'The Death Ray' is not a comedy: it's a documentary film of what purports to be an actual demonstration of a genuine invention. Unfortunately, we'll never know how much of what occurs here is authentic science, and how much is hoax or outright fraud. 'The Death Ray' reminds me of that notorious Bigfoot footage (Bigfootage?) photographed by Roger Patterson, which appears to be a flat-out hoax except for the clever detail that Patterson was sincerely duped into believing he was photographing an authentic Bigfoot.
Some background: from 1906 until his death in 1941, English scientist Harry Grindell Matthews made some small but genuine contributions to electrical engineering and radio technology. Matthews was England's answer to Nikola Tesla: like Tesla, Matthews produced some legitimate inventions, but (in both men's cases) the most ambitious creations never seemed to get beyond the planning stage. For HG Matthews, the greatest (and most notorious) of his 'almost' inventions was his death-ray machine. Matthews always asserted that this was a genuine invention: he also insisted that his weapon's projection was a beam, not a ray ... because it consisted of a modulated particle wave rather than a natural radiant emission (such as sunlight).
'The Death Ray' is a 25-minute film made by the Pathe newsreel company in April 1924. Ostensibly, this is a straightforward record of a legitimate scientific experiment ... but Matthews controlled the circumstances of the filming, and he had wide opportunity for fraud.
In the film, Harry Grindell Matthews bears no resemblance to a crackpot or 'mad' scientist. He appears on screen -- slim, handsome, dignified -- wearing a spotless lab coat and spats. His laboratory, indeed, looks like a genuine place of scientific research. There are no hunchbacked assistants, no bubbling alembics, no Strickfaden paraphernalia. The only oddity on offer is the death-ray machine itself, which looks like one of those 'what the butler saw' contraptions at Blackpool Pier.
On a tabletop bearing a metal plate, an assistant places a small cage containing a live rat. Matthews peers through the eyepiece of his death machine, pulls a few levers ... hey presto! The rat twitches, then falls dead. We never actually *see* a deadly ray, but that's scientifically plausible: visible wavelengths of radiant energy aren't fatal, so a genuine death ray would have to be invisible. Or maybe the rat was actually killed by an electric current in that metal plate.
The faithful assistant (careful to keep clear) suspends an incandescent light bulb in the path of the death ray, turning it to reveal that there are no electrical wires. Matthews pulls his levers, and the bulb lights up ... with no discernible power source. Again, this could be faked. Next, an assistant sets a bicycle wheel spinning. One zap from the invisible ray, and the wheel stops in its tracks.
For his grand finale, Matthews aims the machine at a tray of gunpowder ... which explodes with a satisfyingly large cloud of smoke. Judging from the reactions of the onlookers in this silent film, there must have been quite a loud bang, too.
Genuine or fake? Matthews appears to have been a highly eccentric man who nonetheless was more interested in scientific discovery than in charlatanism or personal publicity. In my uninformed opinion, I suspect he was like those Victorian spiritualists who claimed to be able to summon the spirits of the dead ... and who were often caught faking their supernatural effects. Some of these people were outright frauds, but others seemed to be misguided individuals who sincerely believed in spiritualism ... to the point where they saw nothing wrong in 'helping' the spirits along, with a few bits of fakery. It may be that HG Matthews believed in his own death-beam technology so sincerely that he resorted to 'helping' it by means of some fakery. I'm forced to conclude that the death-ray energy never existed, as someone else would almost certainly have discovered it independently by now. As such, I'll rate this movie 'The Death Ray' 6 points out of 10, as a fascinating bit of fakery.
UPDATE: I'm appending this addendum (or addending this appendum) three years after my original IMDb review. In the intervening time, I've learnt a bit about Harry Grindell Matthews, and I now believe that he was a flat-out fake ... worse than a fake, well and truly a fraud in the criminal sense. Apparently he spent most of his backers' funds on posh living for himself rather than R&D for his death beam. Also, to film 'The Death Ray' he engaged a director (Gaston Quiribet) whose background was in special-effects work and cinematic trickery: a strange choice if this movie were a straightforward documentation, but a very logical choice if the film was meant to deceive. I now suspect that deception was Grindell Matthews's intention all along. Well, movies ARE meant to be make-believe! Ah, well...
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