Invisible Ray, The (Universal 1936)
Glowing in that fine line between science fiction and horror is The Invisible Ray. Released on January 20, 1936 (USA), The Invisible Ray is the third and final entry in the trilogy of Karloff-Lugosi films made between 1934-1936.
The first two entries: The Black Cat (1934), and The Raven (1935), are straight horror, while The Invisible Ray without a doubt, is a science fiction thriller with overtones of horror. The film is a sign of things to come, and begins with a prophetic foreword forecasting events that will be in our modern world today. The Invisible Ray predicts the future by heralding the use of radiation, to treat/cure illnesses, and by showing the destructive forces within the element.
High atop the Carpathian Mountains is the residence/laboratory/observatory of Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff). Amidst a violent thunderstorm, Mother Rukh (Violet Kemble Cooper) and Diana (Frances Drake), the young wife of Janos, await a group of guests Janos has invited to eyewitness the reality of his scientific theories. Previously judged as unorthodox by his peers, Janos seeks to prove his theories. While they wait, Mother Rukh recalls her son’s first encounter with the great ray from Andromeda:
It was on such a night, that Janos first captured his great ray from Andromeda. Your father worked the guides, I held the detecting lens, and never saw again. My son will not learn until too late, I fear, that the universe is very large, and there are some secrets we are not meant to probe.
The guests arrive. They are – Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), his wife Lady Arabella (Beulah Bondi), and Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton) the nephew of Lady Stevens. In his laboratory, Janos captures a ray from Andromeda, then harnesses this ray through his telescope so the guests can “visually” travel upon this ray, stop, then turn and view the Earth in antiquity, thus witnessing the event of a great meteor crashing into Africa during ancient times. Rukh believes the meteor contains an element a thousand times more powerful than Radium. An element he calls Radium X.
Mother Rukh (Violet Kemble Cooper) and Diana (Frances Drake) discuss matters in hand, in The Invisible Ray (Universal 1936).
Rukh’s guests are astounded by his discovery and plan an expedition. They ask Rukh to join them and Janos agrees. However Mother Rukh, who knows her son well, foretells future events:
It will not be wise for you to go. Even though you may make a great discovery, you’ll not be happy. You’re not used to people Janos. You never will be. Your experiments are your friends. Leave people alone.
The Benet expedition journeys to Africa. Rukh sets off on his own and is gone for weeks. Dr. Benet continues his work in astro-chemistry. Janos locates the site of the crater. In protective clothing, he is lowered into the crater and obtains a specimen of Radium X. Meanwhile, Diana and Drake are falling in love with one another, and Lady Arabella senses an opportunity to play matchmaker. Rukh dispatches a runner with a message to the Benet group. When Rukh’s safari entourage tries to desert him, he uses (with the aid of a superb special effect), the destructive force of Radium X and liquefies a huge boulder before their eyes. Diana receives the message and accompanies the runner to be with her husband.
The next evening, Rukh discovers that he has become poisoned, as his face and hands glow in the darkness like phosphorus. His touch kills the family dog, a glowing hand mark visible on the animal’s head. At that very moment, Diana arrives. Rukh refuses to see Diana or tell her the truth. What follows is some heartbreaking dialogue:
Janos: What are you doing here? You must go away at once. At once, do you hear?
Diana: But it’s Diana.
Janos: You shouldn’t have come! I wrote you I had important work to do. I don’t want to be bothered by anyone.
Diana: Oh, you must be ill! What’s happened to you?
Janos: Nothing has happened to me. What makes you think anything has happened to me?
Diana: It’s been weeks since you left. Don’t you want to see me?
Janos: I don’t want to see you here. This is no place for you. You must leave here at once.
Diana: My place is where you are. I won’t be a bother.
Janos: I suppose you’ll have to spend the night. My headman will find shelter for you. But I want you out of here the first thing in the morning. Do you understand?
Diana: Yes. I understand.
Rukh leaves to see Dr. Benet and takes the specimen. Leaving his camp, he hears Diana crying in her tent. Rukh arrives at Benet’s tent and informs him of his condition. Benet concocts an antidote giving Rukh a temporary reprieve. However, Rukh must take the antidote all the days of his life. Any delay and his body becomes a killing machine once again. After that, he will crumble to ash! Benet is unsure about the effects of antidote and poison on Rukh’s brain; Janos returns to his camp.
A scene from the dramatic climax, in a colourful lobby card for The Invisible Ray (Universal 1936)
Events escalate: Ronald and Diana acknowledge their love for each other, while Benet has gone to see Rukh. Benet’s expedition is leaving Africa and Sir Francis has already departed to bring Rukh’s specimen to the International Scientific Congress in Paris, France. Rukh calls them “thieves.” Benet assures Janos he will be given sole credit for the discovery. Benet gives Rukh a letter from Diana stating that she believes Janos no longer loves her and she loves Ronald Drake. In a fit of rage, Janos retorts:
You come like thieves in the night and steal everything from me! Get out of here Benet! Get out before I…
Newspapers affirm: “Benet Expedition Leaves Africa, returns to England. Rukh at Carpathian Laboratory.” In the film’s most poignant scene, Janos has indeed harnessed the therapeutic side of Radium X as he cures his mother’s blindness:
Don’t move mother. Sit quite still. In a few moments, we will know.
