An invisible menace from the mists of time

Released 20 January 1936, The Invisible Ray was the third of the eight films Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi made together. Initially, their next teaming had been planned as Bluebeard, but the script wasn’t ready in time. The powers that be put Bluebeard on the back burner and instead found a different film.

Director Stuart Walker didn’t like John Colton’s script for The Invisible Ray, and asked for a three-day break to fix it. When Universal refused, Mr. Walker left, and was replaced by Lambert Hillyer.

The initial budget was $166,875, considered fairly lavish for a B-movie. The production went over by $68,000, as well as going over schedule (17 September–25 October 1935). According to Stuart, “The director who did the picture started nine or ten days after I was ordered to start and finished 25 or more days after I was ordered to finish.”

Dr. Janos Rukh, like many mad scientists in the tradition before him, is widely seen as a crank whose obsessive research and unusual theories are an embarrassment and ridiculous vanity project. However, he’s bound and determined to prove his work is on the level and that he’s on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough.

Towards that end, he convinces two such naysayers, Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Dr. Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), to come to his home for a demonstration of a fascinating new telescope. Francis also brings his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), and his nephew Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton).

Predictably, Dr. Rukh’s much-younger and very pretty wife of three years, Diana (Frances Drake), has an immediate and mutual attraction to Ronald. Diana’s father was Dr. Rukh’s assistant, and when he passed away, she dutifully married Dr. Rukh. However, she’s never felt romantic love for him.

When everyone is seated, Dr. Rukh gives a marvellous demonstration of a new telescope, along with narration. The telescope not only gives a great planetarium show, it also projects images from millions of years ago. One of these images is a meteorite striking somewhere in Africa.

Drs. Benet and Stevens are so impressed by this magical telescope, they abandon their former hardened skepticism and agree to accompany Dr. Rukh on an expedition to find the impact site and harvest the material in this ancient meteorite.

The African quest takes far longer than expected, and nothing has been found. Though the others are starting to have second thoughts and planning to return to England soon, Dr. Rukh insists on staying just a bit longer. He feels he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering the impact site, and with it incredible scientific secrets.

Find it he does, with the help of a bunch of natives. As per the unfortunate standards of most films of this era, they’re depicted as easily-spooked and having really cartoonish reactions to their fear.

Though Dr. Rukh is delighted to discover not only the impact site but the actual meteorite itself, his excitement is short-lived. When the meteorite is exposed to daylight again, it explodes and sends out dangerous radiation which sickens him quite badly. Dr. Rukh now glows in the dark, and his touch is deadly.

Dr. Benet compassionately creates an antidote which Dr. Rukh must take at the same time every day. If he doesn’t inject himself religiously, he’ll go back to his fully radioactive state. However, the newly-discovered element Radium X may have permanently altered his brain, and eventual madness may descend. The antidote also isn’t a cure, just a means of keeping the worst effects under control.

After Dr. Rukh returns to base camp, Dr. Benet tells him of the secret romance between Diana and Ronald. Knowing full well Diana never loved him, Dr. Rukh fakes his own death shortly after coming to Paris. He finds a man who very much resembles him, murders him, and makes him look like he died of radiation poisoning.

Dr. Benet returns to Europe with a piece of the meteorite and uses its powers for good. His procedure for curing blindness is embraced as a miracle. He also cures other ailments with a modified form of Radium X.

Though Dr. Rukh also uses Radium X to cure his mother’s blindness, his altruism doesn’t last for long. He presently sets his mind firmly upon revenge, and takes up residence in a boardinghouse across the street from a church with six statues. Each figure represents to him one member of the African expedition, and thus the people he believes ruined his life by getting rich and famous off of his discovery and hard work.

And thus begins a reign of terror from a mysterious invisible force.

A mad scientist switches minds and bodies

When the draconian Hays Code began to be seriously enforced in 1934, horror films predictably suffered a decline. Thus, Boris Karloff returned to his native England to make two horror films which weren’t constrained by Puritanical censorship. One of those films was The Man Who Changed His Mind (also known as The Man Who Lived Again and The Brainsnatcher), which released 11 September 1936 in London.

