Director: Lambert Hillyer
Writer: John Colton
Cast: Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi, Frank Reicher, Paul Weigel, and Georges Renevant
Composer: Franz Waxman
Release Date: 1/20/1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
After creating a telescope capable of capturing images from the distant past, astronomer Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) demonstrates to Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford)—two esteemed members of the scientific community—that a giant meteor once landed in an uncharted region of the African continent. While conducting research at the impact site, Dr. Rukh is exposed to high quantities of element Radium X, allowing him to instantly kill anyone he touches. Infuriated by a perceived betrayal from Dr. Benet and his colleagues, Dr. Rukh—having cured his own mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) of blindness using concentrated doses of Radium X—seeks revenge on those who “stole” his invention from him.
The Invisible Ray is a creepy, suspenseful, and thought-provoking science fiction film by Lambert Hillyer—relevant to Universal Monster buffs for directing Dracula’s Daughter. Especially fascinating is the underlying message explored in this feature, which indicates that scientific discovery in the wrong hands can lead to devastating consequences—a prescient topic for a 1930s motion picture to examine.
Set in the Carpathian Mountains, the opening sequence introduces a variety of common horror clichés (e.g. a giant medieval castle resembling that of Count Dracula) as if to foreshadow, albeit in a subtle manner, the tragic and harrowing journey of Dr. Janos Rukh—initially a noble scientist driven mad by his extraordinary power over nature.
Also worth commending is the gravitas of Lugosi, who, though remembered for playing creeps, kooks, and creatures of the night, offers an uncharacteristically restrained and delicate performance in this film. Notably, Dr. Benet embodies a number of attributes (i.e. dignity, soundness of mind, and a profound sense of ethics) that contrast with the maniacal behavior and motivations of Dr. Rukh.
There are times when the acting of Karloff—normally a thoughtful and talented performer best known for starring in the 1931 version of Frankenstein—borders on excessive, preventing the audience from taking seriously the plight of his character. While meeting with Diane in his observatory, for example, a wild-eyed Janos delivers a campy, exaggerated monologue revealing his intention to humiliate and prove wrong the “fools” who rejected his outlandish theories—an early usage of the now famous “They Called Me Mad!” trope, and one that serves to undermine Dr. Rukh’s credibility as a brilliant man of science.
Similar to nearly every monster contained in Universal Studios’ iconic ensemble, Dr. Rukh is presented as a sympathetic figure whose murderous activities, although never depicted in a positive light, stem from external factors (e.g. real or imagined slights) as opposed to inherent malice or contempt for mankind—a factor that distinguishes the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein monster, and even Janos Rukh from the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers.
Employing gothic imagery to accentuate themes of fearing and respecting the unknown, The Invisible Ray will appeal to fans of the sci-fi/horror crossover genre. It should be indicated, however, that the unsubdued manner of Dr. Rukh—a stereotypical mad scientist—may evoke snickering from the majority of modern viewers.
Overall Quality: 7/10
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