(5/10) In a nutshell: The last of Universal’s classic horror sci-fi films before the ousting of studio boss Carl Laemmle Jr. The Invisible Ray boasted both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in an uneven, but fairly well made and very entertaining death ray film. Lugosi is seen in a rare heroic role, and Karloff is typecast as a mad scientist. Oh, and human organisms are only part of astro-chemistry controlled by forces from the sun, you know.
The Invisible Ray (1936). Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Written by John Colton. Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Produced by Edmund S. Granger for Universal. Tomatometer: 89 %. IMDb score: 6.7
In 1936 we were reaching ”peak mad scientist”, inasmuch as the subgenre’s films in the United States were gradually diminshing in quality, and after flirting with A-films, were now deeply mired in the bad B-movie bog. About two thirds of the mad scientist films churned out by studios in the coming years would be held together simply by casting Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi as the villain. But The Invisible Ray still managed to cling to some originality, and can in retrospect be seen as one of the standard bearers for the death ray subgenre, not generally known for producing quality films.
The plot is a bit too convoluted to describe in detail, but here’s the gist of it: Boris Karloff (with a stylish moustache and a wild, curly wig) is Janos Rukh, the eccentric outcast scientist who lives in a castle laboratory in the ever thunderstorm-infested mountains of Carpathia. Here he has been perfecting ways to prove his theory: that ”some thousand million years ago” a huge meteorite fell in Africa, and that the meteor consisted of a remarkable radioactive material, more powerful than anything found on Earth. Along with him lives his much younger wife Diane (Frances Drake) and his scary, blind mother who seems to have a rather unhealthy relationship with his son, and who seems to have read a bit too much Edgar Allan Poe before she lost her sight. She is played by Violet Kemble Cooper, and would probably be mistaken for Janos’ sister if the maternal relationship was not mentioned.
To demonstrate his theory Janos invites Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), who is apparently going to fund an expedition to Africa, if the theory is correct. Along tags his wife, biologist and author Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi) – clearly modelled on Baroness Karen Blixen – and her nephew, the young explorer Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton). As expert witness Janos has called in his rival Dr. Felix Benet (an unusually dashing Bela Lugosi, decked out in a smart suit and black goatee).
Janos demonstrates how he ”captures a ray” from the Andromeda galaxy through his giant telescope. Through some form of apparently radioactive means he can then send the ray back through space from where it came, and through it he can then see thousands of millions years in the past, and discover that moment when the meteorite hit the Earth. The idea here is that it takes thousands of millions of years for a ray of light to reach the Earth from Andromeda, and by sending the ray back, it will then … travel back in time? Eh, well anyway, we can then apparently see things through the eyes of the ray of light … and sort of stop and turn around as if we were in a spaceship and look at the Earth. Just go with it, ok.
In a pretty wonderful and bewildering scene, Janos then demonstrates just this, dressed in an angular welder’s mask and having his guests sit behind a new sort of protective glass that will protect them from ”any harmful rays”. The camera follows the ray out into space, with Karloff’s soft, low voice guiding us on the way just as in a show at a planetarium. We then stop, turn, and see the meteor landing somewhere near the present-day border between Namibia and Botswana. Everyone is very much impressed, including the haughty Dr. Benet, and they decide to go on an expedition to find the meteorite, despite Mother Rukh’s warnings that Janos should not spend time with people, cause he’s not a people’s person, you know.
Said and done. The film then changes from Frankensteinean goth and scfi-fi to jungle adventure, complete with hosed-down, shining black native bearers saying things like ”the men afraid, boss” or ”he run very fast, boss”. The lines are usually spoken by the head bearer played by Daniel L. Haynes. Janos finds the meteor away from the rest of the group and sets up a research station with only the natives as company. Despite his protective gear, he realises that the material makes him glow in the dark, and when he pats his dog, it drops dead with a glowing handprint on its flank.
Meanwhile back in camp, the young Diane and Ronald Drake are falling in love – again setting up the curious ”second love interest” theme often found in these sci-fi horror films, where the mad scientists’ wives and fiancées can move happily on with their lives after the scientists die – because die they mostly do. But she still manages to track down Janos, who just tells her to basically go away and be patient, but doesn’t reveal his plight.
