that film and this one exhibit a lot of cinematic surety--there are shots and mis en scene in both that are fantastic, and The Invisible Ray is a good mixture of gothic imagery with sci-fi tropes. Hillyer perhaps is more devoted to the former rather than the latter, and it results in a film that’s a little hamstrung by its era; even though there’s some nice atmosphere (especially when the opening scene is set up in a lab in the Carpathians), I can’t help but wonder what this film would look like if it had a bigger effects budget to keep more of the murders on screen. Like many of Lugosi and Karloff’s Universal collaborations, The Invisible Ray can be found on The Lugosi Franchise collection, where it’s joined by the aforementioned Poe team-ups, Murders in the Rue Morgue (a Lugosi solo outing), and Black Friday. The Invisible Ray fares about as well as any of these films, as the restored transfer and soundtrack are solid, with cinematographer George Robinson’s (one of the most undervalued talents in Universal’s stable) black and white photography being rendered beautifully. It’s a set that any fan of classic horror should own, but don’t be surprised if you find The Invisible Ray to be about the third or fourth best film on it. Rent it!
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