Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Before the main feature Mystery Science Theatre 3000 showed the opening episode of the 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, originally made at Universal and featuring Bela Lugosi as mad scientist Dr. Alex Zorka, who’s devised a wide panoply of inventions including a belt that makes its wearer invisible, a remote-control murder device that involves planting a metal disc on the victim and sending a spider (actually one of the least convincing toy models ever shown in a movie!) to the disc, where it combusts and put the living being into suspended animation (so The Devil Bat wasn’t the first time Lugosi experimented with a monster that needed a co-factor to become active!), and a giant robot that resembles an animate Easter Island statue — the print they were showing came from a reissue outfit called “Commonwealth Films, Inc.” and the MST3K crew actually apologized for the print quality, but the feature, Jungle Goddess was even worse — much of it was so badly faded it was no longer black-and-white but off-white-on-white and the difficulty of telling exactly what was supposed to be going on just made a bad movie even worse! — 4/21/09


They also showed the second episode of Bela Lugosi’s 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, which had some potential off-camera (Ford Beebe co-directed with Saul A. Goodkind and the script was based on a story by Son of Frankenstein author Willis Cooper), sadly unrealized in a messy scenario that did an O.K. job of setting up the action and did nothing to stop Lugosi from floridly overacting every scene he’s in; the conceit is that Lugosi’s character has faked his own death and disguised himself by the simple expedient of shaving off his beard, but one would think his long-time associate, good scientist Dr. Fred Mallory (Edwin Stanley), would have easily recognized him the moment he heard That Voice. Not even a reunion between Lugosi and his Dracula cast-mate Edward Van Sloan (unbilled, and playing a character on the same side as Lugosi this time; he’s Jarvis, agent of a carefully unnamed foreign power that wants to buy all of Lugosi’s infernal inventions) can liven up this piece of cheese — though the famous giant-sized robot, which looks like an animate hot-water heater disguised as an Easter Island statue, is cool. — 4/23/09


The MST3K crew did their best with Ring of Terror — most of their jokes centered around the vast gulf between the ages of the characters and the real-life ages of the actors attempting to play them (when one of them joked that the actor playing Moffitt is obviously older than Moffitt’s age at his death, I pointed out that when he made the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey was older than Darin had been when he died, but he made a great movie anyway) — and when they filled out the show’s length (Ring of Terror is only 71 minutes long) with an episode (the third) of the 1939 Universal serial The Phantom Creeps, a really silly production starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka, a mad scientist with a yen to conquer the world (mind you that Adolf Hitler was alive, well and close to the peak of his power just then, so megalomaniacs interested in conquering the world weren’t the sort of creatures of science fiction they are today), their relief at having something they could sink their teeth into was as palpable as ours, even though the print of The Phantom Creeps (attributed to something called “Commonwealth Films” which must have bought the rights from Universal for reissue or TV) was lousy and made it almost impossible to see what was going on (not that much was going on since Lugosi had rendered himself invisible through most of this episode) and the movie is pretty tacky, complete with the detail anybody who remembers The Phantom Creeps immediately thinks of when the film is mentioned: the 12-foot-tall robot Lugosi has supposedly built, whose craggy facial features make it look like a cross between an automobile hood ornament and an Easter Island statue. — 7/21/08


The Phantom Creeps is the 1939 Universal serial that starred Bela Lugosi as Dr. Alex Zorka, a mad scientist bent on becoming the most powerful person in the world, with an array of creepy inventions writers Wyllis Cooper (original story; Cooper had also written the script for the 1939 Universal feature Son of Frankenstein, the formidable teaming of Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone), George H. Plympton (who co-wrote the Batman and Robin serial a decade later), Basil Dickey and Mildred Barish must have had a lot of fun thinking up. Among them is a “devisualizer,” a belt that renders its wearer invisible (though surprisingly little is done with this effect; Universal probably didn’t have a chance to do on a serial budget the kinds of effects they had done in the Invisible Man feature from 1933 and would do again in its sequelae), a flat metal disc and a mechanical spider that works in tandem with it to put any life form in suspended animation: if a human (or any other species, including a plant) is holding the disc on his or her (or its) person and the spider walks over towards it and lands on the disc, there’s a small explosion and then the life form is rendered unconscious and apparently dead. (There’s a cool special effect in episode one in which the spider hits the disc Lugosi has planted on a potted tree and the tree’s leaves wilt and its branches droop right before our eyes.)