You see, the meteorite is made out of ”radium-x” – because it is radium from outer space. And not only does it turn people into glowing radioactive Midases – when used in a ray cannon it can melt rocks, as Rukh demonstrates in a quite cool physical effects shot. But as to be able to negate the negative effects it has on his body (which also slowly shuts down), Janos has Dr. Benet make an antidote – the only problem with it being that it will slowly drive Janos insane, Benet explains. Janos then decides to keep to himself, and finds a lookalike that he murders, leading people to believe he is dead.
Here the film changes into its third act, which is a basic ”the killer creeps” plotline based in a dark Paris. Janos finds out that Benet and the Stevenses have stolen a piece of radium-x, and that Benet is now using it to to cure blind people. On top of it all, young Mr. Drake is now in a relationship with his wife, who believes herself to be a widow. Blinded by his onsetting madness, pride and jealousy, Janos decides to kill off all the people he thinks has wronged him. One by one the expedition members fall prey to his radioactive powers, until only Diane and Drake remain. Naturally Janos finally falls victim of his own evil, and repents on his death bed – naturally hinting at the fact that there are some secrets man is not supposed to know.
It would be a crime on many levels to call this a ”good” movie. But what it is is a fun movie with a lot of good ingredients, the main ones being the sheer craziness of the ideas, the lead actors and cool set designs. B-movie director Lambert Hillyer proves a steady hand at the helm, even if the most effective shots should probably be accredited to Universal’s special effects team led by John P. Fulton, who in the course of his career won two Oscars and was nominated for an additional three, and who would have probably had another win, had there been such a category as special effects when he made the effects for The Invisible Man (1933, review). A shoutout should also go to matte artist Jack Cosgrove, who created the stunning images of space – Cosgrove was nominated for 5 Oscars in his career. Hillyer himself is perhaps best know for directing the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter, the 1943 Batman series and the 1950 Cisco Kid series.
The ”science” in this film is absolutely mad. It seems that screenwriter John Colton (or original story writers Howard Higgins & Douglas Hodges) recently discovered that the light we see from the nearest stars has actually travelled thousands of years before reaching us – and then they just go with it. Don’t even try to wrap your head around how it’s supposed to work that ”capturing” a ray from Andromeda and sending it back could somehow let us see the past – from outer space.
The death ray itself is of course radium, since radium was all the rage in the thirties. Radium had already been used to treat cancer for quite some time, and was being promoted by quacks as a cure for a range of ailments – as well as promoted as a health diet ingredient in small doses during the first part of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the thirties that the public (and indeed scientists) became more aware of some of the less benign side-effects of radioactive material (still few could foresee the devastating long-term effects of the atom bomb even in the forties). In the film the ”radium-x” seems to have a whole range of effects – such as for some reason not instantly killing the person who handles it, but giving him the ability to kill people with a single touch. Once again – just go with it.
To top it all off, Dr. Benet harbours some strange metaphysical ideas of the sun being the source of everything we know, something he keeps bringing up, seemingly without any sort of bearing on the plot. Just imagine this line – in the voice of Bela Lugosi:
– It proves, I think, that human organisms are only part of astro-chemistry controlled by forces from the sun.
Bela Lugosi is on the whole underused in the film, in one of his rare roles as a good guy. Even though his scenery-chewing antics are the salt of the many Z-grade movies of his later career, it is a bliss to see him in in this almost underplayed Gestalt of the suave Dr. Benet. When he isn’t trolling a film, his unique charisma and dark voice remind us why he made such a splash with his legendary 1931 role as Dracula.
Karloff does a stable job as Janos Rukh. Very much like a latter Arnold Schwarzenegger, Karloff’s tremendous charisma worked best in roles where he spoke little, and showed a limited range of emotions. The Mummy (1932) is perhaps the role where he is able to use his best qualities without exposing his weaknesses, the most. While his private gentlemanly side shines through in his more ”normal” roles, giving them a warm, almost child-like innocence, his sincerity often comes across as overacting. Such is the case again in The Invisible Ray.
The rest of the cast is able, without impressing much – Frank Lawton and Beulah Bondi perhaps shining the most. A curious casting decision is Violet Kemble Cooper as Mother Rukh. Despite white makeup and some heavy lining, Cooper doesn’t come across much older than her actual age of 50 – and she is supposed to be the mother of Boris Karloff, who was 49 at the time. On the whole the character of Mother Rukh seems like an idea that someone had while writing a first draft, and then was forgotten about. After providing some ominous lines of misery and ill omen in the beginning – without any significance to the actual plot – she completely disappears from the film. She does reappear towards the end, but does nothing that could not have been worked out without the character. It just seems someone wanted a blind, controlling mother to deliver prophesies in a castle. And Cooper doesn’t even do a good job with the role. Indeed, the theatrical actress’ credits boast only seven other film roles.
