Maniacal Mayhem: The Invisible Ray/Black Friday/The Strange Door [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (1st October 2022).
The Film

"Three more tales of terror from the vaults of Universal Pictures, all starring the iconic Boris Karloff."

The Invisible Ray: High in the Carpathian Mountains is the castle of the Rukh family where discredited scientist Janos (Karloff) has developed a telescope that is able to draw light from Andromeda and project images from deep in space captured millions of years ago, toiling away alone since early experiments blinded his mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) and incinerated his colleague whose young daughter Diana (Mad Love's Frances Drake) Janos would later marry. He summons esteemed scientist Sir Francis Stevens (The Man in the Iron Mask's Walter Kingford) for a demonstration and he brings along with him Dr. Benet (Dracula's Bela Lugosi) to determine if the demonstration is real, his wife Lady Arabella (Penny Serenade's Beulah Bondi)who spins his expeditions as adventures for the popular press, and her aimless nephew Ronald Drake (The Skin Game's Frank Lawton). They are stunned not only by the demonstration but by Janos' proof that a meteor carrying an element a hundred times more powerful than Radium crashed into the Earth in Africa millions of years ago. Stevens and Benet invite Janos along on an African expedition to search for the element that Janos has already named "Radium X." His mother's warning that Janos is "not used to people" and never will be turns out to be true when Janos separates from the expedition a few weeks in, leaving Diana in the company of Ronald. Janos finds the element in a crater and is able to harness its energy into a powerful laser but then discovers to his horror that he has become contaminated and glows in the dark with a radioactive touch. He rebuffs his wife's attempts to contact him and secretly goes to Benet who creates a counteractive drug that he must take daily for the rest of his life.

Despite his promises to finish his experiments and return to camp, Janos puts off his return until Benet comes to find him and announces that not only has Diana fallen ill and returned to England with Lady Arabella and Ronald, but that Stevens and himself are preparing to take Radium X to Paris and the Academy of Sciences. Rukh takes a sample back to his castle and works on it, eventually managing to restore his mother's eyesight. Upon arrival in Paris, he discovers that Benet has opened a clinic and is also using Radium X to do similar things. Despite Benet's assurances that Janos received all credit for the discovery and was even awarded the Nobel Prize, Janos is embittered not only by what he considers thievery but also by the betrayal of his wife who is in love with Ronald. He finds a French hobo of similar build to himself and fakes his death in an apparent mishap with Radium X before setting about to use his killer touch to avenge himself on those who have wronged him: the thieves Stevens and Benet, the matchmaker Lady Arabella, and the newlyweds Ronald and Frances. As the killings start, Benet quickly suspects the truth and sets a trap to expose the killer while evading his touch.
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The Invisible Ray was produced for more money than any of the earlier Universal horrors, and looks it with some gorgeous photography by George Robinson(who lensed Universal's Spanish adaptation of Dracula lensed simultaneously with the Tod Browning film and went on to shoot some of the studio's forties horror films), sets by future RKO regular Albert D'Agostino (The Cat People), and some of the best mattes and miniatures so far in the series by John P. Fulton (The Invisible Man) along with an original score by Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard). While Lugosi and Karloff were constantly in danger of upstaging one another in their earlier collaborations, they are more evenly matched here with Karloff sympathetic even at his most monstrous and Lugosi as the good guy who is just as clever and self-sacrificing. Kingford's comic relief is flat and Lawton seems more whiny than gallant; Drake, on the other hand is both alluring and compelling while Cooper and Bondi are also able to bring dignity to sympathetic characters given less screen time. Director Lambert Hillyer would next direct Dracula's Daughter before production code concerns and the British horror ban made the genre fall out of favor for a few years with the studio. Karloff would become another radioactive, phosphorescent killer in the climax of American International's Die, Monster, Die! (an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space").

Black Friday: Mild-mannered English literature professor George Kingsley (Sergeant York's Stanley Ridges) is gravely injured when he steps into the path of a car chase between gangster Red Cannon and the members of his group trying to rub him out: Eric Marnay (Lugosi), Frank Miller (Detour's Edmund MacDonald), William Kane (Red River's Paul Fix), and Louis Devore (Raymond Bailey, later the greedy banker Drysdale of The Beverly Hillbillies). With Cannon paralyzed and Kingsley braindead, Kingsley's best friend Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) decides to perform a bit of experimental and illegal brain transplantation, both to save his friend and to further science. Noticing Kingsley's erratic behavior as he convalesces, Sovac believes that Cannon's memories are still present in his brain.

