One thing Universal Pictures definitely got right in their series of Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi collaborations was allowing the two actors to stray from their legendary roles as the Frankenstein monster & Count Dracula. Unfortunately for Lugosi, the 1936 picture The Invisible Ray only allowed him to stray as far as the role of a mad scientist, something he had played almost as often as he portrayed the world’s most famous vampire. Fortunately for the audience, the film made enough room for two mad scientists, so Karloff & Lugosi could continue living their offscreen professional rivalry in meta, fictional contests. Karloff always gets top billing in these pictures, which I’m sure drove Lugosi mad, but in their first few movies together they typically traded the narrative spotlight back & forth. In The Black Cat they shared it. In The Raven Lugosi stole the show. In The Invisible Ray Karloff actually earns his top billing, playing the more interesting, omnipresent mad scientist of the pair.
The best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in the spooky mad scientist sci-fi horror in the the two segments that bookend the duller half of the film. The promise of this antiquated sci-fi horror glory is apparent as soon as the film’s “Forward”: “Every science fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad. Who are we on this youngest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science? That which you are now to see is a theory whispered in the cloisters of science. Tomorrow these theories may startle the universe as a fact.” So what “science fact” are we to look forward to in the future? Apparently an alien element known as Radium X, delivered to Earth via a “few thousand millions of years” old asteroid crash has been discovered by Karloff’s maddest-of-all scientist. Karloff has a million & ten different uses for Radium X that range from curing blindness to the creation of a sort of death ray. Too bad exposure to the element causes his skin to glow in the dark & the gentlest of his touches to kill on contact. Lugosi’s less-mad scientist wants to use Radium X to help prove his vague theories about how “the Sun is the mother of us all,” and although the two men work together on the element’s discovery & procurement, they disagree on its practical applications, something that gives Lugosi’s dissenter the moral high ground once Karloff’s touch becomes luminous & deadly. In a lot of ways this reflects their real life professional rivalry, seeing how they both had a distaste for one another, but worked on eight feature films together anyway.
I’ve skipped over a lot of the film’s second act shenanigans, which involve a lengthy expedition to Africa in the quest to harvest Radium X from the asteroid crash site. This being a 1930’s film, there’s a lot of unseemly representation of black characters in these scenes as subservient, easily frightened native tribesmen, but if nothing else this is the first instance I’ve seen of a non-white character having a speaking role in any Karloff/Lugosi collaboration so far. There’s also some thought given to how women’s contributions to the scientific community, represented here in Karloff’s much-suffering wife & mother, are often attributed to men. Of course, these instances of non-white, non-male representation are a little thin & undercooked. At best, it’s a modest start & not much more. As I said before, the best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in its mad scientist spookiness. Early scenes featuring a Frankenstein-esque castle being repurposed as a planetarium provide some great, oldschool outer space weirdness, which combined with Karloff’s transformation into The Very Visible Man supplies The Invisible Ray with its most memorable elements. Karloff is particularly captivating in the film, whether he’s donning a stunning welding mask & cape combo (complete with rubber gloves), glowing like a nightlight, or dispensing of his enemies with the simple act of a genteel handshake. By comparison, Lugosi’s presence is far more understated, distinguished only by a goatee that makes him look like a mid-90s alt bro. The Invisible Ray was far from the pair’s best collaboration at the time of its release (that would be The Black Cat), but it’s also far from their nadir. In short, it’ll do.