THE INVISIBLE RAY
The Invisible Ray was made at the height of the eras mad scientist film and is a fascinating artefact that unconsciously mirrors the attitudes and fear of science that runs through these films. The Boris Karloff Frankenstein (1931) in particular had kicked off a sub-genre of mad science films where it was seen that scientists were defying divine provenance and that their experiments would always produce abominable results or monsters that would go amok and threaten the social order before being brought down by the forces of brute reason in the form of villagers with burning torches. The line there were some things man(kind) was not meant to know was never uttered in any film of the era but the nearest we had comes in Violet Kemble Coopers line here: there are some secrets we are not meant to probe.
The science in the film comes in constant tones of tremulous awe and religious fear. Boris Karloff conducts his experiments in what is designed more as an alchemists chamber than a modern laboratory a room with high arched ceilings and a dome open to the stars. He also wears a high, angular welders mask when conducting his experiments that gives a strange sense of religious ritual to the scene. Typical of this era, the science in the film is nonsensical, where it appeared the idea that any scriptwriter would consult a textbook or get professional advice was anathema. There is the scientifically ludicrous idea at the start of the film of Karloffs scientist capturing a beam of light from another star and somehow reversing it to look back at the Earth millions of years ago. It feels as though the writer has just learned that it takes light millions of years to get here from another star and tried to incorporate this in a muddled way. More than anything, you get the impression the idea that drove the film was the employment of radium as a treatment in cancer therapies, which was becoming widespread in real-life in 1935 and saw an industry of quack radium treatments rapidly emerge and that someone has grafted this onto the standard mad scientist formula. There is another scientifically absurd (if fascinatingly directed) scene where Bela Lugosi uses an ultraviolet camera to photograph Sir Walters eye and develops it to find that the last image imprinted there is of Karloff leering in. Elsewhere, the writer is obsessed with strange non-existent powers of the sun with Bela Lugosi getting lines like: It proves, I think, that human organisms are only part of astro-chemistry controlled by forces from the sun.
Out of all of this, director Lambert Hillyer does create a film that is undeniably interesting. The strange sense of ritual that surrounds the early scientific experiments sets a fascinating stage for the rest of the film. Hillyer creates a sense of cosmic grandeur during the scene where Karloff scans the stars and we sojourn out into the heavens, following the beam of light to Andromeda. In Africa, there is a particularly captivating scene where Karloff turns the light in his tent out and we see that he is glowing in the dark and the subsequent scene where he pats his dog, only for it to lie down and die with his glowing handprint on it.
The Invisible Rays main problem is one of story structure the first half sets up a fascinating, lurid idea of a scientific experiment and its horrific consequences in classic fashion. These are directed in ways that gives the film an unusual atmosphere. However, the second half far less interestingly turns into a more mundane story about a wronged scientist taking revenge on those that have taken credit for his work. Here the film never quite follows through on its great first half.
Lambert Hillyer was an enormously prolific director he made more than 150 films from the silent era until his retirement in the 1950s. More than sixty of these were B Westerns. He did venture into genre territory upon a handful of occasions Before Midnight (1933), a murder mystery with supernatural overtones; Draculas Daughter (1936), the first of Universals Dracula sequels; and the serial Batman (1943), the first screen adaptation of the DC Comics superhero.