Learning that Cannon's gang was after five hundred thousand dollars he had hidden away, Sovac decides to take him to New York under the guise of a recuperative holiday and trigger his memories to find the money which he wants to use to build his own laboratory and continue his experiments. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Cannon's personality has been lying dormant and he emerges when Kingsley is asleep to avenge himself on the four members of his gang. As the police investigate, Sovac agrees to help Cannon become Kingsley permanently but his is under threat of exposure when Kingsley's concerned wife (Executive Suite's Virginia Brissac) and Sovac's daughter (House of Frankenstein's Anne Gwynne) come to town and Cannon's old flame Sunny (Man-Made Monster's Anne Nagel) plots with Marnay to get the stolen loot from the man who claims he is her dead lover.
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A mashup of medical science gone wrong horror film and gangster flick, Black Friday's concept would not have been a bad idea for a Poverty Row quickie but seems trashy for a studio picture, even an economically-made one. Not only do top-billed Karloff and Lugosi not share any scenes, but Lugosi is miscast as a gangster and Karloff's is only good when his character is well-intentioned but not when trying to justify his treatment of someone who is supposed to be his best friend. Ridges comes off best despite the contrivance of a supernatural transformation from Kingsley to Cannon with the actor shedding his old age make-up through editing and later opticals (which seems at first to be in his own head since people who know him do not seem to recognize him while others later do appear to see the difference). The moments of horror in the kills are little more exciting than a stock shot-heavy shootout, and the fates of Sovac and Marnay are also less horrific than that of Ridges. It is no surprise that the film did not make a splash theatrically and that it marked the end of Karloff's and Lugosi's tenures at Universal. In spite of Black Friday, jobbing director Arthur Lubin would be brought back to helm the studio's Technicolor Phantom of the Opera.

The Strange Door: In eighteenth-century France, rogue Denis de Beaulieu (The Girl from Rio's Richard Stapley) is carousing in the Red Lion pub when he is accosted by Turec (Vera Cruz's Charles Horvath) over his bad manners. A brawl turns deadly when Denis fires a loaded musket at Turec in self-defense. On the run from Turec's friends and the law, Denis becomes lost in the forest and comes across an iron door which opens for him only to close after him with no seeming means of opening it. He finds himself in the forbidding castle of aristocrat Alain de Maletroit (Witness for the Prosecution's Charles Laughton) who intends for Denis to marry his niece. Although the offer of a pretty wife but unlimited funds should be irresistible for a "gambler, wastrel, libertine only two steps from the guillotine," Denis resents the loss of his freedom and knows that Maletroit's generosity comes with more strings. When Denis tries to leave, preferring to take his chances with the mob outside, Maletroit's men forcibly show him to his room; whereupon, the extent of Maletroit's ruse to get him to the castle is revealed when Turec turns up to be paid.

