Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Creeps

Dr. Alex Zorka, one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds–the most brilliant, according to him–is a proud man. The sacrifices he has made for his work, the depth of his genius, and above all his monumental ego will not allow him to countenance turning over his fabulous inventions to the government–not even on the eve of war, when the world is about to become much more dangerous. Zorka’s wife, Ann, has tried to convince him to turn back before his research takes him too far, even bringing his former partner, Dr. Mallory, to help plead the case. Zorka’s latest invention consists of a small disc that can be planted anywhere (or on anyone), and a mechanical spider that homes in on it; when the spider comes into contact with its target, a small burst of smoke paralyzes anyone within range with a unique form of suspended animation. Mallory urges Zorka to give the disc technology to the government, but Zorka already has a buyer lined up; what they choose to do with it is of no concern to him. Gloating later to his assistant, Monk (an ex-con Zorka freed and disguised, making him indebted to him and practically a slave), Zorka shows off his latest device, a “devisualizer” belt that renders its wearer invisible. “Now, as the Phantom, there is nothing that I cannot do.” Zorka’s pride is already tipping into megalomania, and he hasn’t even revealed his killer robot to the world!

After Dr. Zorka disappears (into a secret laboratory hidden in his house) and then fakes his own death, Captain Bob West of military intelligence gets involved, interviewing Ann Zorka and Dr. Mallory. A nosy reporter, Jean Drew, shows up, but West stonewalls her. When West and his partner Jim Daly load Ann into a plane to take her to identify her husband’s body, Jean stows away, hoping for a scoop. None of them realize that Dr. Zorka, invisible, has planted one of the magnetic discs on the plane with the idea of paralyzing his wife and then claiming her body (under a new identity) to keep her from talking to the authorities. The plan backfires, paralyzing Daly while he’s piloting the plane and causing a deadly crash. Ann dies, and in his grief and madness Zorka blames West and the government. “They shall pay!” he rants in one of his many diatribes. The stage is set for Dr. Zorka to wreak scientific vengeance while outmaneuvering both the G-men and the foreign agents who still hope to obtain his invention.

His final serial appearance, The Phantom Creeps stars the great Bela Lugosi in full scenery-chewing mode as Dr. Zorka. From the beginning, Zorka’s main emotional note is aggrievement: his scientific peers don’t appreciate his genius, he doesn’t owe anything to the government, they’ll see, he’ll show them all, blah blah blah. It’s a character type that was as much Lugosi’s bread and butter as the suave vampire that brought his initial fame. After Zorka’s wife dies and his various plots are foiled, his mania becomes more and more pronounced and his goals proceed from selling his invention for riches to conquering the world, or, failing that, destroying it. The only character he regularly interacts with is poor, put-upon Monk (Jack C. Smith), who follows him out of fear as much as any sense of loyalty. Constantly complaining that he’ll be caught and thrown back into Alcatraz (“It’s where you belong,” Zorka answers dismissively), Monk waits for the opportunity to sell out his boss, and he almost turns the tables more than once before Zorka gets the upper hand again. It is to Monk (and thereby indirectly the audience) that Zorka explains his various devices, revealing the highly volatile element that powers his inventions: the element is deadly unless kept in a shielded box, and even when opened a crack to siphon off its energies it emits deadly fumes. “They must never know about you, the source of all my power,” Zorka says to the box lovingly. But of course “they” do find out, and the box becomes the main MacGuffin of the plot, changing hands between the spies, the G-men, and back to Zorka as they all scheme to hold on to it.

It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known element of this serial is not the precious element in its box or the invisibility device that inspired its title, but the robot (or “iron man”) who serves as Zorka’s guardian and sometimes attack dog. Inside the robot costume is 7’4″ Ed Wolff, a former circus performer who specialized in giant roles. The robot’s appearance is, on one level, ridiculous, a large humanoid machine with a grotesque molded face on an oversized head, a design choice that goes against our usual idea of robots as being more streamlined than their human models (perusing illustrations of early attempts at building robots reveals that many designs made up in baroque style what they lacked in functionality). But however ugly, it is clearly the most visually distinct element in the film. To be charitable, it resembles a pagan idol, and its role in the story is akin to that of a temple guardian, never leaving its one room until the very end of the serial. If serials are part of the modern mythmaking machinery by which ancient fables are dressed anew in contemporary garb (and I think they are), it makes sense that the iron man would continue the lineage of such pre-Enlightenment automatons as the golem or Talos, the bronze warrior from Greek mythology. (Surprisingly, Zorka doesn’t end up dying at the hands of the iron man, an ironic comeuppance that would have been perfectly in line with this kind of storytelling; the robot remains under control to the end. Zorka’s fate is a little more, ahem, explosive.)

