The Invisible Ray (1936) **½
One of Universal’s last horror movies from the studio’s supposed golden years is also, perhaps predictably, one of the least seen. The Invisible Ray is all around a very unusual film for Universal. Its backfiring-research premise would seem more at home in something from Columbia, most of the supporting cast was on loan from MGM and RKO, and Bela Lugosi plays the hero!
He also plays a Frenchman, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Dr. Janos Rukh is played by the very British Boris Karloff. We shall just have to accept that some things will always be beyond human understanding. Rukh has sequestered himself away for years in his ancestral castle in the Carpathian Mountains, where he lives with his blind mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) and his young wife, Diana (Mad Love’s Frances Drake); his reputation as a scientist has been sullied by some fairly extravagant claims he once made, and he is widely regarded to be somewhat mad. Those claims had something to do with a previously undiscovered ray emanating from the Andromeda Galaxy, which Rukh and his late partner (who was also Diana’s father) said they had harnessed in such a way as to allow them to observe events in the very distant past. (Of course, when we’re talking about cosmic-scale distances, looking at a faraway object inescapably equates to looking deep into the past— the light from a star a million light-years away takes a million years to get here, with the result that we see the star as it was a million years ago. This point seems to have been altogether lost on screenwriter John Colton.) Now, however, Rukh believes that he is in a position to vindicate himself, and he has called two of his sharpest critics, Dr. Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford, from Fingers at the Window), out to his home for a demonstration. Complicating the situation in ways that will be very important later on, the two visiting scientists have brought along Stevens’s wife, Arabella (Beulah Bondi), and a cartographer about Diana’s age, by the name of Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton, of The Devil Doll)— the reason why will become clear shortly. Though Benet and Stevens are openly incredulous at first, Rukh’s success in capturing the ray from Andromeda and using it to project an image of the Earth as it appeared from space in the deepest prehistory convinces them that he was right all along. Furthermore, since the specific moment in the past which Rukh shows his guests gives confirmation to another of the scientist’s old claims— that a meteor made of a radioactive element not naturally found on Earth landed in Africa millions of year ago— Benet wants to invite Rukh to accompany him and Stevens on a venture into Nigeria to retrieve the space rock. This is where Drake comes in. He has mapped large sections of the continent’s little-known interior, and he would be a very useful person to have around for a project like the one Benet has planned. But if you’re wondering why he’s already tagging along with Benet and Stevens on a trip which began when they were certain Rukh was full of shit, then I recommend you stop wondering before you hurt yourself.
The Nigerian expedition is a trying one for everybody. Arabella Stevens is able to amuse herself by going out with Drake to slaughter the local wildlife, but Diana Rukh (that’s right— both married scientists dragged their wives along for no good reason) is simply miserable, and Sir Francis gives every indication of having spent literally every second since they got off the boat complaining about how hot it is, or how many bugs there are, or how much his feet hurt. Benet, meanwhile, keeps himself busy by zapping native babies with radioactivity in an effort to treat any of the ten thousand ailments that babies in Nigeria are prey to. The only member of the party who still seems really into it by week eight is Rukh, who has wandered off by himself with his own gang of native porters, much deeper into the bush than any of his companions are willing to go. Naturally, that means he’s the one who finds the meteor. But while he does send a runner back to the camp with a letter for his wife immediately upon his discovery, that letter mentions nothing about his success, and states only that he’s going to be working on his own for a while yet. Rukh also says that he can offer no estimates as to when he’ll be able to rejoin her. That’s not what Diana wanted to hear (nor any of the others, either, for that matter), and she follows the runner back to her husband. Her arrival, unfortunately, occurs just minutes after Rukh has discovered that he must have been careless at some point while handling his “Radium X,” for he now glows in the dark, and his touch will kill instantly. Your guess as to why he insists upon keeping his accident a secret is as good as mine, but whatever his reasons, he really makes with the mysterious when Diana comes to see him, and she returns to the camp distraught and bewildered.
