Lambert Hillyer, 1936
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Beulah Bondi
After Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s excellent first collaboration together, The Black Cat (1932), The Invisible Ray is somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow. Karloff plays mad scientist Dr. Janos Rukh, who has been experimenting with a telescope that looks deep into space, so far it can see into the Earth’s past and project images onto a screen. Rukh and some other doctors he has invited to witness his latest experiment, including Dr. Benet (Lugosi), observe a meteor that hit the Earth far in the past and landed in Africa. Rukh, his neglected wife, Benet, and several others go on an expedition there to find the meteor. Rukh locates it alone and discovers that it has powerful healing powers, but he is exposed to strong doses of radiation first. This makes him glow in the dark, his touch becomes lethal to others, and he starts losing his mind. Benet helps him find a temporary antidote, but it does not keep him stable for long.
Rukh’s wife Diana, ignored for several months, fall in love with Ronald, the nephew of a scientist working with Benet. Meanwhile, Benet decides that Rukh’s discovery must be made public to do the most possible good and he sets up a clinic to help the sick. The combination of feeling like his wife and discovery were stolen is enough to drive Rukh totally insane. He fakes his own death and then goes after the members of the expedition one at a time, his radiation poisoning growing worse all the time.
This sci-fi horror hybrid has a few interesting things going for it. It is unusual to see a pre-WWII film about radiation poisoning, which would become such a major theme in horror and sci-fi films in the ‘50s. Rukh and Benet's use of the element found in the meteor channeled through a laser prefigures some modern treatments like chemotherapy and laser surgery. It is also odd to see a thoroughly subdued Bela Lugosi, in a side role here as Dr. Benet, exhibiting none of his usual creepiness or scenery chewing. Karloff, on the other hand, is completely over the top and looks absurd with a odd wig flopped on top of his distinguished head. He is also given very little to do here and frenetically paces the set, often doing little more than glowing in the dark.
Though director Lambert Hillyer did an excellent job with the underrated Dracula’s Daughter, made the same year, his direction here is bland and lifeless. The opening, which bears much in common visually with Dracula’s Daughter, is excellent and starts out in a dark castle in the Carpathians on a stormy night. Rukh’s laboratory setting is impressive, but most of the film is spent in Africa or in Paris (the location of the film’s conclusion). There is very little action and, weirdly, also little dialogue. Rukh is not subjected to radiation poisoning till the half hour mark and he doesn’t kill his first victim until the hour mark. Much of the proceedings are painfully slow going.
The only real reason to see this film is if you love Karloff and Lugosi collaborations. Lugosi is in fine form and gives a different side of his acting ability here, looking thoroughly debonair. Karloff is unfortunately wasted and very much gives the feeling that he would like to go way more over the top than the script allows. Frances Drake (Mad Love), his forlorn wife, is also good in her limited scenes, though it is difficult to feel sympathy for a character who admits she married someone she didn’t love and spends the first 45 minutes of the film moping and the rest of the film waiting for her husband to go away so she can marry someone else. There are definite shades of the marital issues present in Werewolf of London, which makes sense as both films were penned by John Colton.
If you want to check out an early example of the kind of sci-fi horror that would take over cinema two decades later, The Invisible Ray is included in the Bela Lugosi Collection. This also has a number of other collaborations with Karloff, such as The Black Cat, The Raven, Black Friday, and stand alone Lugosi film Murders in the Rue Morgue.