The production code seriously handicapped some types of films when it went into effect in 1935. The restrictions made it nigh near impossible for major studios to produce horror pictures. So, what could Universal do, when they still had Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? These were actors whose fame was almost exclusively through their work in horror.
1935’s The Invisible Ray is the result of such a dilemma: a science fiction film with trapping of horror worked into it, as well as some “wild safari” kind of fare. It is a mess, but it is a fascinating one.
First, consider the title. Without knowing anything about the story, I suspect most people would be saying to themselves, “Yes, most rays are invisible”. In fact, very little of the entire spectrum of waveforms is detectable by the human eye. And it will be quite a while before the movie gives any real idea as to what the titular ray does and why it is important. Until then, the viewer is subjected to such bizarre, and grammatically suspect musings as, “Who [can] say that the invisible ray is impossible to science?” So, science is a verb now? That gives me a lot to chew on, but I don’t know if I can food it.
The movie begins promisingly enough. It’s a dark and stormy night at the old castle. There’s an easily provoked mad scientist played by Karloff in a weird, curly wig. There’s Francis Drake, as his young wife, and Violet Kemble Cooper as his blind mother.
Karloff has invited a group of scientists, including Lugosi, to witness a demonstration of some sort of amazing new technology he has invented. According to the overly sensitive Karloff, “They’ll never laugh at me again.” I think it would be hilarious if it was then revealed his fly was open, and it is thoughts like that which provide ample evidence for why I don’t direct movies.
The scene with the demonstration is as fascinating as it is baffling. Great matte work provides the upper portions of his laboratory and his observatory. There is a weird dreaminess to some of the shots. A moment where the camera pushes in slowly past the moon immediately brought to mind a similar shot in Eraserhead. There is also some great imagery of old electrical gear, with sparks and rays of light shooting around. There’s also a recurring image of the guests seated in a row, all looking up at a light from above, which I found a bit uncanny, though I cannot articulate why.
Now, I found it difficult to understand what it is that Karloff is demonstrating, so it will be hard to me to explain it here. Somehow, he is looking deep into space and, from that vantage point, can look back at Earth and see eons back into our own past. As he puts it, “The theory of reproducing vibrations from the past is not new.” Um…it’s not?! I subscribed to Scientific American for a few years and can’t recall anything like this ever being covered there.
Through his technique, the gathered visitors see a huge meteorite crashing into our planet long before there were humans. Karloff just knows this meteorite is made of a previously unknown element that is an unprecedented source of power. Yeah, I know–just roll with this.
So then it’s off to Africa. For some reason, everybody except Karloff goes, with him saying he will arrive later. I guess he wanted to give his wife time to develop an attraction to fellow traveler Frank Lawton. These two make for a curious couple, as he looks downright pre-pubescent with his complete lack of shoulders. This is emphasized for maximum unintended hilarity when he is wearing an oversized pith helmet. He looks like a little kid playing grown-up.
While in Africa, Lugosi proves to be about as goofy as Karloff’s character, and that is strange, as he plays the good guy in this. He spews such bizarre inanities as, “This proves, I think, that human organisms are only part of astrochemistry, controlled by radial forces of the sun.” I think he also injected a baby with one milligram of sunlight, and that called to mind the kind of crazy remedies some people were humoring at the height of Covid infections.
When Karloff does arrive on the continent, he does so secretly, as he is keeping mum on the exact location of the meteorite. He has a group of locals helping him extract the rock, which is in a cliff wall over something very hot, though I was never sure exactly what the source of the heat was. All I know is it seemed questionable he has the helpers lower him down from the top of cliff on a contraption made of rope and wood. Y’know, the most heat-resistant of all known materials…
Anyway, he gets the mineral and it has the properties he hoped it would. His first use of it is to power a death ray which he uses to dissolve a boulder, just to intimidate his assistants into doing his bidding. Seeing this, I thought it odd he already had this rather complex looking death ray before he has the mineral. Didn’t anybody wonder what that thing was before now? Also, I’m thinking he is unlikely to be supportive of labor unions.
Unfortunately for him, the exposure to the highly radioactive element had made his touch lethal. Also, it makes him glow in the dark, which should at least make it easier for potential victims to elude him.
Lugosi creates an antidote which takes care of both symptoms. But Karloff has to take a precise amount each day. Too much, too little, or too late will kill him.
Then it is back to civilization, where Lugosi uses controlled amounts of the new element to cure a variety of illnesses and disabilities. Similarly, Karloff uses it to cure his mother’s blindness, though that seems to be the only person he helps. It seems he spends most of his time festering a resentment towards Lugosi. He is also fixated on his wife, who is getting married again. Not sure why he is so angry toward her as he has faked his own death.
One can imagine roughly how the rest of The Invisible Ray plays out. It is an enjoyable enough movie, but it is impossible to take seriously. I found it most interesting that, of the two leads, Lugosi has the meatier role this time. This was especially surprising, as Universal had been moving him out of the limelight and shifting their focus to Karloff. I’m just amazed either could keep a straight face while spewing so much complete gibberish disguised as science. As a character put in in 12 Monkeys, “Science ain’t a real science with these bozos.”
Dir: Lamber Hillyer
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake
Watched on the Shout Factory blu-ray box set Universal Horror Volume 1