There have been some attempts to justify the homicidal mania of Lugosi’s character by claiming that he’s grief-stricken over the death of his wife, but his wife doesn’t die until the end of episode one and he’s already a florid maniac when we first see him at the start, in a secret room in his house where he’s set up his lab and where he houses the Iron Man (Edward Wolff), a 12-foot robot that looks like a hot-water heater done up to resemble a cross between an automobile hood ornament and an Easter Island statue. That description came from some of my previous notes on The Phantom Creeps when Charles and I watched the first three episodes as fillers on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — and, indeed, it’s the robot that just about everyone remembers when they think of this movie. Lugosi also has an assistant, an escaped convict named Monk (Jack C. Smith) whom he’s blackmailed to work for him (as he’d done earlier with Boris Karloff in the 1935 The Raven and would do later with John Berkes in the 1942 Bowery at Midnight, the best — or at least the least bad — of Lugosi’s films for Monogram), and as the film begins the two of them are moving all Lugosi’s infernal paraphernalia from his secret lab to an even more secret one in a grotto near his home (for which they need the great strength of the Iron Man robot to move the entranceway so they can get in).

The Phantom Creeps is surprisingly action-less, despite the direction by Ford Beebe (the mastermind behind the Flash Gordon serials, also from Universal) and Saul A. Goodkind, who at least make good use of Universal’s standing sets and music library — one of the scenes in the opening credits is a traveling shot across a forest full of gnarled trees, a clip ripped off from the original Frankenstein, and through much of the lab sequences we hear bits of Franz Waxman’s marvelous Bride of Frankenstein score — but the cliffhangers have a rather perfunctory feel to them and the script is full of the usual mind-numbing coincidences with which serial writers powered their plots.

In this one, Lugosi decides to fake his own death in a car crash, and he just happens to meet a hitchhiker along the way who slightly resembles him — including having a full beard, as Lugosi does in episode one before he decides to disguise himself by the simple expedient of shaving it off — so he has Monk pick the poor guy up with the intent of killing him and leaving his body at the scene with his deliberately wrecked car, passing off the dead body as Zorka while the real Zorka comes upon the scene and pronounces the fake “Zorka” dead. What’s more, though a number of people at the scene of the crash know Zorka quite well, none of them recognize him without his beard even though one would think Lugosi’s familiar voice would have been a dead giveaway no matter what the state of his facial hair. The Phantom Creeps is only mediocre by the usual standards of serials, but what makes it worthwhile is Lugosi’s engagingly florid performance (he could be a subtle actor but he usually wasn’t called on to be) that raises overacting to an art form, and the imaginative nature of the gimmicks he’s supposedly invented. — 2/17/10


I ran us episodes three and four of the 1939 Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps, oddly action-less for the genre but with some genuinely creative elements in the scripting that helped make up for the action-fests with which Republic and Columbia peppered their serials. One was the sheer multiplicity of devices invented by mad scientist Dr. Alex Zorka, Lugosi’s role — including the enormous robot with the oddly painted head (though so far the writers, Willis Cooper — that’s how his name is spelled on the credits, though imdb.com insists on giving the oddball “Wyllis” spelling of his first name — George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Mildred Barish, have done surprisingly little with the robot), the suspended-animation device that consists of a radioactive disc (it’s only in these episodes that we find out it is radioactive) and a mechanical spider — when the victim has the disc on his or her person and the spider makes contact with the disc, there’s an explosion and the victim is put into suspended animation (though Zorka’s rival Dr. Mallory, played by Edwin Stanley, has invented an antidote to the disc) and the mysterious box, anticipating the one in Kiss Me Deadly by six years, that contains the radioactive mineral Zorka found left behind in a meteorite that landed in the African jungle and which he discovered and harnessed to power all his infernal devices.

