Boris Karloff would play many a monster in his day, but some of the better ones were human in nature and mad as a hatter. Such is the case with The Invisible Ray that finds him playing a somewhat eccentric scientist who has created a telescope-like device that can capture light-waves from the Andromeda Galaxy and give him a vision of the past. It is a fantastic bit of fiction, but one that he and the other players in the movie put across as truth and one that finds him and said actors on a quest to discover a meteor that landed in Africa many thousands of years ago. Karloff as Dr. Rukh is already a sort of antisocial man with more than a few quirks and soon, after discovering the rock, he becomes infected by radiation poisoning that not only makes him glow and his touch to cause death, but it starts to drive him mad, slowly but surely.
Though Bela Lugosi would also star in the film, it was Karloff who would take the lead and who would also be billed as just that – Karloff – as such was his drawing power at the time. Here, there were no costumes to be found, though there was some very interesting special effects put into use to make Karloff glow when it was dark, to signify his radiation sickness. This time the man would play a human monster, one that would feel betrayed and persecuted by the people who accompanied him on the expedition and now use the discoveries they made to help the unfortunate and cure the sick. Karloff always played the mad scientist to perfection and would do so again a number of times throughout his life in films both good and bad. His madness in this film was a little more subtle than the outright mania as exhibited by Colin Clive in Frankenstein, but he was still mad no matter how you look at it, just a different form of it.
The picture would end up being a wonderful combination of science-fiction, horror and thriller as we watched Karloff go through his transformation. Lugosi in a very straight-forward performance, would essentially play the hero and deduce who was committing the murders and why. It was not often that Lugosi would play the good guy and it was interesting to see. Perhaps due to his accent and his formidable appearance, he was always destined to play the villain or the monster, but if he had been given a few more chances, there is every possibility that Lugosi could have become a decent leading man, if not a good one.
Every mad scientist needs an object of affection and Frances Drake would provide such a role as his wife. Even though she would marry another man in the film after Karloff faked his death to carry out his crazy scheme, she would become his undoing as he would be unable to kill her despite whatever blame he believed her to have at his downfall. Some might say it was Rukh’s mother that would cause him to fail, but it all started in an earlier scene the moment he held back. Such is the power of the love of a beautiful woman that can both tame a man and drive him crazy simultaneously. Karloff does an exceedingly excellent job in the role as he is able to perfectly convey every emotion needed in the film, whether heartache, heartbreak, a sense of betrayal or madness and having a talented cast around him definitely helped.
Though the basic elements of the film have been seen numerous times over, it is nonetheless a very fine movie that keeps you entertained and enamoured. Karloff and Lugosi always made for a great onscreen duo during those times when they were to appear together. Both would put in a good performance, but it was Karloff who shined a little brighter and whom you felt sorry for, like all good monsters do.
4 out of 5