The dynamic of the square-jawed hero (Robert Kent as West) and the gutsy reporter who will take any risk for a story (Dorothy Arnold as Jean Drew) is one that has shown up in many serials and pulp narratives (including the other Lugosi serial I’ve covered, Shadow of Chinatown). Filmmakers in the ’30s and ’40s seem to have loved brassy “girl reporters,” partially as a career choice open to independent women that allowed for zany adventures and partially for the opportunity for more level-headed male characters to put them in their place. The Phantom Creeps patronizes Jean an average amount I’d say, with Bob West tweaking her resolve with comments like, “That isn’t like a hard-boiled newspaper girl to faint!”

At least West is motivated by official secrecy to keep her silent, urging Jean to keep details to herself even as her editor hounds her for something fit to print. West’s partner Daly (Regis Toomey) seems more irritated by having a girl nosing around and becomes especially suspicious when he observes Jean leaving a warehouse to which he had trailed the spies (caught unawares by them, she had posed as a fellow operative, hoping to find Zorka’s invention and sell it herself). “Save it for Captain West,” he says: “He likes fairy stories.” Finally, when Jean is rewarded for her cooperation with the story of her career, West compliments Jean’s restraint by saying, “The hardest job for a reporter is the suppression of timely news.” In other words: loose lips sink ships.

The spies, to whom Zorka had initially hoped to sell his invention and who later try to steal it outright, have a few nice touches. The only one of the field agents who has much personality, Rankin (Anthony Averill), is sort of a spearhead villain, indistinguishable from a typical movie gangster, but the head of the spy ring, Jarvis (Edward Van Sloan) is a bit more of a character. The spies maintain an “International School of Languages” as a cover, from which they broadcast cryptic coded messages by radio. As is frequently the case, the spies’ foreign superiors go unnamed except for vague mentions of a “leader” or occasionally “His Highness.” I wonder which foreign governments they might have been thinking of in 1939? I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this incredible flying costume Jarvis wears in Chapter Four (“Invisible Terror”) during a brief moment when the spies are in possession of the box and try to fly it out of the country.

The Phantom Creeps has many elements that I love in the serials: crazy gadgets, distinctive visuals, colorful characters, and a great villain. The tone, from the ominous theme music to the shadowed interiors of Zorka’s mad science lab (full of Kenneth Strickfaden’s whirling, sparking electrical contraptions) is closer to Universal’s famous monster series than the typical action serials of the day. There is also plenty of drama to be mined in the confrontations of the individual characters and their competing goals; even the small-time spies and beat cops get little character moments as they deal with the unknown menace of the “Phantom.” So I really wish I liked it more, and it saddens me to report that these promising parts rarely coalesce into a satisfying whole.

It’s hard to put my finger on why it fell short for me. Part of the problem is that there is just too much going on: too many characters, too many of whom change their behavior or loyalties depending on the scene in order to keep the story going. The way the action returns again and again to a few locations makes it feel like it’s spinning its wheels (considering that Zorka’s robot never leaves his house, where it is hidden behind a sliding panel, it’s surprising how much use it gets, since characters keep finding reasons to go back there). The ways in which the characters encounter each other are often dependent on coincidence: one might think there was only one road in California for the number of times characters pass and recognize each other, setting off yet another chase (“There go two of the spies in that car!” is a typical line of dialogue). I guess it comes down to too much filler, not enough killer.

There is also the general shabbiness that many serials display, amplified by the sense that The Phantom Creeps is made up of bits and pieces thrown together or borrowed from other productions. Other serials have featured invisible characters and made them spookily effective, but only a few scenes in this truly use the “Phantom” conceit in a thrilling or atmospheric way. (The invisibility effect is little more than a double-exposed smudge of light, or occasionally a shadow.)