If that plot twist sounds familiar, it should; it was the basis for the 1936 film The Invisible Ray, in which Boris Karloff played the mad scientist Dr. Janos Rukh (that was the film that cast the British-born Karloff as a Hungarian and Lugosi, an ethnic Hungarian born in Romania, as a Frenchman), and it was he who discovered the meteorite and was lowered into a pit to recover its radioactive power source. Indeed, episode three of The Phantom Creeps illustrates this action with a film clip from The Invisible Ray, including a close-up of Karloff being lowered into the pit (essentially “doubling” for Lugosi in this context) that, even though all you see of his face is the eyes and the area around them through the visor of his protective suit, and you probably wouldn’t recognize for sure as Karloff if you didn’t already know the source of the clip, you can certainly tell that is not Lugosi. (The clips from The Invisible Ray even show Lugosi as he appeared in that film, with an arrangement of facial hair totally different from the beard he was wearing in episode one of The Phantom Creeps or his clean-shaven appearance in the rest of the serial.)

There are some cool effects, including the sight of tree branches moving back and forth, seemingly under their own power (Zorka has invented a “devisualizer” belt that renders him invisible, which allows Universal to pull some of the gags they used in the Invisible Man movies, including having the unseen Zorka club the hero to unconsciousness when he sneaks up behind him waving a club that appears to be hovering in mid-air, though it’s pretty obviously being worked with wires), and a neat gimmick when the good guys briefly recover Zorka’s infernal box (his assistant Monk, played by Jack C. Smith, tried to steal it from Zorka and sell it to Jarvis — played by Edward Van Sloan in a welcome reunion with his Dracula cast-mate Lugosi — head of the spy ring that’s after Zorka’s secrets by hook or crook; the good guys steal it from Monk but Zorka manages to steal it back), open one of its vents, and take down several electrical transmission towers, one of which falls in their path and sets up the cliffhanger for episode three. (The Phantom Creeps may suffer from the lack of elaborately choreographed fight scenes, but it benefits from more creative and imaginative cliffhangers than usual.)

The Phantom Creeps is a serial in which the writers and directors (Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind and an uncredited James Whale — the directorial credit is shown over a clip of the elaborate tracking shot over the ruined forest from Frankenstein) seemed to have deliberately made all the other elements (including the action) as low-keyed as possible so that Lugosi’s typically over-the-top performance would shine that much brighter — and it’s a strategy that appears to have worked; this may be Lugosi’s best serial (as far as I know the only others he made were The Return of Chandu and Shadows Over Chinatown, and I’ve never seen The Return of Chandu — though I just downloaded all of it from archive.org — and the only version of Shadows Over Chinatown I’ve seen is the cut-down feature-length edit) even though it doesn’t have the touches of restrained acting Lugosi sometimes gave us almost as if he desperately wanted to prove he could even when confronted with one chew-the-scenery script after another. — 2/22/10


Our “short” was episode five of The Phantom Creeps, the 1939 Universal serial whose only real appeal is Bela Lugosi (him, and that 12-foot robot of his that as I’ve said earlier looks like a cross between an automobile hood ornament and an Easter Island statue), and whose makers made the mistake of giving him a “devisualizer” belt that renders him invisible. Since he’s unseen through most of the movie (except as a sort of off-white bubble floating through much of the action) and all of the characters except his sidekick Monk (Jack C. Smith) think he’s dead, he really doesn’t have a chance to dominate the action the way he should — especially since this is a Universal serial and therefore is surprisingly deficient in action.

Virtually all the action scenes are chases — including one preposterous one in this episode in which the juvenile leads, federal agent Captain Bob West (Robert Kent) and reporter Jean Drew (Dorothy Arnold), commandeer a plane to chase the baddies in a car. The baddies have grabbed Bob’s sidekick, Lt. Jim Daley (Regis Toomey), and despite being momentarily incapacitated by a gunshot which hit him while he was escaping from the cliffhanger at the end of episode four (a plane crash which, it turned out, only took off the landing gear but left the rest of the aircraft undamaged), he’s able to fly low and close enough that he can keep track of the villains’ car. (If he’d been flying a helicopter, this would be believable, but not a plane.) What’s more, the plane just happens to have a whole box of hand grenades in it, and Bob tells Jean to start using them as improvised bombs, thrown from the air first to incapacitate the villains’ car and then, when they get out and start chasing Jim, Bob tells Jean to throw the bomb between Jim and the baddies so they’ll be delayed (or worse) and he can escape — and it works, though I was thinking she’d say, “Oh, I threw the bomb right on top of Jim and blew him up. Sorry.” This episode ends with one of the most hackneyed cliffhangers imaginable — the good guys’ car gets stuck on some train tracks just as a train is barreling along on them (probably Pearl White asked her writers, “Isn’t that getting a bit clichéd?”). — 3/1/10


