Every scientific fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad.
Who are we on the youngest and smallest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science?
That which you are now to see is a theory whispered in the cloisters of science. Tomorrow these theories may startle the universe as a fact.”
This one started so well.
Well, at least if you ignore the intro which more or less promises that it doesn’t have much to do with real science.
We have a marvelous expressionist castle (one of those atmospheric models that Universal did so well back then), with its incredible interiors, a gloomy mad scientist lab and a huge observatory set. We have Boris Karloff with burning eyes and a high collared cape which would have fit right into one of Universal’s Frankenstein films. And we have the lovely Frances Drake in a long white dress which makes her an elegant swooping shape which might have come from an Aubrey Beardsley print. We have a strange laboratory sequence, where they follow light rays back to Earth in some inexplicable way.
And then we leave the Carpathians and head for the African Jungle and everything goes wrong.
Well, not right away. But there’s a lot of waiting around, and one moderately interesting bit with Karloff finding the mysterious Radium X he’s after, which was good enough that it was stolen by The Phantom Creeps.
But that eerie Carpathian atmosphere is gone, never to return again.
At any rate, Boris accidentally exposed himself to the radiation of his deadly new element and turned himself into a human glow stick whose touch is instantly lethal.
So the story shifts to Paris where it all turns into yet another revenge thriller.
All in all, this one is a disappointment. It really feels like they were trying to make three different movies in one and the effect is a lot like one of Universal’s later lesser films, The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942). It would have been far better had they stayed in that castle — or had gone back there after their expedition. Boris is trying awfully hard, but he wasn’t given much to work with beyond the usual mad killer shtick that was already a bit shopworn. There is one nice little speech about how he could feel the madness growing in him, but it ends up more or less as a throwaway as what promises to be a major confrontation ends far too quickly. Nor does it help that Bela Lugosi is more or less wasted in a mostly routine sort of role — he isn’t even given that impressive a death scene.
Sadly, it seems that all but the first three of the films Karloff and Lugosi both appeared in are a bit second rate. But then, the first horror cycle was grinding to a stop by the time this film came out, as Universal changed hands and the public lost interest in horror.
I suppose the real cause of my disappointment — well, one of the causes, at least — is that the title suggests something more classic and Science Fiction-y, with mad scientists and deadly rayguns. With Karloff and Lugosi on board, that film would have been a lot more fun than this one, particularly if it ended up with the two battling each other in a major confrontation straight out of The Black Cat or The Raven.
But then, the Studio had taken a lot of criticism for those two, so it really comes as no surprise that the horror films that followed are far more…tame.
And that’s the one thing no horror film can afford to be.