Lovefest: The Creeping Terror

This article was written for Lovefest, a group project of the Dissolve Facebook community, in which individual writers step up to defend or promote films that flopped, were critically maligned, or are generally forgotten. My previous Lovefest entries can be read here and here; a list of all of the movies covered in past Lovefests can be found here.

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For me, it started with Gilda Radner: in one sketch in It Came From Hollywood, the 1982 homage/clip show celebrating old genre flicks (and an early inspiration for my love of monster movies), Radner plays a little girl excitedly describing and reacting to the latest monster shows she had seen, throwing stuffed animals around the room while pretending they’re the Fly, the Horror of Party Beach, and so on. “I call this one the carpet monster,” she says over a clip of a creature that does indeed look much like an ambulatory pile of carpet samples, or perhaps an oversized bedspread, invading a dance party. “He eats up ladies . . . except for their shoes,” she continues as a pair of shapely nylon-clad legs is slurped into the monster’s gaping mouth. After rediscovering It Came From Hollywood a few years ago, I set out to watch the complete “carpet monster” movie, whatever it was: ICFH ends with a list of the movies excerpted in the film, but doesn’t credit them in individual scenes. With the help of Google and IMDB I was able to narrow it down and found that I already owned a copy of The Creeping Terror (A. J. Nelson, 1963) that I hadn’t watched yet on a public-domain monster movie collection. (Only afterwards did I find out that The Creeping Terror had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000; I could have saved myself a lot of trouble but I had stopped watching the show by the time that episode aired.)

It would be a stretch to say that I “love” The Creeping Terror, and even more of one to defend it on the basis of its quality, which veers from workmanlike to surreally inept. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror was included in Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards; we’re long past believing that Plan 9 is actually the worst movie ever made, but The Creeping Terror . . . well, let’s just say it’s still awaiting its critical reevaluation. Made on a shoestring in 1963, the film features hopelessly crude special effects, amateurish acting, and a plot that’s beyond formulaic: it’s schematic. Yet I would argue that it is an interesting film in its own right, with some effective moments that are overshadowed by its reputation (and yes, there are some jaw-droppers as well).

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As the story goes in its 76-minute run time, Deputy Martin Gordon (Vic Savage), returned from his honeymoon with his new bride (Shannon O’Neil), sees a UFO land (an effect accomplished with some blurry moving lights and footage of a rocket liftoff shown in reverse). Joining his uncle, the Sheriff, to investigate the landing site, they find a spaceship with a monstrous creature locked inside; the Sheriff is the first to be eaten while exploring the ship’s interior. After that, the investigation is taken over by the military; a top space scientist, Dr. Bradford (William Thourlby), arrives to study the ship and, if possible, communicate with its passenger. Unbeknownst to them, a second creature had already escaped into the nearby woods, and it cuts a swath through the area population, (slowly) eating necking picnickers, a young mother, a boy and his grandpa, the participants at a “hootenanny,” and finally an entire community center’s worth of dancers. Once the monster hits the nearby lover’s lane, the authorities catch up to it and confront the creature; it gets shot up by a platoon of soldiers, and then eats them. The Colonel finally blows it up with a grenade.

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“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and lived would never go there again.”

After finding electrical components in the creature’s carcass, Dr. Bradford returns to the ship and is nearly killed by an explosion that releases the second creature. Deputy Gordon rams his police car in to the monster and kills it. Bradford tells Gordon that he has solved the mystery: he believes that the monsters were sent by a distant civilization as test animals, “living laboratories” engineered to eat and evaluate whatever life forms they found. He guesses that, now that the creatures are dead (and humanity’s weaknesses known), the ship’s computer will transmit their findings back to their home planet. Gordon tries to smash the ship’s computer but fails. Before he dies, Dr. Bradford says there may yet be reason to hope: perhaps by the time the creatures’ alien masters can act on the information they collected, mankind will be more advanced and ready for the challenge. “Only God knows for sure.” The End.