I ran two episodes (six and seven) of the 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps. These were pretty much more of the same, though it’s at this point (midway through the whole production) that the good guys — Army Intelligence captain Bob West (Robert Kent), his comic-relief sidekick Lieutenant Jim Daley (Regis Toomey), good scientist Dr. Fred Mallory (Edwin Stanley) and an indistinguishable host of federal agents — finally start to realize that mad scientist Dr. Alex Zorka (Bela Lugosi) is still alive (he had faked his death with transparent obviousness in episode one), that he’s back in possession of the lead-lined box containing the radioactive super-element he obtained from a meteorite in the African jungle in episode three (courtesy of stock footage from The Invisible Ray, made three years earlier, in which it was actually Boris Karloff who found the meteorite and Lugosi who stole it from him and became famous for it) and that he’s figured out how to make himself invisible (Dr. Mallory belatedly remembered that Zorka had been working on a “devisualizer” when the two of them were still partners).

The most appealing elements of The Phantom Creeps are Lugosi’s performance — flamboyantly over-the-top even by his standards — and the 12-foot robot, which threatens to crush silly little Bob West in the cliffhanger between episodes six and seven but otherwise is too little used by this serial’s writing committee (Willis Cooper, story; George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Mildred Barish, script). At least the female lead, reporter Jean Drew (Dorothy Arnold), gets to shine a bit here; confronting the members of the spy ring at their mountain hideout, she pretends to be a criminal herself, also after Zorka’s magic box, and gets her finest bit of acting so far in an otherwise pretty droopy role that gives her little to do other than ornament the scenery and pout whenever West and Daley tell her she’s not to follow them on their latest chase after the bad guys. (The heroines in Republic and Columbia serials were often endearingly spunky and physically courageous; the ones in Universal serials tended to be more decorative than functional.)

One thing that’s odd about watching this after going through the serials of other companies is that Universal’s action footage consisted almost exclusively of car chases; they did those decently (though they padded them out with too much stock footage to make them especially exciting) but they didn’t do the elaborately choreographed fistfights that gave so many of the Republic serials their charm. Still, The Phantom Creeps is cleverly plotted — the members of the writing committee must have had fun thinking up the elaborate inventions of Dr. Zorka, which in addition to all the ones we’d seen in previous episodes include an odorless gas that renders any living thing — from potted plants to people — instantly vulnerable to the deadly “Z-rays” Zorka emits from his ray gun. There’s also a nice little bit in which Monk (Jack C. Smith), Zorka’s long-suffering assistant, steals Zorka’s invisibility belt and tries to escape, only to get caught and pressed back into service as Zorka’s virtual slave. We’ve seen better serials than this (notably both Batmans from Columbia — the second of which was also co-written by Plympton), but this will do for the sort of mindless Saturday-morning fun for which it was intended and as which it still works. — 3/7/10


Charles and I finally managed to squeeze in at least a short movie last night: episode eight of The Phantom Creeps, the 1939 serial starring Bela Lugosi as mad scientist Dr. Alex Zorka, attempting to use a super-powerful radioactive element he discovered in a meteorite in the African jungle (via footage excerpted from Universal’s 1936 feature The Invisible Ray, though in that movie Lugosi appeared but it was Boris Karloff who discovered the meteorite) to conquer the world — remember that when this was made Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were alive, well and at or close to the peaks of their powers, so megalomaniac individuals seeking to conquer the world weren’t just the stuff of science fiction (which is why I’ve long taken J. R. R. Tolkien’s insistence that he wrote The Lord of the Rings purely as fantasy, with no political allegory intended, with a small hill of salt: I can’t believe Tolkien could have written a fantasy about a peace-loving people threatened with annihilation in a world war by an enemy led by a genocidal egomaniac and not have been affected by the fact that at the time his country was fighting for its life in a real world war against an enemy led by a real genocidal egomaniac).

