Visionary scientist Janos Rukh convinces a group of scientists and supporters to mount an expedition to the African continent to locate and study an ancient meteorite of great significance. He exposes himself to the highly toxic radiation of the meteorite, and while an antidote devised by Dr. Benet saves him from death by radiation poisoning, his naked touch causes instant death to others. Back in London, the benefits of the meteorite's controlled radiation offer Dr. Benet an opportunity to restore eyesight to the blind. The antidote's toxicity excites Prof. Rukh into paranoid rages as he seeks revenge against the members of his expedition, who he accuses of stealing his discovery for their own glory. Written by
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We see newspaper front pages with dates of July 31, 1937; November 2, 1937; and November 13, 1937 (at 53:30, 1:00:50, and 1:01:30, respectively). At the time of the movie's release in January of 1936, these dates were a year and a half and more in the future. The purpose of this may have been to enhance the believability of the story's science-fiction premise, though one might wonder how many theater-goers noticed. See more »
The story is frequently advanced by the old "newspaper headline" gimmick. About 45 minutes in, one newspaper tells of the "Benet expedition," but in the small print the name is misspelled as "Bennet." See more »
THE INVISIBLE RAY (Universal, 1935, released January 1936), directed by Lambert Hillyer, is the third screen teaming of two horror greats, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with KARLOFF (as he is billed in the casting credits with all capital letters), supporting a mustache and curly dark hair, this time dominating the storyline. Not quite as memorable or as successful as their previous efforts, THE BLACK CAT (1934) and THE RAVEN (1935), both suggested on Edgar Allan Poe, in which the horror relies on their characters of good versus evil, THE INVISIBLE RAY, often classified as a horror film because of Karloff and Lugosi, is actually a science fiction story with three separate chapters. And of the three, only the African expedition described below in Part II, is the slowest as well as its longest.
PART I: Set in an isolated castle somewhere in the mountains as the thunderstorm rages, Doctor Janos Rukh (Karloff) is a middle-aged but brilliant scientist with a young wife, Diana (Frances Drake), and an elderly mother (Violet Kemble-Cooper), who is not only wise, but blind. Rukh prepares to reveal his latest discovery to a group of scholars: Doctor Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), along with handsome young Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton) and Lady Arabelle Stevens (Beulah Bondi) as spectators. Rukh demonstrates his discovery of "the invisible ray" being a beam of light which he could follow back in time and space in order to see what has happened in the past. He then provides visual proof that a giant meteor struck the Earth in Africa many millions of years ago, and that this meteor is composed of an unknown element that may have substance more powerful than radium. After this demonstration, Rukh and the scholars prepare to go on timely expedition to darkest Africa. PART II: While in Africa, Rukh separates himself from his expedition, especially his wife, and discovers the ancient element called Radium X, intending to use it for the purposes of atomic medicine. He is soon contaminated by Radium X, and realizes that not only does he glow in the dark, but brings death to whatever he touches, with the first victim being his dog. With the help of Benet, an antidote is prepared for Ruhk in which he must take regularly. In the meantime, Diane, feeling neglected by her husband, finds comfort with that Ronald Drake, who now loves her. PART III: Rukh's discovery of Radium X proves successful, in which the ray used by the scholars cures blindness. Rukh uses this experiment to cure his mother from her eternal blindness, and upon getting her vision back, she doesn't like what she sees in her son. With the radiation becoming too powerful, Rukh's mind soon becomes effected, becoming less rational. He then accuses Benet and the others of "theft," even though Benet assures him that he he will get full credit for his work. Rukh is even more upset when he learns that Diane now loves Drake, thus, as in Agatha Christie's acclaimed mystery novel, "And Then There Were None," Rukh prepares to kill off those he felt betrayed him one by one, and with each death comes the destruction of statues that stand on the side of a London church.
THE INVISIBLE RAY is very much a production that predates the science fiction fantasies of the 1950s. Special effects here are first rate, compliments of John Fulton, with one particular standout scene in Africa where Rukh's machine focuses on a giant boulder, and with the strength of the invisible ray, the boulder disintegrates into powder. With Karloff's know-how into holding his viewer's interest throughout the film's 81 minutes, this production presents itself on a more elaborate scale than THE RAVEN for example. It also features a soothing but memorable music score by Franz Waxman. Although Bela Lugosi, as a European scientist supporting a little beard around his mouth, has little to do, his role is essential to the story. On the lighter side is character actress, May Beatty, in her humorous characterization as the nosy, gossipy cockney landlady.
It seems interesting to note, however, that with this third installment of Karloff-Lugosi films that Universal didn't attempt to team these two masters of horror to fulfill the trilogy in having them paired in another Edgar Allan Poe based thriller, something like "The Tell-Tale Heart" for example, but as with the aforementioned predecessors, it would have been more Hollywood than Poe. THE INVISIBLE RAY, however, is in a class by itself, but hardly gets the recognition it deserves.
THE INVISIBLE RAY, once a frequent late show or Chiller Theater replay on commercial television decades ago, played sporadically on the Sci-Fi Cable Channel in the 1990s during the late night hours where vampires and ghouls were its only viewers. It was revived again thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: April 5, 2006). It was also available on video cassette and later DVD, compliments of MCA Universal. (**)
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