Dr. Laurience (pronounced Lorenz) (Karloff) was once a respected, venerable scientist, but now he’s fallen from grace and is forced to live off of philanthropist Lord Haselwood’s charity if he wants to continue conducting his experiments. The only people in his corner are wheelchair-bound Clayton (Donald Calthrop) and young surgeon Dr. Clare Wyatt (Anna Lee, wife of director Robert Stevenson).

Laurience feels close to a breakthrough with his dream project of transferring brains into other bodies. The animal or person’s thoughts and personality will remain the same, but they’ll reside in a different body. To prove his theory, Laurience conducts the experiment with chimpanzees.

Convinced of his success, Laurience presents his findings at a scientific meeting. But instead of believing and embracing him, everyone in attendance laughs at him and leaves. Not one person takes him seriously, no matter how much he cajoles, pleads, and finally threatens them.

Back at the lab, Lord Haselwood tells Laurience enough is enough, and that he’s cutting off his financial support and use of the facilities. Laurience tries once more to prove his research is on the level, and when Haselwood remains stubborn, Laurience takes matters into his own hands.

The first brain-body switch with humans is a most smashing success, and Clayton acquires Haselwood’s body. He’s particularly delighted to finally be able to walk again, and refuses to give his new possession back. This loan soon becomes permanent by default, thus granting Laurience unlimited access to the supposed Haselwood’s wealth and patronage.

The plot thickens when Clayton discovers, to his great horror, that his new body isn’t as perfect as he assumed. Though Haselwood can walk, he also has a weak heart which requires medication. In desperation, Clayton begs Laurience to do another switch and give him a better body.

Haselwood’s son Dick, who’s courting Clare, is also unnerved when he visits to ask for a blessing on his hoped-for marriage and finds a father radically different from the one he’s known all his life.

Laurience not only refuses Clayton’s request, he also begins plotting to switch his own body and brain with Dick’s. Clare begs him to reconsider these mad experiments, but he’s bound and determined to continue down this path to power, money, and glory.

Potentially disastrous consequences may await if this plan goes ahead.

Grisly grave-robbing in Edinburgh

Released 25 May 1945, The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 short story of the same name. It was the first of three films Boris Karloff did with RKO Radio Pictures after leaving Universal, and the final film in which he co-starred with Béla Lugosi.

Though Karloff continued doing horror pictures, he felt the Frankenstein’s Monster franchise had run out of steam, and didn’t want to be involved with it in any capacity any longer, even though he no longer played the Monster in these films. He lauded RKO producer Val Lewton as “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”

In 1831 Edinburgh, cabman John Gray (Karloff) drops Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) and her young daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett, now 84 years old) off at the home of the esteemed Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Little Georgina was paralysed after a carriage rolled on top of her, an accident which took the life of her father. She seemed to be recovering at first, but then her condition worsened.

Mrs. Marsh says all the other doctors recommended Dr. MacFarlane very highly, and feels he’s their final hope. The consultation doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, since Georgina can’t even tell him where exactly it hurts, but everything changes when Dr. MacFarlane’s student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) comes in.

Georgina immediately warms to him, and lets him pick her up and put her on a table in another room. Without even trying, Fettes gets all the preliminary information needed. He calls Dr. MacFarlane in to take a look at the bony tumour at the base of Georgina’s spine, and surgery is suggested.

Dr. MacFarlane bears no ill will towards the Marshes, but begs off performing surgery. He’s far too busy with his teaching duties, and isn’t sure if he’s still as good of a physician as he is a med school teacher. If he operated on all the desperate people who come to him, he’d have no time to teach.

After the Marshes leave, Fettes announces he’s quitting med school because he hasn’t enough funds. Dr. MacFarlane, loath to lose one of his best students, offers him a paid position as a lab assistant for a very important research project.

At night, Gray arrives with a fresh corpse for Dr. MacFarlane’s anatomy class, and tells Fettes to unlock a desk where the money is kept. His fee for this service is £10. Fettes doesn’t think too much of it until he discovers just where this body came from.

Fettes is horrified to discover the body was the victim of grave robbery, and that the young man’s loyal little dog was murdered while standing watch over his lost master. He understands the importance of human vivisection for teaching med students, but doesn’t feel it’s right to obtain the bodies by robbing graves.

Mrs. Marsh returns to beg Fettes for Dr. MacFarlane to operate on Georgina. Initially Dr. MacFarlane agrees, but soon walks back to his fear of no longer being a good enough surgeon and better-suited to the classroom.