He has rivals, good and bad — the good ones led by U.S. military intelligence agent Captain Bob West (Robert Kent) and good scientist Dr. Fred Mallory (Edwin Stanley), a former research partner of Dr. Zorka’s until Zorka went off the rails; and the bad ones a ring of international spies led by Jarvis (played by Lugosi’s former Dracula cast-mate Edward Van Sloan, who’s used even less effectively here than Lugosi is — the writers of this serial keep Lugosi invisible through most of it and have Van Sloan generally appear nondescriptly in scenes involving his gang members, who work out of an “International School of Languages” as their cover — remembering the movie Confidential Agent, made six years later and also featuring a super-spy, played in that film by Peter Lorre, using a language school as a cover, this one teaching the fictitious international language “Entrenaciono” — a spoof of Esperanto that had Charles, who actually knows Esperanto, howling with laughter, especially when the characters spoke the greeting that seemed to be the only two words of Entrenaciono any of the writers of the film actually bothered to invent, “Bona dia,” Charles and I have been saying “Bona dia” to each other in Peter Lorre’s voice, or our best impressions thereof, throughout this film whenever the establishing shot of the International School of Languages appears, which is often).

In the last few episodes the box containing the meteorite (which, like the similarly mysterious box containing radioactive material in the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, would be instantly fatal to any human being who opened it without protective gear) has been passed around so much it’s been hard to keep track of it — Zorka’s assistant Monk (Jack C. Smith) stole it and sold it to the spies, Zorka stole it back (in the process “outing” himself as still alive — through many of the previous episodes he’d been thought dead, courtesy of a convenient car accident whose victim Zorka managed to pass off as himself — and capable of making himself invisible), the good guys got it at some point and I think at the end of episode eight the foreign spies have it again and Zorka wants it back. Episode eight of The Phantom Creeps is closer to the serial traditions than most of them have been — Bob West gets out of the cliffhanger in episode seven (a plane he’s flying crashes into a pier) by, you guessed it, jumping out just in time (he doesn’t have a parachute but the plane is close enough to earth we’re supposed to believe he didn’t need one), and there’s actually a good old-fashioned fistfight, not as elaborately choreographed as the famous ones in the Republic serials but at least a lot of fun and a welcome change of pace in a serial that, for all its car chases and plane flights, has until this point had little or no direct physical combat between the characters and has suffered from it. — 3/10/10


Charles and I finally got to see some movies last night, including episodes nine and 10 of The Phantom Creeps — which were basically more of the same, with some blatant cheats in the cliffhangers (especially the one between episodes eight and nine), some halfway decent fight scenes and one more appearance of that killer robot (called the “Iron Man” in the dialogue) — even though the costume was so heavy and stiff there really wasn’t much the Iron Man (or Edward Wolff, the actor inside it) could do other than flail his arms at the would-be victims and scare them into fleeing. — 3/14/10


Charles and I ran the last two episodes of the 1939 Universal serial The Phantom Creeps — which we’ve watched in a series of archive.org downloads of a reissue version credited to “Commonwealth,” which must have been some sort of reissue label (and not Universal’s usual one, either; their theatrical features were generally reissued under the label “Realart”) even though the copyright was still attributed to Universal.

