March 22, 1975: The Invisible Ray (1936) / The Deadly Mantis (1957)

Synopsis: At the ancient castle of his ancestors, renowned scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) demonstrates his newest discovery to a disbelieving group of savants, including Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi). In a somewhat surreal and complicated sequence, he reveals that all light and sound waves are preserved in space and time, and that looking back far enough he can see the moment millions of years ago in which a meteor containing an ultra-rare element called Radium X fell in southwestern Africa.

Radium X, as the name implies, is a souped-up form of radioactive material, possessing great potential for both healing and destruction. Somewhat baffled, but convinced by his demonstration, the scientists join Rukh on an expedition to recover the meteorite.

In Africa, Rukh works obsessively to unlock the secrets of Radium X. Meanwhile, Rukh’s beautiful young wife Diana (Frances Drake) begins to fall in love with another man on the expedition (Frank Lawton). Most of the party returns to Europe. Dr. Benet quickly discovers that Radium X, applied properly, can cure any physical ailment, and he uses it to heal the sick, though he is always careful to credit Dr. Rukh with the element’s discovery.

When Rukh returns home he learns of his wife’s infidelity and of his rivals building new careers on his work. After receiving an accidental overdose of Radium X, Rukh discovers that his skin glows in the dark and that his touch can kill. The overdose also seems to have left him deranged, and he decides to murder all those whom he believes have betrayed him, starting with the scientists who accompanied him on the expedition….

Comments: The third of Universal’s Karloff – Lugosi screen pairings, The Invisible Ray is a curious little misfire of a movie. It begins with an unlikely and convoluted science-fiction premise, becomes a jungle movie in the middle (lots of white men in pith helmets and “African natives” pounding on drums), then sprints through the third act with a revenge subplot reminiscent of James Whales’ The Invisible Man.

None of these story elements fit together very well. The African expedition subplot, presumably added to make Radium X seem more exotic and unobtainable, doesn’t add to the story and could have been cut out; Rukh could just as easily (and much more credibly) have discovered it in his laboratory.

The movie still might have succeeded with a stronger director and supporting cast, but that was not in the cards. Lambert Hillyard, who cut his teeth on B-westerns and serials, seems uncertain of his material here and wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense.

And while Karloff and Lugosi do fine in their respective roles (as a mad scientist and a philanthropic doctor) Frances Drake and Frank Lawton are crashingly dull as the romantic leads — so much so that you wonder how they ended up in a major studio release.

Add to this some special effects that would have been unimpressive even in 1936, and you’re left with a standard-issue mad scientist flick from that era, almost aggressively generic and almost immediately forgettable. Still, it’s always interesting seeing Karloff and Lugosi on-screen together, and Karloff’s death scene alone is worth the price of admission.

The Deadly Mantis

Synopsis: At a remote military observation post in the arctic, a pair of American airmen see a blip on their radar screen they aren’t able to identify. Moments later, they hear a harsh buzzing sound and their weather shack is wrecked. Later, a rescue team finds no trace of the men but does find a marks that seem to indicate something glided in and landed there. A C-47 transport in the same area crashes under mysterious circumstances. Investigators return to base with a strange spur-like object, about four feet long, that was lodged in the wreckage. At the Pentagon, a team of experts concludes that the object was broken off from a living creature of some kind, but are unable to make an identification.

Without a way forward, the experts suggest the Pentagon consult Dr. Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper), chief paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Washington; Jackson is renowned for his ability to do reconstructions based on scant evidence.

Summoned by the Pentagon, Jackson quickly concludes that the object isn’t made of bone, but cartilage, probably from some sort of insect. The editor of the museum magazine Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) presses him for more information but he can only speculate: the spur broke off a huge creature of some kind.

Blood tests later confirm Jackson’s theory that, as incredible as it seems, the attacks were caused by a gigantic insect — which Jackson believes could only be a preying mantis.

Asked to travel to the military base near where the attacks occurred, Jackson is surprised when Marge tells him she’s going too. She’s finagled passage on the military transport under the pretext of being Jackson’s photographer.

On arriving at the base, Marge meets Col. Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) and the two immediately hit it off. Parkman takes Jackson and Marge to the site of the plane crash, where they survey the damage and examine the marks left when the mantis glided in for a landing. That night, the mantis attacks the base, and conventional weapons like guns and flamethrowers are found to be ineffective against it.

Once the mantis flies away, jet fighters are unable to locate it, but a tip from a Canadian airbase leads helps them pick up the trail. The mantis has been traveling due south, and before long it travels down the east coast of the United States.

After an attack from a squadron of jet fighters, the mantis falls below the range of radar, and the trail is lost again. But before long it turns up in Washington, wreaking havoc on the nation’s capitol…..

Comments: Made during the height of the giant bug craze of the 1950s, this paint-by-numbers thriller was produced by William Alland, who’d worked on many of Universal’s sci-fi movies of that decade. It was directed by Nathan Juran, whose output was decidedly uneven (ranging from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth to The Brain from Planet Arous and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman). But while this wasn’t one of his better efforts, Juran isn’t the main problem here. Most of the issues with The Deadly Mantis can be traced back to the screenplay.

Martin Berkeley’s script tries to follow the template set by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but does so clumsily. Like Beast, this one starts in the arctic and ends in the United States. But while Beast was able to use its early scenes to build suspense, Mantis just marks time, using lots of stock footage along the way.

The romantic subplot is unusual for a film of this type: instead of pairing Marge with Ned Jackson, as we would expect from the movie’s early scenes, Marge instead falls for Col. Parkman. This surprises many first-time viewers (Parkman’s character, though introduced early, isn’t central to the action until the second half), and seems to have been done in order to paper over a serious structural flaw in the story.

The problem is this: once Dr. Jackson has identified the mysterious creature as a giant insect, there isn’t any reason to keep him hanging around, except as a means for Parkman to meet Marge. Even transporting him to the arctic base seems redundant; by this point we already know what attacked the plane and the weather shack. But waiting so long to get Parkman to the center of things creates some confusion as to who the hero really is. Only Steven’s top billing, and the fact that he “gets the girl”, will tip you off that he’s the main character.

Despite the lackluster script, the movie works well enough to pass muster, and I remember liking it fine when I was a kid. It’s entirely derivative of earlier films, but Universal was clearly looking to keep giant monster product in the pipeline, and this one follows the formula. Judged on its own merits, it’s a perfectly serviceable, almost generic 50’s monster movie.

We’ve seen William Hopper before on Horror Incorporated; he played Col. Calder in 20 Million Miles from Earth and would soon be cast as Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV series, which would keep him busy for the next decade. Never an actor with a lot of range, he’s fine here, though I found it a bit hard to accept him as a renowned paleontologist. I suspect the role was written with a somewhat older actor in mind.

Craig Stevens is best-known for playing Peter Gunn on television. He seems rather subdued here as Parkman, but his part isn’t written to stand out in any way. The same could be said for Alix Talton, who plays a standard-issue love interest. Early on it looks as though her character will get some interesting things to do, as she volunteers her services as photographer in order to get to the arctic. But before long she’s simply falling into the nearest pair of brawny arms. I rather liked Talton’s look, and wish she’d had more of a career; this appears to be the largest role she ever had. She did a number of guest shots in TV shows in the 1960s before disappearing from the screen.

4 comments

  1. Now I am pretty sure that I would have watched these… anything with Karloff and Lugosi, and giant monsters!

    Like

  2. Alix Talton’s last major role, if one could call it that, is in 1962’s CARNIVAL OF CRIME, one of over a dozen Crown International cheapies issued as part of Scream Theater.

    Like

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