When Maletroit's niece Blanche (While the City Sleeps's Sally Forrest) sneaks into his room to warn him, Denis is pleased to discover that she is not the toothless hag he assumed was intended for him but also surprised to learn that she is as opposed to the marriage as he, having promised herself to suitor Armand. When they both present their feelings to Maletroit, he insists that they are indeed perfectly suited to one another but then reveals to trusted servant Corbeau (The Man on the Eiffel Tower's William Cottrell) just how pleased he is that they dislike one another ("Hatred will come later"). Blanche is just as puzzled as Denis as to why her uncle would insist on such a union, telling him that her uncle has never mistreated her but that everything that has been near and dear to her has nevertheless been snatched away. Visiting the dungeons of the castle that were once the lair of a legendary French inquisition torturer, Maletroit reveals his true plans to his brother Edmond (House of Wax's Paul Cavanagh) who has been shut away in a cell for twenty years, intending to ruin Blanche with a marriage to a scoundrel. Maletroit only regrets that Edmond has been driven mad by his imprisonment and cannot understand him, but that is a ruse and Edmond beseeches his only remaining faithful servant Voltan (Cauldron of Blood's Boris Karloff) to make sure that the union does not happen. Unaware of Denis' true character and intentions, Voltan leads Denis into the dungeons ostensibly to a secret means of escaping the castle.
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An adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Sire de Maletroit's Door", The Strange Door is frustrating in that it has some interesting ideas but is nevertheless Universal-International filler as the company attempted to recapture the genre from its poverty row competitors (eventually finding a modicum of success with their William Alland science-fiction ventures of the mid-fifties starting with The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space before descending into budget-conscious shabbiness). The production values of this period film are modest with cramped but eclectic castle sets (possibly redressed and recycled for The Maze) and the costumed extras raiding the Universal wardrobe department and stock music, but it is truly the script that is the film's weakness. While the Production Code surely prevented the film from doing more than hinting at Maletroit's libertinage living in a "secluded domain" where "villainy binds men together," and any too lurid details of the dungeon, there are too many characters used to little effect seemingly motivated more by the need to get the most out of Universal player contracts however pleasing it is to see them onscreen from the ambiguous role of Corbeau as servant, disciple, and needling voice of conscience to footman Talon (Curse of the Undead's Michael Pate) who endures Maletroit's insults, humiliation, and table scraps seemingly while waiting for a more tempting bribe, or Denis' potential ally in wedding guest Count Grassain (Batman: The Television Series' Alan Napier) while Denis and Blanche falling in love is as poorly handled as the idea that Blanche has suspected nothing wrong while living in the castle for all of her twenty years, serving only to upset Maltroit's plans and effect the climax.

Laughton is excellent in a role that requires scenery chewing while the rest of the cast do their best with too little (if The Body Snatcher was Karloff's best post-Universal golden age horror role then this film is his least, even compared to his dignified turns in mostly beneath him American International product to come) while Universal's contract technical crew includes art director Nathan Juran who would begin his directing career with the following year's The Black Castle also with Karloff and scripted by The Strange Door's Jerry Sackheim which would be the last of Universal's gothic horrors. Like Juran, jobbing director Joseph Pevney's feature career would peter out at the end of the fifties despite high-profile assignments like Female on the Beach, The Man of a Thousand Faces and Tammy and the Bachelor and he would move onto episodic television and made-for-television movies.

Video

The Invisible Ray was reissued by Realart in 1947 while Black Friday was reissued in 1948. The Invisible Ray was easiest to see on television through a deal with a pre-Sony Screen Gems until MCA released it on VHS in 1987 followed by a digitally-remastered version in 1992 on MCA/Universal VHS and Encore Edition laserdisc. Black Friday was also syndicated by Screen Gems and released on VHS in 1995 but pretty much flew under the radar until both films made their DVD debut in The Bela Lugosi Collection. The Invisible Ray was reissued individually as part of the Universal Vault Series DVD-R line along with Black Friday, and then both returned to pressed disc in the Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi 4-Movie Horror Collection (which dropped The Murders in the Rue Morgue from the earlier set). Both films made their Blu-ray bow stateside in Scream Factory's Universal Horror Collection Volume One while The Invisible Ray alone had subsequent solo releases in Germany and France. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen encode of The Invisible Ray comes from the same 2K master and is probably the best-looking transfer in the set with virtually no damage, nice detail in close-ups of hair, clothing, and sets which do not give away the joins between real set and matte portions while the blacks are bottomless from the set shadows to the deep space opticals. Black Friday's 2K-mastered 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen encode looks great for a visually-uninteresting film.
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Released theatrically by Universal-International, The Strange Door was one of the Universal horrors bypassed for VHS in the early eighties when MCA was exploiting their better-known titles from the thirties and forties, not becoming available on home video until 1996 with an MCA Encore Edition laserdisc Karloff double feature with the 1944 Technicolor flop The Climax and a standalone VHS release. The film first came to DVD in 2006 with Universal's The Boris Karloff Collection followed by a standalone Universal Vault Series DVD-R. The film made its Blu-ray debut stateside from Kino Lorber and Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer is derived from the same HD master (which was presumably prepared for the DVD editions). The blacks are not as deep as they should be and the highlights may lose a bit at their whitest while a newer 4K or 2K scan might've made more of the variegations of grey in-between, but this is to be expected of Universal's monochrome catalogue titles, not quite as good as their remasters of the classic horror titles but not as problematic as some of their older HD masters of color titles.

