For the CMBA Spring 2017 blogathon, Underseen & Underrated movies, I picked one that I think is both of those (at least nowadays), compared to more famous Universal horrors, better-known Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi team-ups, and also as an early example of science fiction movies. The Invisible Ray is a strange, goofy and entertaining thing, dressed in Gothic horror style, prescient in its fear of radioactivity, throwing in a cursed expedition for extra spooks, and telling the morality tale of a mad scientist following his obsession to the point of a killing spree and a literal meltdown.
The story is about the brilliant Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff)–a quack, if you ask his peers. On a dark and stormy night in Rukh’s castle, skeptics are gathered to see his new invention, a telescope that peers far into time and space. To their shock and his delight, they spy through it a meteor crashing in Africa eons ago. The group goes on expedition to find and test this rock; along with Rukh are his wife Diana (Frances Drake), curious and competitive colleague Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), aristocrat Sir Stevens (Walter Kingsford), his wife Arabella (a wonderfully meddling Beulah Bondi) and their nephew, dashing Ronald (Frank Lawton) who is crazy about Diana.
Rukh finds the meteor (during a nicely done descent scene, deep into a radium pit), but such close contact proves toxic and disastrous. He glows in the dark, instantly kills anything he touches, and can’t live without constant doses of a serum cooked up by Benet, who’s sworn to secrecy about Rukh’s condition. Rukh pushes his wife away to spare her, and consequently loses her to Ronald. Then Rukh feels he’s not getting due credit for the discovery of “Radium X” and its miraculous healing powers. He was loony to begin with, but all this perceived loss and cheating combined with the psychological side effects of the antidote, drives Rukh to fake his death and set about murdering the entire expedition party, keeping a kill tally by disintegrating church statues with his Radium X-powered invisible ray.
It’s all suspenseful, outlandish, pulpy fun: a luminous, obsessive and vindictive genius beset by insecurities and paranoia, rivals eager to help themselves to his work and his woman, a madman and his radioactive rock first terrorizing African tribes then all of Paris. The costumes, effects, gowns and make-up are attractive, Lugosi gives marvelous line readings, Karloff is intense and sympathetic and the two enact a layered, complicated rivalry that points to the bigger debate over who controls and uses science’s most powerful discoveries. Benet is cold, heroic, logical, and humanitarian, disapproving of Rukh’s unchecked emotion, flamboyance, and zeal for “power” (he gets kicks out of zapping giant boulders and dreaming of nations to conquer). Rukh’s got a bonus complex or two, tied to his extreme attachment to Mother Rukh (an excellent Violet Kemble Cooper) and guilt over the experiment that caused her blindness. Mother Rukh foresees her son’s tragic downfall, and after he restores her sight with his discovery, she sees even more clearly that she will have to be the one to end him and the danger he poses.
Any fan of Karloff, Lugosi, and Universal horror should dig for this one like it’s a sparkling chunk of Radium X; you might glow with discovery.