Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Phantom Creeps (1939)

The Phantom Creeps was produced by Universal Pictures and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind.  Commonwealth Pictures was a motion picture company that dealt with the redistributing and reissuing of films and shorts but played no part in actually producing the serial.  The screen play was written by George Plympton who also wrote screenplays for some other favorites of mine such as The Green Hornet (1940), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), Holt of the Secret Service (1941), Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949) and many, many others.  The serial stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka/Dr. Zane, Robert Kent as Capt. Bob West, Dorothy Arnold as reporter Jean Drew, and Edward Van Sloan (sans German accent) as Jarvis the spy chief.

Dr. Zorka is an inventor, but not your average inventor.  He invents things like an "invisibility belt" that can render the wearer invisible to the human eye.  He's the creator of one of the most evil looking, remote control robots that I've ever seen.  And, he's invented some little metal disks that attract exploding mechanical spiders which cause anyone in their vicinity to fall into a state of suspended animation.  Of course all these items use the power harnessed from a piece of meteorite that Zorka had previously recovered.

For some reason (potentially lots of money) Zorka doesn't want to share these discoveries with the U.S. Government, so his ex-partner Dr. Mallory (Edwin Stanley) and Zorka's wife (Dora Clement) call the military intelligence officers themselves.  After the doctor sabotages the government plane with his exploding spiders, not realizing his wife was also on board, the plane crashes and his wife is killed.  Zorka goes mad  and vows revenge on everyone and becomes intent on ruling the world.  After faking his own death in an automobile accident, and with the help of his inept assistant Monk (Jack C. Smith) who whines about getting caught and sent back to prison in practically every chapter, Zorka uses his "invisibility belt", becoming "The Phantom", to move around unnoticed and prevent the Feds from gaining access to his devices.  And, at the same time he tries to stay one step ahead of a gang of international spies, who lead by Jarvis (Van Sloane), are trying to steal his secrets and the meteorite fragment from which he extracts the element that powers all his inventions.

So what we end up with is Zorka trying to track down the "mystery box" containing his stolen meteorite which changes hands so many times, I forget who ends up with it.  Monk gets shot by the Feds and the spies so many times throughout the serial I lost count.  And of course you have Bela Lugosi putting one hundred percent effort into yet another role that he could have just slugged through half-heartedly.  But that's not the way he works.  As a matter of fact he looked like he was really enjoying this role.  You'll do a little moaning and groaning, and maybe roll your eyes a few times.  There are a few over-exaggerated gestures and over the top moments, but they just add a little fun to the overall viewing experience.  Dorothy Arnold is cute as the news reporter trying to get a scoop, but she's no Lois Lane.

There's lots of stock footage of building fires and explosions.  In one scene a train gets derailed and wrecked and I'm pretty sure it's the same scene that's in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942).  And I think I caught a glimpse of a very young Lee J. Cobb as a demolition crew foreman in one of the last chapters (maybe someone can verify that for me).  The serial's chock full of fist fights, car chases and crashes, the giant robot dispensing a few beatings (at one point the military gets involved), and impossible escapes from certain death scenarios.  At one point there's a plane crash and one of the G-men just carries someone out of the wreckage, dusts himself off, and goes about his business.  Like I said, it's a little rough in some spots but gets better towards the end so try to stick with it.

When Zorka really goes over the edge and starts bombing just about everything he sees, laughing hysterically, you see Lugosi at his best.

You never know what you'll learn watching some of these classics.  For instance, I never knew that Dr. Zorka was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster!!  Serials are so educational and informative.

Overall it's a fun serial to watch, and Lugosi fans will certainly appreciate his work.  I know I did ...

6 comments:

  1. I'm really not a fan of the classic horror genre, but.. you have peaked my interest.

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  2. Dawn - It's kind of a sci fi/horror mix. Very tame by today's standards, but it is fun to watch. And like I said Bela Lugosi always puts everything he has into his performances, no matter how small or cheesy the role ...

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  3. I haven't seen this one, but that is a great-looking robot! Looks as if it's part art deco, part African mask (it reminds me a bit of the tree monster from the film "From Hell It Came" -wonder if there was any influence?). I love Bels in just about anything he does; he really did put his heart into his work.

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  4. GOM - If you like Bela like I do you'll enjoy this serial. He's great in it.

    For people who aren't big fans of his it might fall a little flat ...

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  5. For everyone's enjoyment I found the entire film (unedited) on YouTube...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UflgewAZuBU

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  6. Thanks for the link DJ. it looks like the feature length version edited from the serial. It should give people a pretty good feel for how most of the story unfolded.

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