Tuesday, October 19, 2010


From his observatory-laboratory high in the Carpathian Mountains, eccentric astrophysicist Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff with curly hair) demonstrates to his colleagues (including chemist Felix Benet [Bela Lugosi]) his latest invention: a sort of time-traveling telescope/VCR/movie projector that he used to record a light beam from a nebula in the Andromeda galaxy. The images that he extracts from this ray of light show a meteor strike in southwest-central Africa "a few thousand million years ago." The meteorite was made up of an unknown element far more powerful than radium; his colleagues ask Rukh to accompany them on a scientific expedition to Africa and to search for the crater. Rukh finds the crater and radioactive debris from the meteorite, but in the process he's been dosed by "radium X": now poisoned and insane, he glows in the dark and his mere touch can destroy living beings. Later in France, he vengefully stalks the members of the expedition and kills them off one by one with his radioactive grasp and the stone-melting death-ray that he fashions for use with the radium x material...

This one plays more like a sci-fi adventure serial than horror: meteorites with mysterious powers, ray guns (that even use an old FLASH GORDON sound effect), jungle expeditions, and references to the curse of King Tutankhamun's tomb all make it all feel like a matinee chapter play. Perhaps that's why THE INVISIBLE RAY is not a well-regarded Universal horror movie-- I don't know anyone who has ever mentioned it as favorite, though I must confess my own fondness for it for nostalgic reasons: as a kid in the early 1970s, I was visiting relatives in Florida and sneaked out of bed one night to watch THE INVISIBLE RAY on television while everyone else in the house was asleep. It scared me then, but I was reassured deep into the night by the horror host, the great Dr. Paul Bearer of Channel 44 St. Petersburg- Tampa.

In the film, Violet Kemble Cooper plays Mother Rukh, a woman who was blinded while working in the observatory with her son. She is given to intoning theatrically about how her son is tampering with things in nature best left alone and predicts the coming disaster; in fact, she manages to halt Rukh's quest for revenge at the end of the movie. In his book Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, David J. Skal argues that the figure of Mother Rukh invokes the figure of Marie Skłodowska Curie (the inventor of the word "radioactivity") who died of radium poisoning in July 1934. (Skal also mentions the notoriety given to quack radium health-tonic drinks like "Radithor" that killed Pittsburgh industrialist and playboy Eben McBurney Byers in 1932.) "THE INVISIBLE RAY was the first film to exploit public interest and anxiety in the alchemical, Faustian aspects of radioactivity," Skal writes. "Cooper [as Mother Rukh] is the avenging image of Marie Curie herself, returned from the grave to judge the actor most associated in the public mind with the Frankenstein story [Karloff] and its theme of scientific presumption." Christopher Frayling follows Skal's lead in Mad, Bad, and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema when he mentions Skal's suggestion in a discussion of the 1943 MGM biopic Madame Curie (which had been a Universal property, incidentally, until April 1938). Frayling asks rhetorically: "In THE INVISIBLE RAY, is Madame Curie in the film making a judgment about mad scientist movies?"

Dunkirk [NY] Evening Observer
Thursday, February 20, 1958

It is possible, I suppose, that Madame Curie's death by radium poisoning in 1934 may have been a context for THE INVISIBLE RAY for movie-goers in 1936-- Violet Kemble Cooper's Mother Rukh does bear a passing resemblance to the photographs of Marie Curie that appeared in the press at the time of her death. But was there a context for SHOCK! television viewers in 1957 who saw THE INVISIBLE RAY?

Paul Boyer argues in the epilogue to By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age that people living in the US felt a resurgence of fear about fallout in the mid-1950s following a series of atmospheric tests of multimegaton thermonuclear weapons that began in 1952. The most alarming of these was a test of a fifteen megaton device in March 1954 at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands code-named "Castle Bravo" that poisoned thousands of Pacific Islanders and the crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon Number 5 (an important inspiration for the first Godzilla film). Radioactive rain fell on Troy, NY in 1953 and on Chicago in 1955; also in 1955, nuclear disarmament activists brought a group of twenty-five Japanese women nicknamed the "Hiroshima Maidens" to the US in a well-publicized tour (including a painfully awkward appearance on the "This Is Your Life" TV program) for reconstructive plastic surgery of the severe keloid burns that they had received. Worries about fallout from atmospheric testing even became an issue in the Presidential campaign of 1956.

Anxieties over radioactivity, then, were probably more profound for some of those who saw THE INVISIBLE RAY on television in 1957 than it had been for those who had seen it in the movie theaters in 1936. The same terrors over fallout that gave us movies like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), THEM! (1954), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956), and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957) may have also given THE INVISIBLE RAY an extra dimension of horror for SHOCK! viewers that it hadn't had before.

NEXT: Soft hands become ripping claws when a fabulous beauty turns into a crazed thing of evil. See the Shock feature film presentation THE SHE-WOLF OF LONDON. June Lockhart and Don Porter co-star.


Mirek said...

Excellent review, Creeping Bride, and fascinating linkage with Madame Curie and the Atom Bomb.

I'm out of town for the rest of the week, so I wasn't able to watch INVISIBLE RAY, but I have seen it in the past year. It's always been a curiosity, but a favorite of mine, too.

kochillt said...

Of the 3 major Karloff-Lugosi teamings from the mid 30's, THE INVISIBLE RAY has to be my favorite. It is quite rare for a Lugosi death on screen to be a tragic one, and the stars' final showdown remains one of their best scenes together. Even Karloff's demise prompted the same reaction, a real accomplishment for Western specialist Lambert Hillyer, whose gift for pacing was far better served here than in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. I shed a tear for both Bela and Boris in this film, and also for SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. I discovered these films on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, hosted by Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille, and have a complete list of all the titles that aired during its 20 year run (1963-1983), courtesy of John Buriak's excellent website. P.S.: I have also been priviledged to have met the very amiable Cardille on two memorable occasions.