The use of stock footage to ramp up the threats to our heroes also becomes excessive (and familiar–it surely doesn’t help that I’ve seen this boat crash, that building fire, and even that shot of the Hindenburg disaster in other serials) as it approaches its literally cataclysmic finale. Or perhaps it’s simply how generic everything seems; one of the best parts of The Phantom Creeps is a short flashback in which Dr. Zorka reveals the mysterious radioactive element that powers all of his inventions: it fell to earth in Africa as a meteorite centuries ago, where it lay buried in the ground until Dr. Zorka arrived to dig it up. The visual of Zorka in a protective hazmat suit, lowered into a crevice by native bearers and chipping the sparking, smoking stone from the rock is specific to the story in a way that too much of it simply lacks (wouldn’t you know it, that sequence turns out to be lifted from the 1936 Lugosi/Karloff feature The Invisible Ray).

What I Watched: The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from VCI’s “Classic Cliffhanger Collection”

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “To Destroy the World” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Blast”), spies Jarvis and Rankin have taken off in their car with the meteorite (and, unbeknownst to them, Zorka in his invisible state); spotting them, West and Jean follow, with Jean driving. Jarvis pulls up at a barricade: the road is closed for blasting, but the workers let the car through. The workers continue preparation for blasting, and because of a faulty detonation plunger one of them lights a long fuse. Just then, West and Jean drive up and spot the barricade. “It may be a trick to stop us,” West says, instructing Jean to keep driving. Despite the protests of the workmen, they drive through the barricade; mere moments later–kaboom!

Breaking news: Like many serials, especially those featuring reporter characters, The Phantom Creeps has some great on-screen newspaper headlines for quick bursts of exposition.

SCIENTIST AND WIFE MEET DEATH SAME DAY IN DIFFERENT ACCIDENTS!

MAD GENIUS RUNNING WILD!

ZORKA SHAKES CONTINENT AS HE PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH

Don’t forget the funny pages: The Phantom Creeps was adapted (very freely) in an issue of Movie Comics; the publication retouched frames from the movies, turning them into comic panels. The eight-page story takes liberties from the very first page, putting Zorka’s laboratory in an old castle instead of a house, and in this version “Phantom” is the robot’s name. Some things never change. The entire story can be read at the blog Four-Color Shadows.

Sample Dialogue:

Monk (invisible, having stolen Zorka’s devisualizer belt): I’m free, Dr. Zorka! I’m stronger than you now! Stronger than the police! You’ll never make a slave out of me again. Ha ha ha!

[Zorka zaps Monk with a “Z-ray” and makes him reappear, briefly incapacitating him]

Zorka: You traitor! You didn’t know that you too had been sprayed with my invisible gas. Get up on your feet! . . . You belong to me! You can never escape me! Go!

–Chapter Seven, “The Menacing Mist”

What Others Have Said: “The contribution of The Phantom Creeps to later serials was an auto chase in which a 1939 black Nash pursued an ancient touring car. The appearance of a vintage vehicle in a chase was a sure sign that sooner or later it would go over a cliff and burn. New cars didn’t match those in crashes in the stock-film library, and stock shots were meant to last many years.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: For what will probably be the last installment of this series for the summer, let’s check out the proto-Raiders adventure, Manhunt in the African Jungle!

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Fates Worse Than Death: The Vigilantes Are Coming

California, 1844, “The Last Days of the Dons”: A young Don Loring says farewell to his father and brother as he prepares to join the expedition of Captain Fremont exploring the Pacific Northwest. While he is gone, Don Loring Sr. confronts General Jason Burr for trespassing on Loring’s property, not realizing that Burr has secretly discovered gold on the land and is already mining it, using conscripts Burr has abducted from nearby villages. After the tense meeting, Burr has Loring and his other son killed. As it happens, Burr’s plans go beyond secretly enriching himself: he is in contact with the Russian emissary Count Raspinoff, and he has proposed turning California over to the Russian empire with himself installed as dictator over the territory.

