Friday, January 30, 2009

The Flying Serpent (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Flying Serpent — which I used as a sort of cinematic hors d’oeuvre since it only ran about an hour and is a film I’ve long been curious about — is a sub-“B” production from PRC in 1945 (released 1946) but one with a quirky appeal. It’s basically yet another reworking of The Devil Bat — this time with the reworking done by the Devil Bat’s screenwriter, John T. Neville — with George Zucco instead of Bela Lugosi as the principal villain and a flying reptile from Aztec Mexico replacing the artificially enlarged bat as the monster.

Zucco plays a mad anthropologist (an interesting off-take of the mad laboratory scientist who usually figured in these melodramas) named Andrew Forbes, who has moved to the small town of San Juan, New Mexico to be near the ancient village of Azteca — a quite good model (at least by PRC standards) of a village literally built into a hillside, integrated into the background with perfectly credible process work (not that surprising given that the inventor of the process screen, Eugen Schuftan, had worked “under the table” for PRC earlier in the 1940’s) —where he’s stumbled on the legendary lost treasure of Aztec emperor Montezuma, which was deposited in a temple the Aztecs had abandoned earlier when they moved into the Valley of Mexico but fled to after the Spaniards drove them out of their capital and destroyed it.

The posted Quetzalcoatl (a name the actors in this movie annoyingly pronounce “KET-zul-co-AAH-tul” instead of the correct “KET-zul-kwa-tul”), who in this rendition of the legend is a half-reptile, half-bird with strikingly beautiful feathers, to guard the treasure and keep robbers from scoring any of it — and the beast has somehow lived on to this day. Forbes discovered the hard way that Quetzalcoatl will kill anyone who handles one of its feathers when his wife was killed by the thing years before; now he’s using this knowledge to eliminate his enemies by planting Quetzalcoatl’s feathers on them the way Bela Lugosi’s character in The Devil Bat attracted his monster to his enemies by having them use a special aftershave. (These may be the only two movies in cinema history where the monster needs a co-factor.)

The plot swings into action when Forbes’ daughter — or is she only his stepdaughter? John Neville is clearly undecided on that point, though she has his last name — Mary (Hope Kramer) arrives in San Juan to visit him, and finds him put out that a family friend, John Lambert (James Metcalfe), has published an article in an obscure ornithological magazine suggesting that an Aztec winged creature might still survive in the local ruins. Forbes plants a Quetzalcoatl feather in Lambert’s home and Lambert, finding it, drives out to Azteca and thereby puts himself in harm’s way of the monster — who proves reasonably credible for a PRC creation; he’s obviously being moved on a wire and can’t move his neck or make any other motions that would make it credible as a living being, but his half-reptile, half-bird appearance is surprisingly believable — triggering an investigation by radio crime reporter Richard Thorpe (Ralph Lewis) who reports from the XOR network in New York City (though with its Mexican-style call letters it would have made more sense for XOR to be a cross-border station with its studio in San Juan and its transmitter across the border) and travels to San Juan to try to solve the crime.

Forbes uses Quetzalcoatl to kill the town sheriff (Henry Hall) and another ornithologist (Wheaton Chambers) whom Thorpe has recruited to be an expert commentator on his program; he tries to kill Thorpe, Thorpe’s sound man “Jonesy” (better-than-usual comic-relief character actor Eddie Acuff) and his assistant Bennett (Terry Frost), but, knowing what they’re up against, they hide behind a grating while the bird flaps helplessly trying to get to them. Eventually Forbes tries to kill his own daughter after she realizes he’s the killer and threatens to report him, but in the end of course it’s Forbes who is the bird’s final victim, idiotically clutching one of its feathers as he tries to flee — and Thorpe shoots the thing down after it’s killed Forbes and thus ends the monster.

It’s not much of a movie and you do get the feeling you’ve seen it all before, but the scenes of the monster in its cage — shown exclusively in shadow, with only a fleetingly glimpsed head and a sound of rattlesnake-type rattles on the soundtrack (had someone at PRC watched some of the Val Lewton movies?) — are genuinely sinister and Zucco’s performance, while hardly as appealingly florid as Lugosi would have been in the role, is appropriately bitchy and mean; he’s the sort of actor who can look scary as all get-out even when he’s doing something as mundane as driving his car between San Juan and Azteca (and his car is an appealing creamy white fastback Chevrolet even though Charles pointed out that no one who lived in the desert would buy a white car!), and though Forbes is a far lower-level schemer Zucco brings some of the quality to this role he’d displayed as Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes six years earlier.