Gray and Fettes manage to convince Dr. MacFarlane to do the operation. Fettes appeals to his humanitarian side, while Gray reminds him there’s a dark secret in his past. It would be a shame if that secret were revealed.

Not realizing what kind of trouble he’s about to wade into, Fettes asks Gray to get another body for anatomy class. He assumes Gray will dig up a grave, but instead is delivered the fresh corpse of someone who was alive and healthy just that night.

When Fettes shares his suspicions with Dr. MacFarlane, he’s told he might be arrested as an accomplice to murder if he reports Gray to the cops.

Georgina’s operation appears to be a success, but she doesn’t think she can stand up and walk. Dr. MacFarlane did everything right, but Georgina insists it’s impossible. As someone who couldn’t walk for eleven months following my car accident, I know all too well that powerful mind-body connection.

Dr. MacFarlane goes to the local tavern to drink away his disappointment, and Gray once again taunts him about that dark secret from his past.

Then Dr. MacFarlane’s servant Joseph (Lugosi) pays a visit to Gray and attempts to blackmail him, which sets in motion a thick and fast parade of horrors.

 

A desperate search for a marauding ape and a cure for polio

Released 30 September 1940, The Ape was Boris Karloff’s final film in his six-picture contract with Poverty Row studio Monogram. Despite the studio’s low-budget profile, this film was one of their “top bracket productions” for the 1940–41 cinematic year.

The Ape was based on Adam Hull Shirk’s play of the same name, which débuted in 1924 in Hollywood. The play earned high praise, and was compared to horror film classics The Bat and The Cat and the Canary, Ralph Spence’s play The Gorilla (which was made into several films), and Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Mark of the Beast.”

In the source material, there’s a prologue in India, depicting a Hindu priest putting a curse on an Englishman who killed a sacred ape. Thirty years later, the Englishman is sent to L.A. to be taken care of by his family, since he’s such a hot mess.

Monogram filmed the play as House of Mystery in 1934, then remade it in 1940 with barely any similarities.

The Los Angeles Times praised the film as engrossing, and Karloff as “the skilled player of slightly eerie but really kindly character roles for which he is famous.”

In a 2015 essay for the British Film Institute, curator Vic Pratt named The Ape as one of Karloff’s ten essential films.

The circus is coming to the small, insular town of Red Creek, which greatly excites four boys who can’t stay away from trouble. After they watch a circus poster going up and excitedly talk about the coming wonders, they decide to go swimming.

On the way there, they pass Dr. Bernard Adrian’s house and begin throwing rocks at his windows. They succeed in breaking some, which greatly upsets Dr. Adrian when he arrives home on his bike.

Almost no one in town likes or trusts Dr. Adrian, who came there ten years ago during a polio epidemic and now spends his time doing unorthodox experiments. He lost his wife and daughter to the dreaded disease, and has made it his life’s mission to find a cure.

Dr. Adrian’s sole patient is Francis Clifford (Maris Wrixon), a young woman who was stricken by polio during the epidemic and now lives in a wheelchair. He feels a special connection to Frances because he lost his own daughter to polio, and doesn’t want anyone in the world to ever suffer such a dreaded disease again.

Though Francis and her mother have faith in Dr. Adrian’s promises of walking again, Francis’s beau Danny is very suspicious. He outright admits he doesn’t like or trust what he doesn’t understand.

That evening, Francis and Danny go to the circus. Though Francis wants Dr. Adrian to come too, he begs off and says his experiments to find a cure are too important to ignore.

Francis is captivated by a female aerialist, and dreams of someday being that mobile and coordinated.

After the circus adjourns, ape Nabu (an obvious person in a gorilla suit) turns on his cruel trainer, whose brother he killed prior. One of the other circus employees rightly points out to the indignant trainer that apes, or any animals, only become so vicious in response to repeated abuse. He wouldn’t act like that if he were treated kindly.

Nabu breaks out of his cage and attacks the trainer when they’re alone, and starts a fire with the trainer’s cigar. During the ensuing panic and commotion, Nabu flees.

The injured trainer is taken to Dr. Adrian, who’s unable to save him. However, the trainer proves very useful to Dr. Adrian’s experiments. Never before has he had spinal fluid from a human subject, something he believes is the key to curing polio.

