Bela LugosiFrank LawtonFrances DrakeBeulah Bondi
The Invisible Ray
Medium: film
Year: 1936
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Writer: Howard Higgin, Douglas Hodges, John Colton
Keywords: SF, horror, Universal
Country: USA
Actor: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi, Frank Reicher, Paul Weigel, Georges Renavent
Format: 80 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 16 May 2011
It's not one of Universal's The Invisible Man sequels. Instead it's Planet of Evil. Admittedly that's a 1975 Doctor Who story and this is a black-and-white 1936 horror movie starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but both of them are...
1. SF/horror stories in which an ill-advised scientist discovers an element with silly superpowers, but eventually it upsets the balance of his mind and triggers a physical metamorphosis which makes his body glow and ends up causing him to kill people just by touching them. The most important thing about this element is that it can generate unthinkable quantities of energy.
2. There's a treatment for this condition, but no cure.
3. Another scientist tries to help our monomaniacal hero, but gets refused.
4. The technobabble is theoretically based in real-world science, but in practice is going off on such flights of fancy that it's hard even to call it science-fiction.
5. It's a story point that we'll be watching a planet on a screen and talking about huge spans of elapsed time.
The difference is that I like Planet of Evil, while I was bored by The Invisible Ray. I was having to force myself to keep going through the second half.
The story begins with Karloff about to demonstrate his ultimate theory to a bunch of scientists (including Lugosi). He's expecting a hostile reception, but instead his demonstration is a triumph and they invite him on their scientific expedition to Africa. Karloff accepts, but then once in Africa appears to be the only member of the party who had even any intention of being scientific. He disappears into the bush, while everyone else either seems to be bellyaching about the climate or going on hunting expeditions. Karloff finds "Radium X" and... okay, that'll do. Killer Karloff is still a long way off at this point, by the way. There's still plenty more dull stuff to come before then. The problem with the plot is that it's pretending to be about scientific research, yet the science is so silly that they might as well be praying to Titania, King of the Fairies. Compare with the Creature from the Black Lagoon movies, one of the best things about which was their scientific conviction.
There's a real-world core to the technobabble, though. Karloff's Radium X is a thousand times more powerful than radium, which at the time was the most famous example of the search for atomic power. That year radium E (bismuth-210) became the first radioactive element to be made synthetically in the United States, while 1938 saw the world's first man-made nuclear fission. Karloff basically gets irradiated. The first nuclear bomb was still a decade away, but even so this film predicts massive destructive power, as well as amazing medical possibilities, for its Radium X. This could have been really cool. However it's in a script containing gems like "we travel at a speed far greater than light... the pace of electric magnification!" Photographing a dead person's eyeball might show you the face of their killer. Radiation cures blindness and its ill-effects can be staved off by subjecting yourself to more radiation. Lugosi's specialist field is astrochemistry, or in layman's terms "sun worship".
The flapdoodle doesn't end there. Boris Karloff (born 1887, making him about fifty) has a mother, played by Violet Kemble Cooper (born 1886 and looking younger than him). Furthermore this is the kind of mother who predicts doom on everything and says things like, "Your experiments are your friends. Leave people alone."
Then you've got the casting. Boris Karloff is playing a Hungarian scientist, while Bela Lugosi really is Hungarian and yet is playing a Frenchman. What's doubly disappointing about this is that Lugosi would have done a better job with Karloff's role. Karloff is playing a scientist who goes homicidally insane with jealousy and bitterness, yet throughout it all is still in love with his beautiful young wife even when he loses her. Rich stuff, eh? That's perfect for Lugosi. He'd have been awesome. He'd have given us all the unhinged intensity you could ask for. Karloff though is doing his usual dignified Karloff thing, which means he's got great screen presence and is always well worth watching, but is almost gentle when it comes to his insanity at the end. That craggy face can deliver some top-quality brooding, but on an emotional level he never lets slip his anchor. I'll defend Karloff in The Climax, but here, not so much.
Lugosi's playing it dead straight, though. He's practically the hero! The rest of the cast is fine, with Frances Drake being very attractive and Violet Kemble Cooper having coincidentally been in The Invisible Man, while Frank Lawton manages to avoid being wooden in the thankless role of the handsome romantic interest.
I did have a slight problem with the film's take on Africa, though. The white folks' attitudes were convincing and I believed in them, but the natives struck me as being ever so slightly reminiscent of the Comedically Cowardly Negroes that you'd get in American movies of the time, which felt perhaps inappropriate for Africans. Lugosi also refers to a black child as a creature, albeit not in an abusive way.
The special effects are solid. They didn't make Karloff glow on-set, but instead had a crew of animators working around the clock on eight-hour shifts. It took well over a thousand feet of hand-pencilled mattes and 16,000 drawings to get that effect. It looks good. They've also given him a tan and a Greek moustache, yet his accent is from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I don't know. I'm normally a sucker for Karloff and Lugosi, but this one just had me itching. I couldn't believe in it. The scientists are unconvincing, which is a problem in a storyline that's built on nothing else, and then later Karloff's madness is underplayed too. I suppose he's going for pathos, playing a man rather than a monster. That's fair enough. Maybe I'd have liked it better if I hadn't been left behind by the rest of the film. It looks great and it looks as classy as all those black-and-white Universal movies, but I don't think it works. Whatever it tries to do, it's half-arsed. Note the way that half the plot development is conveyed through newspaper headlines, including things like Karloff going home to the Carpathians. Presumably that's the 1936 equivalent of a cute puppy news story or "this is an amusing website we found on the internet".
A bit boring, I'm afraid. Put it on in the background while you're eating dinner or something.