27 January 2009

Bela Lugosi Collection: The Invisible Ray

The Invisible Ray (1936)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Starring Boris Karlof, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi.

I’ve had a short break from The Bela Lugosi Collection after the killer one-two combo of The Black Cat and The Raven. Now it’s time to move into the shadowy realm between the First and Second Age of horror movies at Universal Studios.

The era of the Laemmles at Universal came to an end in 1936 when they defaulted on a loan for funding the James Whale-directed Show Boat. The Standard Capital Corporation seized control of the company, and a new period of management started for the studio. Horror films had already lost appeal with the public, and the genre was temporarily on the outs with the studio that had made its name with gothic terrors.

The trend away from horror had already started, however. The Invisible Ray was one of the last films released under the Laemmles, hitting theaters in January of 1936. Although it starred the two biggest horror names of the day, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it veered away from horror and into science fiction with a dash of adventure serials.

The movie also shows the changing fortunes of Bela Lugosi’s career. In The Black Cat and The Raven, he had equal time with co-star Karloff, even though billed second. But in The Invisible Ray, Lugosi finds himself in the supporting role.

Our tale starts like a gothic horror film, during a lightning-laced night in the Carpathian mountains, where a mad scientist awaits holed-up in an ancient castle. Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) gives a demonstration before his doubters, who include Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), of his discovery. He has captured a “ray” from the Andromeda Nebula which allows him to project the Earth millions of years ago. Using an impressive visual display done though the work of special effects man John Fulton (the mastermind behind the effects in The Invisible Man), Janos shows his audience that a great meteor struck Africa millions of years ago, and that it contains a strange new element, Radium “X.” Quick, get Jack Kirby and Stan Lee on the line!

Through a cut and a newspaper heading, we dive into Africa and the serial adventure part of the story. Janos has separated from his companions on the trip to Africa to search for Radium “X” on his own. Benet continues his own experiments in the African camp along with Janos’s young wife Diane (Frances Drake) and their strapping explorer guide Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), who had started to fall for the beautiful Diane.

Janos locates his radioactive sample, and uses its power in a rock-melting demonstrations to frighten his native bearers (this is another great Fulton effect). But Janos’s tampering with the power of Radium “X” has started to have negative effects on him, causing him to suddenly glow in the dark (again, big props to John Fulton for this—it’s impressive and we’ll see a lot of it). The radium poisoning also gives him the Touch of Death, which he discovers when he accidentally slays his own Great Dane.

In a comic book, Janos would immediately dub himself “Mr. Radium” and go on a mad robbing and killing spree until somebody in colorful tights and a cape put a stop to him. We will get to part of that eventually, but as this is a science-fiction thriller, Janos instead runs to doctor Benet to get help, disguising himself in a radiation helmet and shielding gloves. Benet can only temporarily counteract the radiation poisoning, and gives Janos a drug he must continually take to keep the effects from resurfacing. Benet also warns that the radiation might eventually affect the brain if Janos doesn’t keep control of it. Guess what’s going to happen?

Yes, Janos goes mad, and starts babbling about leveling cities with his new power. But Benet and Sir Francis Stevens have gone behind Janos’s back to present the findings to the world so it won’t rest in the hands of one man. Janos further goes crackers when he finds out his wife has decided to leave him for Ronald Drake.

Janos returns to his Carpathian stronghold (again, the newspapers report this—must have been a slow news day) and perfects his work on the ray, managing to cure his old mother’s eyesight. He then takes off for Paris where doctor Benet is already using the power of the energy to cure people (the newspapers don’t think this is important, but the medical journals hop on it for our benefit). Janos comes to get his revenge on Benet for “stealing” the secret and Ronald Drake for grabbing his wife. He also decides to kill everyone who went on the expedition, and uses statues of saints on the church as symbolism of the six people who need to die at his radiation-tainted hands.

As the film rushes toward the finale, a barrage of newspaper headlines takes care of most of the storytelling. I think a quarter of this film consists of newspaper headlines and articles. We also get the silly spectacle of Dr. Benet photographing a murdered woman’s iris to expose the image of her killer “frozen” onto it. The whole movie has a lot of “fuzzy” science, but this is just laughable.

Lugosi and Karloff both disappoint in their roles. Lugosi has scant to work with even though he has a large amount of screen time. He has to carry off the exposition and pose as the rational counterweight to Janos’s madness, but nothing about Dr. Benet appears noteworthy. Janos Rukh is a jucier role, but for Karloff it’s standard mad scientist fare. Neither actor gets anything iconic to do.

Pure science-fiction films appeared rarely in ‘30s cinema outside of the serials, so The Invisible Ray has a genre fascination about it. It mixes in some horror elements and jungle adventure along with the science fiction, but it spreads itself too far over locations and an uneven progression of sets; there’s no universal mood holding the film together. The special effects are fun to watch, letting Fulton steal the picture from everyone involved. It must have been pleasant for Karloff to play a monster figure using post-production effects instead of arduous make-up. But these interesting aspects still don’t add up to enough to make The Invisible Ray more than an occasionally entertaining footnote in the transition period for Universal Studios and the horror movie tradition.

Universal re-visited the “glowing man with the killer electrical touch” in 1941 with Man Made Monster starring Lon Chaney Jr., a less ambitious yet far better take on the idea. It started in development originally as a Karloff-Lugosi vehicle titled The Man in the Cab, but appears to have gotten shelved in 1935 because of The Invisible Ray.