Dr. Adrian begins giving Francis the injections the very next day, and they seem to have immediate effect. Though Francis has great pains in her legs and finds them like lead weights, this is huge progress. For someone who had no feeling in her legs for ten years, any sensation is positive.

That night, Nabu breaks into Dr. Adrian’s house and attacks him, and here the plot thickens. As the search for Nabu continues, suspicions begin piling up that he’s near Dr. Adrian’s house. More spinal serum is also desperately needed after Nabu destroyed the originals, and another tube accidentally rolled onto the floor and broke.

But no matter what happens, Dr. Adrian is bound and determined to fully cure Francis, both mind and body.

A mad surgeon seeks revenge

Released 8 July 1935, The Raven is, as might be expected from the title, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem. But just as with the previous year’s The Black Cat, it has very little to do with the source material. TPTB also once again insulted Béla Lugosi by billing him second to Boris Karloff, despite being the main character. To make it even worse, Lugosi only earned $5,000 for the film vs. Karloff’s $10,000.

At least seven people worked on the script from August 1934–March 1935. To avoid “running the risk of excessive horror,” the Production Code Administration forbade Universal from showing operation scenes, as well as much more horrific makeup for Karloff’s character.

The Netherlands, Ontario, British Columbia, and China were among the places which banned the film. The Raven was the final horror film approved by the British Board of Film Censors.

The Raven was also the last film in Universal’s trilogy of Poe-inspired films, the others being Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat.

Young dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is injured in a horrible car accident, and all her doctors pronounce her too far gone to save. Her dad, Judge Thatcher (Samuel Hinds), and her fiancé Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews), however, refuse to abandon hope, and beg retired Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to operate.

Dr. Vollin has many reservations, and doesn’t think they should fear the natural, inevitable process of death, but finally is compelled into operating.

Jean and Dr. Vollin become close friends after the surgery, and Jean sees him as more of a god than a man. In the course of their friendship, Dr. Vollin tells Jean about his love of Edgar Allan Poe and shows her his macabre collection of torture devices. They’ve become so attached to one another, they want to marry.

Judge Thatcher is none too pleased to learn of their plans, particularly since Jean’s already engaged to another man. Dr. Vollin exchanges harsh words with Judge Thatcher before taking his leave in a huff.

Dr. Vollin sees a perfect window of opportunity for twisted revenge when a fugitive, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), comes to him and begs for surgery to disguise his appearance. No one will nab him for murder, bank robbery, and escaping prison if he looks nothing like his old self.

Dr. Vollin says he’s not a plastic surgeon, but asks Bateman for help in getting revenge on the Thatchers. Bateman refuses, saying he believes his anti-social behaviour is the result of being called ugly his entire life. A brand-new face is the perfect chance to turn over a new leaf.

Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!

Bateman is horrified to see the results of his surgery. The left side of his face is normal, but the right side is utterly deformed. Dr. Vollin cackles maniacally, from his observation post just above the operating room, as Bateman shoots at all the mirrors which emerge from behind curtains. Bateman tries to shoot Dr. Vollin next, but is out of ammo.

Having little choice, Bateman agrees to help Dr. Vollin in getting revenge. Dr. Vollin promises to fix his face if he does this.

Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher are among the guests at a dinner party Dr. Vollin presently throws. When Jean goes to her guestroom to fix her hair, she sees Bateman standing behind her and is terrified. She rushes back downstairs, where Dr. Vollin calmly explains Bateman is his servant, and makes up a story about how his face came to be mutilated. Dr. Vollin also claims it’s natural for doctors to love death and torture.

Judge Thatcher has serious reservations about spending the night in Dr. Vollin’s house, but Jean and Jerry laugh off his fears.

With all the guests retired for the night, Dr. Vollin shows Bateman his dungeon, full of torture instruments from Poe’s work. While Dr. Vollin is lying on a torture slab from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to demonstrate how it works, Bateman throws the switch to manacle his hands and feet and start the swinging pendulum.

Dr. Vollin persuades Bateman to release him by saying Bateman’s face will remain disfigured if he dies.

As a thunderstorm rages, Dr. Vollin intensifies his Poeian plan for revenge, which grows more and more deranged by the minute.

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