THE INVISIBLE RAY was allowed an over-budget run to $236,000, a decent 1936 amount for penny-pinching Universal Studios. The extra bucks were for special effects finessing added to the ‘science’ behind the crazypants storyline. The words science and fiction dovetail perfectly for this quaint goofiness as the fantasy film area was still rooted in horror stories and the sci-fi genre was just flickering.
Twinkles in the stars lead professionally isolated astronomer ‘Dr. Janus Rukh’ (Boris Karloff, lisping away) into asserting his theories of the space-borne wonders of ‘Radium X’, which he insists came to Earth via meteor, shown by some magic of photographing the Andromeda Galaxy through his telescope. His sky-scanner is big enough to bankrupt England, let alone Romania, where he’s located when skeptical guests arrive. ‘Lady Arabella’ (Beulah Bondi) remarks “Would anyone ever expect to find anything like this atop the Carpathian Mountains?” Since she’s saying this about a castle filled with massive instruments, a fireplace big enough for a car and a pet Great Dane large enough to drive one, we assume she’s woefully naive when it comes to geography and mental illness as well as science. She’s accompanied by her bland nephew (Frank Lawton), twit husband ‘Sir Francis’ (Walter Kingsford) and well-mannered ‘Dr. Felix Benet’ (Bela Lugosi).
For reasons of some unfathomable biological desperation, Karloff’s limpid-eyed wife (Frances Drake) is taken with the nephew (Lawton about as dashing as a potato), but then she boldly sashays bra-less in long takes across the room so we pay but passing attention to her guy choices (the Hays Code prudes gazing elsewhere as they certainly weren’t looking at the “check-these-figures, Doc” Ms. Drake).
After Karloff ‘proves’ to them his discovery (and shows them right off the bat that he’s pretty touchy) they all head to somewhere in Africa, where the daffy Lady Arabella hits us again with rich-lady logic. Pith-helmeted nephew kids her for only bagging six rhinos, and her la-dee-dah riposte is “They’re such nasty-tempered beasts it’s a pleasure to dispose of them.” Rest assured, the ooga-booga African natives are accorded likewise p.c. favor.
Since the script’s forward declared “Every scientific fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad“, we should not be surprised when Boris is poisoned by Radium X so that he actually glows in the dark. His touch can kill: ask the Great Dane, who they saw fit to drag to Nigeria along with the turtleneck Karloff wears under his coat in the 110 degree jungle—it’s a screenplay that never stops giving.
“I could destroy a nation! All nations!”
While Boris loses it completely (hinted in lines like “They’ll never laugh at me again!”), Bela this time is restrained, logical, thoughtful and forgiving. He’s still hard to understand.
Directed by Lambert Hillyer, with a score from Franz Waxman, this fun nonsense has many loyal fans. 79 minutes, with Violet Kemble Cooper, as Karloff’s blind, bitter mom.