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The first thing one notices is the intermittent sound: sometimes the characters’ voices are dubbed so they are speaking lines normally, but most of the time an omniscient voiceover narrates the film, paraphrasing the conversation the characters are having onscreen, their mouths still moving out of sync. There are reasons for this, having to do with the film’s fly-by-night production (see below), but the result is alienating; it would be death for a romantic comedy, but for a horror film it sort of works, and it lends a documentary gravity to the otherwise absurd plot: its very flatness is ironically a mark of verisimilitude. In one scene in which Martin’s friend, fellow officer Barney, deals with the emotional fallout of his buddy getting married and not wanting to hang out as much, the narration takes on the fatherly tone of a contemporary mental hygiene film, as if this were merely a case study for class discussion: “Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage Martin’s time had come,” the announcer intones while Barney stews on the couch, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon making out in the kitchen. In other scenes, the effect is downright surreal as the sound engineers add layers of ambient sound and music after the fact to cover up the characters’ uncomfortable silence.

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The film’s isolated settings (filmed at the shabby Spahn Movie Ranch, a comedown from the intended Lake Tahoe setting) also contribute to its sense of menace: most of the victims are outdoors or near the woods, making them seem small and easy to pick off. One might think that almost anyone could outrun the slow-moving monster, but in one of the film’s more laughable conceits, the creature is so terrifying that most of its victims stay rooted on the spot, screaming in fear until it can catch up to them. The film’s money shot (repeated often) consists of a woman’s legs or feet dangling from the creature’s maw as it swallows them slowly enough that the actors could be crawling inside (which, of course, is how it was actually filmed).

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Other kills are more cinematically effective, either shown from the monster’s POV with the cowering victim in the center of the frame (the death of the young mother hanging laundry while her baby fusses inside is probably the most effective in the film; in addition to the weird effect of the creature wriggling into the otherwise mundane shot, at the moment of the woman’s death her scream cuts to the sound of her baby crying) or simply left for the audience’s inference (Bobby, the young boy fishing with his grandpa, leaves behind only a bit of torn cloth from his shirt). Scenes in which the monster kills with brute force are less successful: when sucking a pair of teenagers out of their convertible at lover’s lane, it appears to be humping the car; later, it eats all of the soldiers at once by dropping on top of them. Even at the dance, it’s impossible to imagine the creature killing everyone without them obligingly lining up to get in its belly.

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The film’s most elaborate set piece, the creature’s attack on the dance hall, shows The Creeping Terror at its best and worst. An uncharacteristically long buildup shows the dance in progress, the crowd made up of a range of ages; while the band plays a repetitive twist tune, dancers fill the floor while others sit at tables and the bar. It’s all very normal; the only element that might raise an eyebrow is the amount of time spent on close-ups of the legs and feet of several dancers in tight pants. On the sidelines, a few human dramas play out: a woman leaves in a huff, and a drunk swipes the drink she left behind; a fight breaks out. It’s possible that these characters were more fully fleshed out in the original script, but with only a few audible lines here and there all we get are snippets. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, observing people at random and only seeing disconnected glimpses of their behavior.

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Abruptly, we see a shot of the approaching monster outside, the music twisting away at a lower volume, as if heard from a distance, so we know it’s nearby. The narrator has already informed us that the community dance hall would be the next target, but the sequence, cutting between the oblivious dancers and the creature outside, getting closer, is almost suspenseful. A shot of a dancer’s jiggling bottom cuts to the writhing tendrils that crown the monster’s “head.” Subtle, it is not.

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Suddenly, without any transition or shot of the monster coming through a doorway, it is there, in the corner of the room! It is in this moment that the film’s weak grasp on continuity comes to resemble the anti-logic of the nightmare, and the scrambled soundtrack reinforces the confusion. A woman shouts, “My God, what is it!?”, her voice dubbed, but another woman screams without any sound added, her terror expressed only by the musical soundtrack, the relentless twist finally giving way to more typical horror music.

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The partygoers gather in one corner of the room while the monster, shot from overhead, awkwardly pushes past tables and chairs; they would obviously have time to reach the exits, but this is the kind of nightmare where your feet won’t budge, and they have no choice but to await their fate (in one overhead shot of the monster, a couple clearly approach the monster and the man even gives the woman a little push forward as if to say, “you first”). Insanely, the fistfight that broke out earlier still continues in the other corner of the room. We get plenty of close-up shots of pretty legs sticking out of the creature’s slit-like mouth, and if we haven’t figured out by now what the director’s main interest in the material is, then I don’t think we can say he’s the one who doesn’t get it.