Rukh is still playing at cloak and dagger when he sneaks into his colleagues’ camp one night soon thereafter, and seeks out Benet. The irradiated scientist has brought along what he hopes is everything Benet will need to cure him of his condition, but again he demands that nobody— least of all Diana— be told about his clandestine visit. Benet works both fast and well, and Rukh is able to slip away once more under cover of the same night’s darkness with several vials full of drugs in his pocket, and no Radium X halo to call attention to him. Benet warns Rukh of a potential side-effect, though. Both the Radium X and its antidote are powerfully toxic, and Benet fears that the constant interplay of the two poisons will eventually damage Rukh’s brain. It therefore makes a certain amount of sense that Benet would want to check up on Rukh when he still hasn’t come back to the camp more than a month later. There have been big developments at both sites during that time. Rukh has learned to harness the emissions of Radium X into a death-ray, and he is hard at work on a system of filters that will turn the powerful radiation to constructive purposes as well. He’s also become extremely paranoid and possessive, believing that Stevens and Benet would steal his discovery from him if they were given a chance. Meanwhile, Diana has fallen ill, and everybody at the main camp except for Benet has shipped out for home so that she may be treated in a setting more conducive to recovery. Furthermore, the long separation between her and her husband has left Diana open to the advances of Ronald Drake, and the letter from Diana that Benet hands to Janos is concerned mostly with her asking for a divorce. Finally, Benet reveals that he has been studying the Radium X sample which Rukh left with him that night, with the result that he’s much closer than Rukh is to finding a medical application for it. All in all, none of the day’s revelations are such as to put Janos in a good mood, and Benet leaves him raving incoherently in his tent when he too departs for civilization.
Rukh finally comes home to the Carpathians, and things might have gone well enough if he had stayed there. He puzzles out all the secrets of Radium X, and even uses it to restore his mother’s sight. There is, however, the matter of the divorce to attend to, along with the Nobel Prize which Rukh has been awarded upon the recommendation of Stevens and Benet. Janos believes he must go to Paris, even despite his mother’s warnings that he will find tragedy when he gets there. The old lady is right. Once he’s back in close proximity to Benet, Diana, Stevens, and Drake, Rukh flips his lid good and proper. He fakes his death with the unwilling aid of a man he meets at a soup kitchen, then rents a room facing the Church of the Six Saints (actually the exterior cathedral set from The Hunchback of Notre Dame), where Diana and Ronald are married. Then he sets in motion a campaign of revenge, using the radioactivity that returns whenever his daily shot of Benet’s drug wears off to exterminate the people who accompanied him to the jungle. And each time he strikes, he uses his Radium X death ray to disintegrate whichever statue on the church’s façade he associates with his latest victim.
I’m sure you can see by now just how far removed from Universal’s usual gothic horror The Invisible Ray is. Apart from the globe logo preceding the opening credits, the only obvious indicator of the studio’s involvement is Janos Rukh’s lab equipment, much of which was recycled from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. I wish the script weren’t so heavily riddled with plot-holes and absurdities (a small but telling example: our heroes go looking for the meteor in Nigeria, but the vision from Andromeda which sets the whole business in motion clearly depicts the site of the impact being a good thousand miles to the south, near the current border between Angola and Namibia), because I’d like to be able to give less qualified praise to a movie which displays such creative independence. The Invisible Ray also benefits from a somewhat faster pace than was usual for a 1930’s horror film, and it’s very interesting to see Bela Lugosi playing a no-two-ways-about-it good guy for once. There is some surprisingly effective use of simple special effects techniques that look pretty good while costing next to nothing, especially in Rukh’s death scene, in which he finally falls victim to his own radioactivity. And for a movie made after the 1934 strengthening of the Production Code, The Invisible Ray exhibits a most unexpected willingness to play rough. The more you think about it, the dumber it seems, but if you can postpone that thinking until after the final fade-out, this is a fairly rewarding little film.