Audio

The Westrex noiseless recording of The Invisible Ray is fairly clean on the LPCM 2.0 mono track. The English LPCM 2.0 mono track Black Friday is relatively clean but may have a bit more digital clean-up applied than necessary in one or two spots where the hiss-free silences seem unnatural. The LPCM 2.0 mono track of The Strange Door boasts clear dialogue, effects, and music - although the stock tracks are undistinguished - and is clean of any overly distracting hiss, crackling, or pops. Optional English HoH subtitles are included for all three films.

Extras

Scream Factory's Blu-ray of The Invisible Ray featured a commentary track by authors/film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson while Eureka's transfer is accompanied by an audio commentary by author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman in which they note that the film was the last time Karloff was billed under his surname alone and note the film's troubled history starting with original director Stuart Walker (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) being fired and blacklisted by every studio in town after asking for three extra days to work on aspects of the script he found lacking leading to a nine day delay as Hillyer was brought in to replace him (the director subsequently brought the film in overschedule and overbudget). They note that the film was always intended as an "upper-class B picture" and note the excess plot elements including the entire trip to Africa and the subsequent rushing of the narrative in the remaining time including offscreen deaths that were not a matter of corner-cutting. In discussing the original treatment and novelization, they note similarities to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space" as well as the later Karloff adaptation of that story while also suggesting that screenwriter John Colton was basically rewriting his script for Werewolf of London.

Scream Factory's Blu-ray of Black Friday featured a commentary track by filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr while Eureka features an audio commentary by film historians Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby in which they reveal that Karloff was originally intended to play the lead and Lugosi the role of Sovac only to change his mind just before the start of production, demoting Lugosi to the role of the gangster (which was beefed up for him) and necessitating the search for lead and the quick casting of "legiter" (legitimate theater actor) Ridges. While screenwriter Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) stated that Karloff felt he was not up to the demand of a dual role which he essayed elsewhere Lyons and Rigby suggests that Karloff simply "couldn't be arsed" since he was already starting his Columbia run of mad scientists and would not have had to work as much on this picture for the same pay and billing.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray of The Strange Door featured a commentary by film historians Tom Weaver, David Schecter, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss while Eureka features an audio commentary by author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman who are of the opinion that the film and Black Castle marked the actual end of Universal's second horror boom rather than being outliers in the studio's fifties period of science fiction films (noting also that they were planning an adaptation of Le Fanu's "Carmilla" but instead went with It Came from Outer Space instead). They also suggest that it is part of a subgenre of horror-themed swashbucklers that also included films like Moonfleet, Jamaica Inn, and The Hellfire Club and that swashbucklers gave way to westerns including horror-tinged westerns like Curse of the Undead which also starred Australian actor Pate who they believe was likely being propped up as the studio's next horror star had they not moved into science fiction. They also discuss Laughton and his deliberate underplaying of a role that they argue is not the nadir critics often cite it as, but also revealing that Laughton was difficult and even nasty to the cast and crew but possibly surrounded himself in the film with his theater buddies as his character's minions Cottrell would eventually become his personal assistant out of a sense of insecurity as he came back to film from the stage and would eventually take a series of higher profile roles before his death. Of Karloff, they note his relegation in both this and Black Castle to seeming villain revealed as doomed hero, as well as how in both films screenwriter Sackheim seemed far more interested in the villains and their more fleshed-out minions than the romantic lead and love interest.

The Invisible Ray is also accompanied by a theatrical trailer (1:43) and two image galleries of production stills (26 images) and artwork and ephemera (19 images) while Black Friday includes a theatrical trailer (1:55) and two image galleries of production stills (34 images) and artwork and ephemera (16 images). The Strange Door includes three radio adaptations of the source story from "Escape" 04/08/47 (29:29), "Theatre Royal" 01/11/53 (29:15), and "CBS Radio Mystery Theatre" 06/02/75 (43:22) as well as two image galleries of production stills (74 images) and artwork and ephemera (23 images).

Packaging

The first pressing of 2,000 copies comes with a limited edition O-card slipcase and a collector's booklet featuring new writing on all three films by film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson, and Craig Ian Mann (not supplied for review).

Overall

 


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