THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936). Universal. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Screenplay by John Colton.
For some reason this picture – although I've always wanted to see it – has eluded me for decades until I came across something called the “Bela Lugosi Collection” on DVD. The movie is hardly a great showcase for Bela, however, because – even though he's billed above the title with [Boris] Karloff – he isn't given much to do in the film, which is pretty much a stinker despite some interesting elements. In an early sequence Janos Rukh (Karloff) demonstrates an invention that can offer glimpses into the distant past by bringing back light waves from Andromeda. This alone would make for an interesting feature – think of the possibilities – but instead the movie inexplicably veers into a completely different direction. Rukh has somehow come to the conclusion that a unknown element -- Radium X – has fallen to Earth from a meteorite and can be found in Africa [sure]. He joins an expedition to find this element, and from it eventually fashions a ray that can both heal and cure. As a side effect, he also winds up with a poisonous touch which drives him mad [actually madder] and he sets out to kill virtually all of his associates, including his wife, who's fallen for a younger, if duller, man. There are some arresting scenes – Karloff using the ray to give his mother back her sight, for instance – but generally the picture is tedious and predictable. Although Karloff isn't bad in the film, Lugosi – who plays another, sympathetic scientist – would have given the role more bite and vigor. Lugosi tries to imbue his characterization with a sinister quality for the sake of his fans, but it's a losing battle. The script completely fails to develop the story's many sub-texts. Violet Kemble Cooper adds a note of grace as Karloff's dignified mother, and it's always a pleasure to see Beulah Bondi [a friend of Lugosi's], although her reaction after her husband is found dead is a bit too muted.
Verdict: Forgettable. *1/2.