With a cost of around 200 000 dollars, The Invisible Ray was definately a B-film for Universal, but the money was enough to create some nice-looking sets and designs. As stated before, the mattes are stunning, and the effects are quite effective. Most of the budget seems to have gone into the scenes in the beginning of the film, though, and it becomes a bit mundane after the troupe moves out from the Carpathian castle and its star-gazing laboratory.
Despite the hilarious wacko-science, the first part of the film is probably the best, even though the jungle sequences have some nice character developments. Unfortunately, by the time the third act sets in, we are back in safe old creepy murderer territory, and since there is no mystery to the identity of the killer, the ride is a rather dull one, especially as it is quite clear from the beginning how things will play out. The only real case of interest is whether Bela Lugosi, who you’ll find yourself rooting for, will be killed or not.
Actor/director Frank Reicher appears in a supporting role as Dr. Meiklejohn or Mendehlson, depending on whether you believe the lines spoken or the ending credits. The German-born filmmaker is best known for his role as Captain Englehorn in King Kong (1933, review), and he also appears in one of my favourite sci-fis of the forties, Dr. Cyclops (1940, review), as well as in House of Frankenstein (1944, review) and Superman and the Mole Men (1951).
The aforementioned Daniel L. Haynes was something as unusual in Hollywood in the thirties as a black lead actor in a major movie. Haynes had played the lead as the preacher Zeke in acclaimed director King Vidor’s gospel musical Hallelujah in 1929. It was the first all-black major Hollywood film, as well as the first all-black sound picture. Unfortunately Haynes only made eight other pictures.
We also meet a few bit-part series staples, as Lloyd Whitlock (Undersea Kingdom (1936, review), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938) and Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), and Walter Miller (The Vanishing Shadow (1934, review), Ghost Patrol (1936, review) and The Secret of Treasure Island (1938).
Supervising editor Maurice Pivar was a Universal go-to-guy, who had performed the same duties on Frankenstein (1931, review), The Invisible Man (1933, review) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). Editor Bernard W. Burton also edited the giant monster film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (review), with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen. Burton was nominated for an Oscar in 1938.
The makeup department was once again run by the legendary Jack Pierce, who created the look for all the iconic Universal monsters. As his sidekick worked Otto Lederer, a silent actor who appeared in over 120 films (including the 1923 sci-fi movie Black Oxen, review) before starting work as Pierce’s assistant. The strange semi-midieval costumes worn by the actors in the first third of the film (why? Just go with it) were designed by Brymer. Art director Albert S. D’Agostino also worked on the sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World (1951).
Another merit of the movie is the great score by legendary composer Franz Waxman, who wrote the music for The Bride of Frankenstein. His soundtrack for Sunset Boulevard (1950) was named by AFI as the 16th best score in Hollywood history, and he won two Academy awards (for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun [1951)] and received another whopping 10 (!) nominations.
As mentioned earlier, this is one of eight films in which Karloff and Lugosi collaborated, and there are conflicting accounts regarding the level of animosity between the two horror icons. While Karloff apparently never harboured any ill will towards Bela Lugosi, there are some accounts of the Hungarian-born actor regarding the Brit with suspicion and some resentment, and he is even said to have despised Karloff. Many of these accounts stem from Lugosi’s later years when he was heavily addicted to morphine and methadone (because of treatment of sciatic neuritis brought on by a WWI injury), which took their toll on his mental capacities, and during this time he is quoted as having said bad things about Karloff. A short time before his death he is reported to have awoken one night with visions of Karloff downstairs, plotting to kill him. Fuelling these reports is Tim Burton’s wonderful but quite fictional film Ed Wood, where Martin Landau plays a ranting Bela Lugosi who spouts profanity and calls Karloff a ”cock sucker who isn’t worthy of shining my boots”.
In reality, his family says, Lugosi never used profane language, and despite the bitterness over Karloff’s fame when his own career had gone down the sink in his later years, he is said to have always remained on decent terms with his ”rival” during his most active career. Karloff once stated that Lugosi seemed weary of him when they made their first film together, out of fear that Karloff would try to upstage him, but when he realised that was not the case, their relationship normalised.