Dr. Benet also uses the healing powers of Radium X and is curing the throngs of patients lined outside his Paris clinic. Janos arrives in Paris and visits Benet. He learns that Diana and Drake will be married. Rukh fakes his own death by using Radium X to mutilate an unsuspecting victim (Harry Cording). Newspaper headlines carry the tragic news. Lady Stevens, unable to tell Diana, gives her the tabloid: Radium X Discoverer found dead. Dr. Rukh’s Mutilated Body Identified Through Body and Clothing.
Rukh witnesses the marriage of his beloved Diana to Drake. Glancing at the cathedral, Rukh notices six statues (4 men and 2 women), and configures these into all six members of the Benet Expedition. Janos rents a room across from the cathedral, and devises a plan of revenge. He gazes at the first statue and ponders – Sir Francis Stevens: Thief!
Next evening, at the Steven’s residence, the body of Sir Francis is discovered by the maid Celeste (Ynez Seabury), and butler Pierre (Lucio Villegas). He lies sprawled out on his bed attired in tuxedo. A look of sheer terror in his eyes. Benet uses an ultraviolet camera to photograph the retinas of Sir Francis eyes before the tissues glaze. Meanwhile, Rukh has melted one of the male statues at the cathedral. Benet develops the glass plate negative and in the iris of the eyes of Sir Francis is the image of Janos Rukh. He utters confirmation to himself: “Rukh! I knew it.”
In his room Janos ponders his next victim – Lady Stevens: matchmaker. Like an angel of death, Rukh kills Lady Stevens and melts a female statue at the church. The Paris Herald carries the terrible news: Radium X Claims Third Victim. Titled Woman Dies In Curse! The news travels fast as boys are selling the papers before the body of Lady Stevens has even been removed from her home!
Benet believes that Paris is held in the grip of a madman. He shows authorities the glowing handprint on the throat of Lady Stevens and tells them the whole story. Mother Rukh also believes her son is alive. A wonderful scene between Frances Drake and Frank Lawton follows containing some outstanding dialogue. Certainly some of the best lines that Frank Lawton has in the entire film:
Diana: There’s some curse!
Drake: Diana, my dear, there are no such things as curses.
Diana: Well they needn’t look any farther for the murderer. Here she is!
Drake: Stop it! I won’t let you talk like that.
Diana: If I hadn’t left him, they’d all be alive today. Janos, Sir Francis and Arabella.
Drake: Stop it! We loved each other. We belong to each other. You never belonged to him. And no law of nature and man can make it anything but right to do what we did. He shan’t reach out of his grave and spoil our lives! I’ll fight it!
Diana: But what are you going to fight? Something you can’t see? Something you can’t reach? Something you can’t touch? Oh, darling, hold me tight. We’re going to need each other so very much!
Newspapers again carry the news: Terror Grips Crowd As Statue Melts. Sacred Image Mysteriously Disappears in Sight of Throng As Onlookers Faint and Pray. Benet puts all the pieces together and a plan is devised to capture Rukh. A story is let out that all three survivors of the Benet Expedition are to leave Paris – destination unknown. Before leaving, Benet will give a lecture concerning Benet’s recent experiments with Radium X. The lecture will take place at midnight and scientists are to be admitted by card only. Failing to capture Rukh at the gate, at 12:00 midnight all doors will be bolted and the entire house darkened.
The night is cold and rainy. One of the invited scientists, Professor Michaeljohn (Frank Reicher) is on his way towards Dr. Benet’s. He encounters Rukh, using the name of Jones from the University of Wales. Rukh offers the professor some drugged Napoleon brandy, takes his card and gains access to the grounds. Benet leaves his guests to make final adjustments in his laboratory. Rukh bursts in through the back door and kills Dr. Benet.
Meanwhile, Mother Rukh has arrived, while the clock strikes midnight. The main switch is thrown, and the inside of the house is covered in a shroud of darkness. Janos, his face and hands aglow, walks upstairs and finds Diana. He is unable to kill her, but is still intent on killing her husband. The body of Dr. Benet is discovered – a glowing handprint is visible.
Leaving Diana’s room, Rukh meets his mother. Their presence on the stairwell is visible to all. Janos prepares to inject himself with the counter-active saying: I must have time. I must go on to reach one more. Drake. Mother Rukh smashes the antidote and syringe with her cane, leaving all hope for her son in pieces on the floor. She conveys more motherly wisdom to him: My son. You have broken the first law of science. Janos agrees as he begins to disintegrate before her eyes. He bids his mother farewell, jumps out of the window turning into a flaming cloud of smoke. Diana and Ronald live happily ever after and Mother Rukh assures all:
Janos Rukh is dead, but part of him will go on eternally working for humanity.
Directed by Lambert Hillyer, who also helmed Dracula’s Daughter that same year, and sporting a brilliant cast, The Invisible Ray is an excellent sojourn into the realms of science fiction. The cinematography by George Robinson is solid and captures every atmospheric quality the film has to offer. The film contains some excellent special effects created by John Fulton that are still a marvel to behold. Composer Franz Waxman provides a terrific music score. Running 79 minutes, the film moves at a very brisk pace. The Invisible Ray is a grand showcase for fans of Messrs Karloff & Lugosi.
Original theatrical release poster for The Invisible Ray (Universal 1936)
Article by Anthony Caranci.