Destruction to all he touched or looked upon!
The last time we met Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi at this site and under this byline was in The Black Cat (1934). Well, gentle reader, in comparing that film with The Invisible Ray, made two years later and featuring the same two actors, we’ll have to bring our expectations down a few notches in most categories—and those lower expectations will have no surprises.
Its failings are the wandering plot, the weak dialogue, some reused sets from other Universal films, the bogus science (though that goes with the territory) and even the disappointing music score from a composer of Franz Waxman’s stature, especially after his landmark score for The Bride of Frankenstein the year before. And, oh, yes: the mannered acting, often distracting and occasionally amusing, of presumed leading lady Frances Drake is overshadowed by the dark lady of the tale, intended as a secondary character.
Besides the reliable little monoplane that chugs around the Universal Pictures globe, there are here the familiar trademarks that made that studio the preeminent horror purveyor of the’30s and ’40s. The Invisible Ray is worth watching for the dark, shadowy German expressionism and the always competent cinematography, though it rarely approaches anything so intentional or sophisticated as what could be called “style.” Karloff and Lugosi, reliable like the little plane, remain convincing in their roles and a joy to watch, so naturally do they inhabit their surroundings of horror.
In The Invisible Ray, George Robinson is Hillyer’s cinematographer. Although the two men share credit for the underrated Dracula’s Daughter, also made in 1936, it would be Robinson who more avidly pursued the horror genre. He established himself with a number of such films, some classics, some less so: Dracula, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Son of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Tomb, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, The Cat Creeps and others.
In the process, Rukh’s telescope can pick up rays of light that show the Earth’s past, so that a meteorite hitting Africa millions of years ago is witnessed in the present by the group of scientists gathered for Rukh’s demonstration. Seeing the meteorite strike, the group invites Rukh to join them in an expedition to Africa in search of the meteorite.
As an upshot of Rukh’s so-called “invisible” ray—quite visible in this instance—it restores sight to his blind mother (Violet Kemble Cooper), who warns early on he is delving into forbidden science and, later, not to go to Africa. With an ashen face, black attire and cryptic statements, she clearly seems the potential villain of this little enterprise, but proves to be not only one of its few survivors but someone who sets things right. More charismatic than leading lady Drake, Cooper made only eight films, between 1933 and 1936; her younger sister, Lillian Kemble Cooper, Bonnie Blue Butler’s nurse in London in Gone With the Wind, made over three times the films.
Although coming close—hands hovering about her throat—Rukh is unable to kill his mother. Later, on a stairway landing, she confronts him. His face glows anew from a resurgence of the radiation poisoning. He must continue, he says, even if kept alive by the antidote, and opens the packet from his coat pocket for another shot. With her cane, she knocks the packet from his hands. The vials smash on the floor. He’s doomed! “It’s better this way,” he says, bidding farewell. Whiffs of smoke trail from around his hat as he climbs the stairs and crashes through an upstairs window. Before he can hit the ground, he vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Karloff finds a second career in television, starring in a number of series, including the British-made Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1954-56) as the title character. He appears in six episodes of Suspense (1949-53), inspired by the long-running radio program, and, later, in a similar-toned but far superior series, he hosts and stars in five installments of Thriller (1960-62). In the introductions, he always assures his viewers, “This is a thriller!”
Four years after Karloff appears in The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, Lugosi, Karloff’s partner or adversary in so much crime and horror, makes two totally different films, Ninotchka, a minor part but something of an escape from his usual, and Son of Frankenstein as Ygor, the monster’s acolyte. Well into its decline by now, Lugosi’s career does have the occasional hesitation, a partial upturn. In the last truly Lugosi vehicle, for example, he is back in form in The Human Monster, playing two roles. Although Night Monster has a novel premise—a man’s legs can briefly materialize for killing purposes—the Grand Guignoling is assumed by Ralph Morgan, and Lugosi is reduced to butler status, pulling out chairs and announcing dinner for the likes of larger-roled Lionel Atwill, Nils Asther and Leif Erickson.
Lugosi had been introduced to morphine by doctors who suggested it would relieve his kidney ailment pain. Later, down to only half a kidney, his addiction would increase, and the side effects of methadone and Demerol, not to mention his wife’s desertion and then divorce, would wreak havoc on both his body and his life. Following self-admittance to a rehabilitation clinic, he undergoes something of a recovery. He makes one more official film, The Black Sleep (see review). It includes a respectable cast—Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Akim Tamiroff—but Bela, once again, is relegated to a butler, only now mute. Later that year, 1956, his fifth wife Hope finds him dead in their apartment.
Most of the supporting stars of The Invisible Ray turn in relatively solid performances. The best of all, aside from Cooper, is possibly the English-born Kingsford. He usually plays, as here, serious, non-threatening roles, best-remembered, perhaps, as Victor in A Tale of Two Cities, Colonel Sandherr in The Life of Emile Zola and, most of all, as Dr. Walter Carew in the Dr. Kildare series. Like most actors of the time, he went mainly into TV beginning in the early ’50s, including five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Early in the beginning of The Invisible Ray, setting the general tone of her demure theatrics, Drake stands alone beside a window, looking into the distance, thinking to herself—the gear changes visible on her face—“I’m to look pensive, perhaps confused, for three seconds. Hold it!” Her breath not heard though visibly obvious, she sighs heavily, turning her head, eyes cast down. “And, now, I will look thoughtful . . . one, two, three . . . for five seconds.” Or, rather, gentle reader, maybe she’s thinking, “How did I get involved in this film?”