The serial as a whole is entertaining but frustrating because the producer (Henry MacRae), directors (Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind) and script writers (George H. Plympton — who also worked on the far superior Columbia serial The Adventures of Batman and Robin a decade later — Basil Dickey and Mildred Barish) didn’t really exploit the potential of the overall plot created by Son of Frankenstein author Willis Cooper (whose first name is inexplicably spelled “Wyllis” on imdb.com even though I’ve never seen it that way on any of his original credits). Cooper gave them a panoply of inventive plot lines to work with: a mad scientist, Dr. Alex Zorka (Bela Lugosi); a meteorite containing a super-radioactive element with whose power Dr. Zorka hopes to conquer the world (both the plot device and the footage establishing it were ripped off the 1936 Universal feature The Invisible Ray, directed by Lambert Hillyer from a script by John Colton — whose most famous credits were the racy stage plays The Shanghai Gesture and Rain, not the most obvious background for scripting a wildly imaginative sci-fi/horror film like this — based on an original story by Howard Higgin and Douglas Hodges); a bizarre series of inventions, ranging from a suspended-animation device consisting of a metal disc and a mechanical spider (when planted on a person, the disc attracted the spider, and when they made contact there’s a small explosion and the person goes into a state of suspended animation) to a giant robot, a belt that renders Zorka invisible (and turns him into the “Phantom” of the title), a “Z-ray” gun that can kill people (but only if they’ve first been exposed to an otherwise harmless gas Zorka has also invented — here, as in The Devil Bat two years later, Lugosi plays a scientist who invents a menace that requires a co-factor) and all manner of other infernal gizmos; a ring of international spies headed by Jarvis (Lugosi’s former Dracula cast-mate, Edward Van Sloan, largely wasted in a “stick” villain role almost anyone could have played) who are out to steal Zorka’s inventions and the meteorite that powers them; and the good guys — Cap’t. Bob West (Robert Kent) and Lt. Jim Daley (Regis Toomey) of military intelligence and reporter Jean Drew (Dorothy Arnold), the identity of whose newspaper seems to change with every new headline in the montage sequences — who are out to arrest Zorka and get his meteorite — along with good scientist Dr. Fred Mallory (Edwin Stanley), who had once worked with Zorka before Zorka went mad and who had enough brains to figure out counter-measures to Zorka’s gizmos.

The serial is rather short (for the genre) on action scenes in general and fight scenes in particular — we don’t get any good ones until the last few episodes and even those aren’t choreographed with anything like the almost balletic intensity of the ones at Republic — and we also get some pretty annoying “cheats” in the cliffhangers, including two, count ’em, two involving the gimmick of a train crashing into a car stalled on its track, as well as one between episodes 11 and 12 in which Drew and West, convinced that the “Road Closed” sign across their path is a plant so the villains can escape, run smack into an explosion (set by the construction crew that put up the “Road Closed” sign because they’re widening the road) — only their car escapes only slightly singed, and at the start of episode 12 they stop just long enough to bend a back fender back into shape and then carry on with their pursuit of the villains as if nothing had happened.

There are some quite clever sequences in these final two episodes — including the stupid decision of Monk (Jack C. Smith), an escaped criminal Zorka had blackmailed into working for him (as Lugosi had done previously with Boris Karloff in The Raven and would do again with John Berkes in Bowery at Midnight), to hide a sample of the radioactive super-element inside the body of the robot (Edward Wolff inside a very cumbersome robot suit — obviously the writers didn’t write more fight scenes involving the robot because, despite its size and fearsome appearance, it really couldn’t do much other than wave its metal arms menacingly at Zorka’s enemies), with the result that when the good guys shoot at the otherwise invulnerable robot, it blows up.

The final episode at least went out with a bang — several bangs, in fact, as Zorka decides to bottle quantities of his element and go on a one-man terror raid, hurling the stuff down on whatever target on the ground he wants to blow up (i.e., whatever object Universal’s vaults contained stock footage of being destroyed in an explosion), including one shot audacious in its chutzpah: Zorka hurls one of his missiles at a passing dirigible, and the film cuts to the famous newsreel footage of the real-life burning of the Hindenburg. Eventually Zorka meets his own demise when his plane crashes, and the remaining bombs containing his super-element consume it and it explodes — a somewhat disappointing but at least genuinely thrilling ending to a serial that could have been far better with more screen time for Lugosi (the fact that he’s invisible through most of it is a real disappointment — especially since, unlike Universal’s other invisible men, he neither shows himself through bandages nor talks when he’s in “phantom” form) and more sequences showing Zorka’s marvelous menaces in action. — 3/16/10