Raspinoff (Robert Warwick) and Burr (Fred Kohler)

Later, after young Don Loring’s return to the Sonoma Valley and his discovery that his family has been murdered, he declares vengeance. His crusade will require secrecy: he vows to adopt the persona of the Eagle until justice is achieved! In a short montage, the Eagle strikes down a series of henchmen, working his way up to the boss, each time leaving an eagle feather as a calling card. It’s not long before General Burr notices this hindrance to his plans, so he invites the Eagle for a parley–actually a trap, of course, but one that the Eagle cleverly evades. Face to face with Burr, the Eagle gives him a whipping, literally, before making a narrow escape. It’s going to take more than one man to bring down the would-be dictator, especially now that Count Raspinoff has provided him with a battalion of Cossacks from the Tzar’s army, so the Eagle sets about organizing a Vigilance Committee made up of the ranchers in the Valley. All is set for a confrontation of historic proportions in The Vigilantes Are Coming!

It should be obvious that the Eagle is a dead ringer for Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, right down to the friendly village padre who provides a hiding spot in his church, and if this were billed as a name-brand Zorro adventure no one would bat an eye. Star Robert Livingston, who plays the Eagle, would actually play Zorro by name in The Bold Caballero for Republic the very same year; Republic would make several Zorro serials, beginning with Zorro Rides Again in 1937, and there would be more feature films and televison series as well, but in 1936 all of those other adaptations lay in the future, with the major exception of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent take on the character in The Mark of Zorro. (With its scheme to separate California from American rule and its hidden gold mine dug by slave labor, The Vigilantes Are Coming has some resemblance to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas.)

Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and Raymond Hattan played Don Loring’s comrades.

But it’s the mash-up of California colonialism with Western tropes (mostly in the person of Salvation and Whipsaw, a pair of mountain-man scouts who split off from Fremont to accompany Don Loring home) and the Russian (or “Roosian,” as characters repeatedly say) bad guys that really makes this serial distinctive. It’s not quite as strange as it was made out to be, at least not while The Phantom Empire is right there, but for a serial rooted in a historical time and place it has an unusual premise. How plausible is it?

While the Russian plot to take California is an obvious alternate history conceit, it makes sense as a story hook, considering that Alaska was still Russian territory until 1867. Moreover, Burr’s attempt to set himself up as dictator mirrors those of real-life adventurers who hoped to carve their own fiefdoms out of the still-open frontier, including Aaron Burr’s much-debated attempt to conquer former Mexican territory and William Walker’s campaigns in Sonora and Nicaragua. More notable is the avoidance of the Mexican-American War: in the serial, Raspinoff demands secrecy because Russia has no desire to go to war with Mexico or the United States, but by the time it’s all over the Russian flag over Burr’s fort has been replaced with the stars and stripes, the Americanization of the territory a fait accompli.

Captain Fremont’s role as commander of the military troops who ride in to save the day also glosses over the real Frémont’s more controversial role in wresting California away from Mexico in the years leading up to that war. Like Frémont’s real-life associate Kit Carson, who also took part in the territorial conflict, the heroism and genuine accomplishments of his career tended to overshadow his grislier reputation as an “Indian-killer,” especially in popular entertainment like this. The sleight-of-hand by which it’s the Russians who stand in the way of Manifest Destiny, and not the clashing ambitions of neighbors Mexico and the United States, is a variation on the popular Western trope in which a malevolent white man (like Burr in this case) turns whites and Indians against each other for his own gain, preventing the peaceful settlement of the territory that benefits everyone. The whiteness of “Don Loring” and his family, while the peasants are presented as more stereotypical Mexicans, is another sign of their preemptive Americanization. It is a truism that Western movies say more about the time in which they are made than the era in which they are ostensibly set, and The Vigilantes Are Coming is no different.

Leaving such issues aside and taken on its own terms, this is an entertaining and fast-moving serial. Robert Livingston makes for a fine hero, convincingly brash when he needs to be; when he poses as a mere organ student to hide his identity, he appears meek, but reveals the calculation that goes into his deception to the audience. (He’s not the only one with a penchant for disguises: Salvation disguises himself as a Mexican peddler, and Whipsaw takes a captured Cossack’s uniform–and beard!–to infiltrate Burr’s fort in a humorous sequence.)

