Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Invisible Ray (1936)

By Orrin Grey

The Invisible Ray (1936). Directed by: Lambert Hillyer. Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Released to TV syndication in the 50s as part of the Shock Theater package of classic Universal horror films, The Invisible Ray is nonetheless not as well known as many of its peers. Though the version I watched was packaged in the Bela Lugosi Collection, it actually stars Boris Karloff (credited simply as KARLOFF), with Lugosi essaying a supporting role.

The Invisible Ray opens with a great “foreword” assuring us of the plausibility of what we are about to watch, with such great lines as: “Every scientific fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad.” From there, it transitions immediately to one of the best castles I have ever seen in one of these old movies, where Karloff’s (not yet) mad scientist character has his laboratory. It seems that Karloff has harnessed a “ray from Andromeda” that will let him see and project images of Earth as it was “thousands of millions” of years ago. From this, he is able to determine that a meteorite struck Africa long ago, bearing a new element more powerful than radium, which he and his fellow scientists dub Radium X.

On a suitably dark and stormy night, Karloff assembles the rest of the cast in his castle to demonstrate his discovery. Among them are Karloff’s blind and cryptic mother, a doubting scientific rival played by Lugosi, a husband-and-wife pair who appear to be financiers, the wife’s nephew, and Karloff’s own young wife — played by Frances Drake (Mad Love). From there, the film travels to Africa, as Karloff joins the others on an expedition to find the Radium X.

Oddly paced for a movie of its time, The Invisible Ray seems as if it takes a while to get going, with the sequences in Africa feeling like they dominate the movie’s running time. While there, Karloff neglects his wife in favor of searching for Radium X, while she, predictably enough, begins to fall for the nephew, who is closer to her own age. Karloff finds the Radium X — which is still burning and giving off sparks, even after the aforementioned “thousands of millions” of years — and demonstrates its power to the natives in a great sequence where he melts a boulder.

Unfortunately for him, the Radium X irradiates him, causing him to glow in the dark and kill anyone he touches. (The glowing-in-the-dark scenes are particularly weird-looking, with Karloff just sort of looking like he’s been smudged.) Lugosi’s character is able to cobble together a treatment that will keep Karloff’s condition from growing any worse and allow him to touch people without killing them, so long as he takes the treatments regularly. If he doesn’t, Lugosi warns, the poisoning will kill him, too, reducing him to ash. In high mad science fashion, however, the interaction of the Radium X poisoning and the treatments affects Karloff’s mind, making him paranoid and eventually insane. And of course, for no particularly good reason, Karloff insists that no one must know of his condition.

Finally, in the film’s last twenty minutes or so, Karloff kills some poor Frenchman to fake his own death and then starts knocking off the people he believes have wronged him, using his newfound touch-of-death powers. These include Lugosi and the trip financiers, who he believes stole his discovery, as well as his young wife and her new lover.

It’s a surprisingly globe-hopping movie, traveling from the Carpathian Mountains to Africa and back to Paris for the final scenes. It’s also ably directed by Lambert Hillyer, who doesn’t do anything particularly showy, but pulls the scenes together well and has a solid screenplay by John Colton, featuring lots of exposition by newspaper headlines and brochures. Hillyer directed Dracula’s Daughter that same year, before going on to do about a million westerns, while Colton had previously written the screenplay for Universal’s first foray in werewolf films, Werewolf of London.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we uncover the bizarre secret of The Mummy’s Curse.