The Invisible Ray (1936)

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.

This post is part of the CMBA Spring 2017 blogathon featuring Underseen & Underrated movies. Click here to learn about many more of these gems! 

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16 thoughts on “The Invisible Ray (1936)”

  1. A very appropriate fit for the blogathon, a film that I only came across when it appeared on DVD and I suspect that might be true of a fair number of other people too. It’s a fun piece of pulp, the kind of stuff I’m a bit of a sucker for.

    1. Kind of a bumpy production with a few personnel and acting changes, and a mishmash of sets and styles but what a blast. I’m with you on loving the pulpy stuff. Lugosi gives such a fun performance.. love his line when he answers questions about what happens when Rukh touches people: “they…die.”

  2. You nailed it. There is a lot of fun to be had watching the mad scientist suffer. The cast plays it to the hilt and we all learn a lesson or two about staying away from Radium X.

    I’m particular fond of the couple played by Beulah Bondi and Walter Kingsford. They looked like they were having fun as well.

    1. This movie is so fun, science that’s somehow both goofy and relevant! and great actors having a blast. I agree the Sir and Lady are a big asset, Bondi gets to scream, fret and meddle, what’s not to like? 🙂

  3. This looks like great fun — with Karloff and Lugosi showing that they can look (and surely portray) other than their typed roles–I had to look twice at that photo! I will definitely add this to my watch list.

    1. I hope you get to see it sometime and bet you’d enjoy, not too scary (they don’t even show some of the murders, just report them in the papers) with all those elements I mentioned plus a dash of Agatha Christie. Thanks!

  4. Wonderful film that gets far less attention than Raven or Black Cat. Nice role for Bela here proving he wasn’t always over the top as he is sometimes accused of. Love that Boris hair do here! Great pick and hopefully you’ve edged a few to discover it for themselves.

    1. Yes, thanks, totally agree, Bela just gives some cool, smooth and just perfect lines and reactions here. Any excuse to watch their team-up movies again!

  5. So glad you picked this one. This is one of those movies I wish I’d seen as a kid – It probably would’ve warped me for life! The science demonstration in the beginning is so outrageous, but you can’t help falling for it – possibly because Karloff is equal parts nuts and charismatic. This one needs to be in my yearly rotation. Thanks again for posting!

    1. You bet, thanks for voting for this one! That demo is fabulous, Karloff gets to wear that wild helmet, and then space/welding/hazmat suits later in Africa– those costumes add a lot to the effect.

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