June 27, 2007

The Invisible Ray (1936)

There is no doubt that during the decade of the 30s, the names of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi became a sure guarantee of excellent performances in high quality horror films. After being Universal's "first monster" in the seminal classic, "Dracula", Bela Lugosi became the quintessential horror villain thanks to his elegant style and his foreign accent (sadly, this last factor would also led him to be type-casted during the 40s). In the same way, Boris Karloff's performance in James Whale's "Frankenstein" transformed him into the man to look for when one wanted a good monster. Of course, it was only natural for these icons to end up sharing the screen, and the movie that united them was 1934's "The Black Cat". This formula would be repeated in several films through the decade, and director Lambert Hillyer's mix of horror and science fiction, "The Invisible Ray", is another of those minor classics they did in those years.

In "The Invisible Ray", Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant scientist who has invented a device able to show scenes of our planet's past captured in rays of light coming from the galaxy of Andromeda. While showing his invention to his colleagues, Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), they discover that thousands of years ago, a meteor hit in what is now Nigeria. After this marvelous discovery, Dr. Rukh decides to join his colleagues in an expedition to Africa, looking for the landing place of the mysterious meteor. This expedition won't be any beneficial for Rukh, as during the expedition his wife Diane (Frances Drake) will fall in love with Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), an expert hunter brought by the Stevens to aid them in their expedition. However, Rukh will lose more than his wife in that trip, as he'll be forever changed after being exposed to the invisible ray of the meteor.

Written by John Colton (who previously did the script for "Werewolf of London"), "The Invisible Ray" had its roots on an original sci-fi story by Howard Higgin and Douglas Hodges. Given that this was a movie with Karloff and Lugosi, Colton puts a lot of emphasis on the horror side of his story, playing in a very effective way with the mad scientist archetype and adding a good dose of melodrama to spice things up. One element that makes "The Invisible Ray" to stand out among other horror films of that era, is the way that Colton plays with morality through the story. That is, there aren't exactly heroes and villains in the classic style, but people who make decisions and later face the consequences of those choices. In many ways, "The Invisible Ray" is a modern tragedy about obsessions, guilt and revenge.

A seasoned director of low-budget B-movies, filmmaker Lambert Hillyer got the chance to make 3 films for Universal Pictures when the legendary studio was facing serious financial troubles. Thanks to his experience working with limited resources, Hillyer's films were always very good looking despite the budgetary constrains, and "The Invisible Ray" was not an exception. While nowhere near the stylish Gothic atmosphere of previous Universal horror films, Hillyer's movie effectively captures the essence of Colton's script, as he gives this movie a dark and morbid mood more in tone with pulp novels than with straightforward sci-fi. Finally, a word must be said about Hillyer's use of special effects: for an extremely low-budget film, they look a lot better than the ones in several A-movies of the era.

As usual in a movie with Lugosi and Karloff, the performances by this legends are of an extraordinary quality. As the film's protagonist, Boris Karloff is simply perfect in his portrayal of a man so blinded by the devotion to his work that fails to see the evil he unleashes. As his colleague, Dr. Benet, Bela Luogis is simply a joy to watch, stealing every scene he is in and showing what an underrated actor he was. As Rukh's wife, Frances Drake is extremely effective, truly helping her character to become more than a damsel in distress. Still, two of the movie highlights are the performances of Kemble Cooper as Mother Rukh, and Beulah Bondi as Lady Arabella, as the two actresses make the most of their limited screen time, making unforgettable their supporting roles. Frank Lawton is also good in his role, but nothing surprising when compared to the rest of the cast.

If one judges this movie under today's standards, it's very easy to dismiss it as another cheap science fiction film with bad special effects and carelessly jumbled pseudoscience. However, that would be a mistake, as despite its low-budget, it is remarkably well done for its time. On the top of that, considering that the movie was made when the nuclear era was about to begin and radioactivity was still a relatively new concept, it's ideas about the dangers of radioactivity are frighteningly accurate. One final thing worthy to point out is the interesting way the script handles the relationships between characters, specially the friendship and rivalry that exists between the obsessive Dr. Rukh and the cold Dr. Benet, as this allows great scenes between the two iconic actors.

While nowhere near the Gothic expressionism of the "Frankenstein" movies, nor the elegant suspense of "The Black Cat", Lambert Hillyer's "The Invisible Ray" is definitely a minor classic amongst Universal Pictures' catalog of horror films. With one of the most interesting screenplays of 30s horror, this mixture of suspense, horror and science fiction is one severely underrated gem that even now delivers a good dose of entertainment courtesy of two of the most amazing actors the horror genre ever had: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.


Buy "The Invisible Ray" (1936)

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