Of course, a leading man needs a leading lady: Kay Hughes plays Doris Colton, whose mining engineer father is held captive by Burr to run his gold mine. She is mostly held prisoner herself (communicating with the Eagle through carrier pigeons), but when she gets the opportunity she does her part, helping the Eagle set the fort on fire and leading the Vigilantes to the gold mine.

A brief misunderstanding

Preceding Republic’s adaptation of The Lone Ranger by two years, The Vigilantes Are Coming cast the mold for a whole slew of masked Western heroes to come: allowing for the similarities to Zorro already pointed out, the Eagle settles disputes with his six-shooter and bullwhip much more than with a blade (there is only one swordfight sequence in the whole thing), and despite the Southwestern setting much of the action and characters are clearly indebted to the traditional Western. Set pieces include a siege of the fort, with guns blazing; a fire that nearly burns down the Mission; a stand-off in which the vigilantes hold the gold mine against Cossack artillery; and a rousing “here comes the cavalry” ending. What more could you ask for?

What I Watched: The Vigilantes Are Coming (Republic, 1936)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video

No. of Chapters: “Foreign Fiendishness in 12 Saber-Rattling Episodes”

Best Chapter Title: There are a number of stock chapter titles that reappear frequently in different serials (Chapter Seven’s title, “Wings of Doom,” seems like one I’ve seen before), but I can’t imagine any other serials have a chapter called “Condemned by Cossacks” (Chapter Three).

Best Cliffhanger: A number of strands come together for maximum suspense at the end of Chapter Ten (“Prison of Flame”): after Don Loring and Doris Colton are both captured, Burr having finally figured out who the Eagle is, Doris offers to reveal where Count Raspinoff is being held in exchange for the Eagle’s life. Taken to the Mission, she demands that the Eagle be locked somewhere safe, and the key given to her, in order to guarantee his safety. Still bound, the Eagle is locked in the sexton’s room at the base of the bell tower. While Doris stalls, the Eagle manages to pull the rope to ring the Mission’s bell, the prearranged signal for the gathered Vigilantes to come to the Mission. While pulling the rope, he knocks over a lamp and starts a fire. Cutting between the approaching Vigilantes and their confrontation with the Cossacks, Doris’ increasingly desperate attempts to stall Burr’s men, and worst of all the sexton’s room filling with smoke, the chapter ends with burning rafters falling from the ceiling into the room in which the Eagle is trapped as the bell tower threatens to collapse on him!

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: As I have frequently noticed in Mascot and early Republic serials, there are a few clear-cut classic cheats in The Vigilantes Are Coming, the kind that seem to rewrite history rather than simply providing a new context or having the hero wriggle out of danger at the last second. The most obvious is at the end of Chapter Four, “Unholy Gold,” set in Burr’s gold mine the first time the Vigilantes attempt to take it. When the Vigilantes enter, they find the main chamber empty except for Doris’ injured father and a waterwheel-driven pile driver used for crushing rocks. Once the inevitable fight breaks out between Burr’s men and the Vigilantes, the Eagle is punched out and falls into the shaft supporting the pile driver; before he can recover, the weight descends on his chest, crushing him! At the beginning of the next chapter, however, when the same punch sends the Eagle beneath the pile driver, Salvation quickly pulls him out of danger before the weight descends. It doesn’t get much more revisionist than that!

Sample Dialogue: “I see you have all the qualities of a dictator.” –Count Raspinoff to Burr, after Burr has ordered the killing of Don Loring Sr. and his son, Chapter One (“The Eagle Strikes”)

What Others Have Said:The Vigilantes Are Coming was a reworking of The Eagle, Rudolph Valentino’s silent film. It served as a showcase for Robert Livingston, one of Republic’s popular leading men. . . . He is best remembered for his role as Stony Brooke, the lead cowboy in the well-liked Three Mesquiteer films. Livingston played in twenty-nine of them between 1936 and 1941, except for a stretch in 1938-39, when he was promoted to romantic melodramas and replaced by John Wayne.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Another VHS classic from the big ol’ box of videotapes–let’s go with something a little spooky and watch Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps!