The Invisible Ray (1936)
For the third consecutive year, Universal Studios, cast the two titans of 1930’s horror films together once again. As the posters proclaimed, it was Karloff and Bela Lugosi starring in this tale that leans more towards the world of science fiction than it does outright horror and depravities as did the pair’s two previous duets, The Black Cat and The Raven.
Boris Karloff stars as a reclusive scientist who lives with his wife, Frances Drake, and his mother, Violet Kemble Cooper, in an observatory that houses a giant telescope. One that will allow the curly haired Karloff to capture rays from the far away planet, Andromeda. At his invitation comes Bela Lugosi and a collection of scientists into his home to witness his discovery which immediately prompts them to head to Africa after learning that a meteor had plunged to the Earth centuries before man’s existence.
Joining Boris and Bela on safari will be Miss Drake, Frank Lawton who will prove a romantic challenge to Boris and as the financial backers, Lady Arabella and Sir Francis Stevens as played by Beulah Bondi and Walter Kingsford.
“More power than man has ever known.”
The socially awkward Karloff will find the meteor in the jungles of Africa and with it discovers Radium X. While the new discovery can be used as a healing power for the handicapped, Karloff’s direct contact with the meteor has left his body poisoned. One touch from Boris, even a handshake, will result in instant death. (Think of Lon Chaney’s Dynamo Dan in Man-Made Monster) With his skin glowing in the dark, Karloff will turn to Bela for help and the kindly Lugosi concocts a drug that will allow Boris to lead a normal life up to a point. He will always be dependent on the life sustaining drug, somewhat like a diabetic. What we don’t know is how the poison running in his veins will affect his mind.
Are you getting the picture?
All of Paris is ready to kneel at the feet of Boris but he is nowhere to be found and so it is Bela who is curing the sick with Radium X and seeing his name rise to prominence in the medical field. Jealousy surfaces in Boris’ crazed mind and when he finally arrives to confront Bela, he accuses him of stealing his discovery despite Bela informing him that the city awaits his arrival to bestow upon him the world’s gratitude. Boris opts to storm out devising a plan for revenge against those who partook in the African expedition including his wife who he suspects has taken up with Lawton. To start with he’ll murder an unfortunate lookalike to fake his own death.
“I believe that this city is at the mercy of a madman.”
With lesser characters dying mysteriously, Lugosi, suspects that Karloff is still alive and seeking to kill those who accompanied him on the trip to Africa. Those whom he believes have stolen his discovery for their own gain. A showdown awaits between these two masters of the macabre.
One of the first things that grabs me while watching this black and white thriller from Lambert Hillyer is the lowkey, understated performance from Bela Lugosi. Far too often I believe Bela is remembered by his Monogram features and Ed Wood outings that see him going over the top and down the hill with no sign of coming back. (I still love him just the same) Did Boris bring out the best in Bela? I believe so. Especially in these first three pairings and especially as Igor in Son of Frankenstein. I wouldn’t even object if you told me that Bela stole all four films despite my belief that Boris was a far better actor who was capable of and did appear in a far wider range of roles than Bela.
Boris is essentially a gentle soul here whose dream gets away from him resulting in his transformation to a crazed killer. There’s even a scene within that recalls his monster in 1931’s Frankenstein. Just as the Monster crashed into the bedroom of Mae Clarke on her wedding day, Boris will confront his supposed widow, Miss Drake, before her impending nuptials. It’s a good scene where Boris has to come to terms with his vengeance and just how far he is willing to go.
As good a film as The Invisible Ray is, it just doesn’t excite the fans like the earlier two films. They’re far more memorable in the pantheon of horror than this hybrid sci-fi tale proves to be looking back. Perhaps it’s too underplayed. By that I don’t mean Lugosi but rather Karloff. He’s not a mad scientist from the outset looking to control the world with his customized Radium X ray gun. Perhaps a little more of Karloff’s Fu Manchu injected into his Dr. Janos Rukh may have raised the entertainment bar from satisfactory to sublime.
Still that’s not to say The Invisible Ray should be ignored. It’s a bigger budgeted film than either The Black Cat ($92,323) or The Raven ($115,209) at a cost of $166,875. The extra money is on the screen yet despite this fact and that the other two films are stage bound, they’re more memorable. That’s clearly attributed to the pair facing off against one another whereas the Invisible Ray focuses less on the pair at odds as opposed to Karloff’s character seeking revenge with Bela in more of a co-starring role.
The special effects are superior for a film of this era and it should come as no surprise that they were credited to eventual Oscar winner for Wonder Man and The Ten Commandments, John P. Fulton. Fulton was regularly employed in the stable of Universal Monsters having worked on 33’s The Invisible Man, 36’s Dracula’s Daughter and 44’s House of Frankenstein among many others. Director Hillyer helmed scores of “B” titles. Mostly western programmers and he even directed the 1943 serial Batman.
If you’re interested in the finest book ever published on the careers of Boris and Bela let alone one of the best on cinema in general, grab a copy of Gregory William Mank’s book on the pair, The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. It’s here that I sourced out the budgets on the films and where I picked up a fun piece of trivia. In the 1939 serial, The Phantom Creeps starring Lugosi, a clip from The Invisible Ray is borrowed. It’s the one where Boris in protective gear is lowered into the depths of the Earth where the meteor has crashed. It’s been inserted as a Bela scene in the serial resulting in Boris subbing for Bela in the narration.
Along with The Black Cat, The Raven and 1940’s Black Friday, The Invisible Ray is now available on blu ray thanks to Scream Factory with plenty of bonus features and is really a must have for fans of the duo and classic horrors in general.