It is quite natural, though, that Lugosi became more than a bit irritated over the way Universal in particular, but other studios as well, favoured Karloff over himself – always giving Karloff top billing, even in The Black Cat (1934), where Lugosi actually played the lead. Karloff was also making major films in the late forties when Lugosi was mainly cast in small parts, mostly for studios to be able to put his name on the posters – Lugosi remained popular with the audience.
There are several reasons to Lugosi’s bad luck. One is the fact that he started selling out for peanut salaries early on – and producers used this against him. Another is the fact that his thick accent made it difficult to cast him in mainstream roles, as opposed to the eloquent, British Karloff. But another reason was the decline in his health caused by his addiction to painkillers, for which he sought treatment in the fifties (partly financed by Frank Sinatra, whom Lugosi didn’t even know).
And the simple fact was that Lugosi wasn’t a very good film actor, despite his mesmerising appearance in Dracula and a few other horror films. These performances were extremely stagy (he was plucked from a very successful stage version of Dracula in 1930) and relied more on the actor’s innate charisma than any subtle acting skills. Despite his success in the Dracula play, and despite his own claims of having been ”the most famous actor of the Royal Theatre” in Budapest, the truth is that his stage career in Hungary was quite mundane. He appeared in big roles in small productions and small roles in big productions, and was a staple actor in Hungarian and German silent films.
Karloff, for his part, doesn’t seem to have been very impressed with Lugosi’s acting, and is quoted as saying that he ”never learned his trade”, although some commentators provide that this comment is taken out of context, and that Karloff was simply talking about the fact that Lugosi was never able to learn English well enough to be considered for mainstream roles. However, there are no direct quotes of Karloff talking down Lugosi, and in public he always spoke highly of his colleague, and lamented the way he was treated by studios.
Karloff himself seems to have been well aware of his value to the studios, and to have relished the fact that he could dictate terms on and off set. He was infamous for demanding daily tea breaks on all his films – something that is said to have irritated Lugosi immensely (although this statement might well be exaggerated, as actors usually don’t mind lunch breaks). But in Karloff’s defense one must remember that he was 44 by the time he made Frankenstein. Before that he had been slumming as a bit-part actor and done physical labour on the side to support himself. Frankenstein was a huge physical ordeal for him, and further worsened a back problem he sustained when doing hard work as a younger man. It was no more than natural that he took advantage of all that his fame brought in later years – including tea breaks. In any case, both Lugosi and Karloff are stated to have been most polite and gentlemanly both on and off set, and although they never became close friends, they seem to have had mutual respect and a good working relationship.
The Invisible Ray was also a turning point in history for horror films, as it was the second-to-last horror film produced by Universal before its horror franchise was momentarily suspended. It was also the second-to-last horror film made under Carl Laemmle Jr. Laemmle was the son of the studio’s founder Carl Laemmle, and produced 900 films during his career. He almost single-handedly saved Universal from bankruptcy in 1931 when he kicked off the horror franchise with Dracula and Frankenstein. But despite these merits, Universal’s owners felt that Laemmle kept putting too much money in loss-ridden films, and was unable to keep budgets from bloating. In 1936 the owners ousted Laemmle and many of his close associates, and shut down the studios’ horror films – Dracula’s Daughter was the last horror movie to come out of the studio in 1936.
By some, Dracula’s Daughter is considered as the last of Universal’s classic horror films, although the new studio chiefs had to eat their words in 1938, after a cinema owner had a tremendous success when he showed Dracula and Frankenstein as a double feature. This led Universal to re-release the films, and to restart their production of horror films in 1939, without Laemmle, who promptly quit the business and never returned.
Many shots and sets from The Invisible Ray were reused in the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (review), as well as other films, most notably perhaps the Karloff vehicle The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review)– which includes large chunks of the laboratory and jungle scenes.
The Invisible Ray. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Written by John Colton, Howard Higgins & Douglas Hodges. Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi, Frank Reicher, Paul Weigel, Georges Renavent, Walter Miller, Lloyd Whitlock. Music: Franz Waxman. Cinematography: George Robinson. Editing: Maurice Pivar, Bernard W. Burton. Art direction: Albert S. D’Agostino. Costume design: Brymer. Makeup: Jack Pierce, Otto Lederer. Special & visual effects: Raymond Lindsey, John P. Fulton, Jack Cosgrove. Produced by Edmund S. Granger for Universal.