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After years of contradictory information about the making of this low-budget oddity (so obscure at first that there’s no evidence it was even screened until it was sold as part of a TV package in the 1970s, leading to late-night broadcasts and sparking its notoriety among horror hounds), several facts came to light thanks to the research of fan Pete Schuermann (the story as I now relay it comes from Schuermann’s docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera and an article in Screem magazine no. 30 by Brian Albright). For one thing, leading man “Vic Savage” and director “A. J. Nelson” were one and the same person, a petty criminal and con artist named Arthur White. White had always wanted to be a star, and this obsession seems to have sprung from the same sociopathic narcissism that led him to abuse and exploit everyone around him, including his long-suffering wife Lois.

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It is unclear whether he intended The Creeping Terror to be a real movie or if it was a hustle all along, but in addition to making the movie as cheaply as possible, he funneled much of the funding he got from backers (including Thourlby, a former Marlboro Man) into his personal drug habit, and he spun the opportunity to make his film further by selling shares in it to cast and crew, effectively turning it into a pay-for-play scheme. (He had previously absconded with the profits from his first film, Street-Fighter.) According to some members of the film crew at the time, he would film the same scenes with different people multiple times because he had made so many promises, often without actually putting film in the camera. In any case, White disappeared before the movie was completed, possibly fleeing law enforcement (in addition to drugs, White had connections to a prostitution ring and Schuermann’s film implies he may have been involved in child pornography) and leaving Thourlby to piece together the existing footage and replace the missing (or possibly never-recorded) audio. By this time, writer Allan Silliphant had cut ties with White in disgust, so there was probably no longer a script to refer to and the actors had all gone their separate ways: thus, the voiceover was written to patch the scenes together.

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From these behind-the-scenes details, it is clear that The Creeping Terror works largely by accident and thanks to the hard work of professionals trying to salvage something out of disaster. It’s hard enough to make a movie on purpose: the fact that The Creeping Terror is as watchable as it is, flaws and all, is nearly miraculous. (Even as a patch-up, it compares favorably to the similar work of White’s contemporary, Jerry Warren, for example.) But what are we to make of Arthur White and his contribution? Aren’t there enough actual good movies in the world that we don’t have to feel obligated to give time to work made by scumbags? For what it’s worth, I had seen The Creeping Terror and found it interesting before I heard about its origins; I don’t think White’s scamming and abuse make his movie “cool” or “edgy,” and there were plenty of earnest, would-be professional filmmakers involved with the production. They were White’s victims, too, and they could have cut their losses, but they didn’t. (If it makes you feel any better about watching, White never made any more money from it after dropping out of the production, leaving it in a legal limbo; he died in 1975 and the film is now in the public domain.)

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But knowing the context does explain some of the more bizarre choices the film makes, and especially shines a spotlight on the sexual imagery that lies so close to the surface, on the obsession with legs and feet, with the blunt symbolism of a monster that combines both phallic and vaginal imagery, and especially with the film’s odd detours into the domestic sphere. Shannon O’Neil (her real name Shannon Boltres), the lead actress, was White’s girlfriend at the time, even while he was still married to Lois, who had returned to him with the promise of better behavior after one of their splits; were the scenes of newlywed bliss meant to rub his infidelity in Lois’ face, or was he imagining the married life–he upstanding and virile, she nubile and obedient–that he would have preferred? Or was it simply the writer’s take on a well-worn formula? Perhaps because she has an actual character to play, neither one of the screaming victims nor a stoic hero, O’Neil/Boltres comes off as the best actor in the film, with a few small moments that suggest she knew exactly what kind of movie she was in. She doesn’t have any later screen credits, so it’s hard to say what she might have done in a better film.

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Screenwriter Allan Silliphant later claimed that his script was intended to be a spoof, with a brain-dead plot and comically obvious symbolism, and that does line up with a certain kind of gleefully acidic L.A. satire; but the end product doesn’t scan as being funny (aside from the unintentional laughs) or even ironic. It’s too out there, more like the cut-up methods William Burroughs was exploring; the contemporary equivalent to its scrambled production method might be one of those scripts generated by an A.I. after feeding it x number of sample scripts, the results inspiring the nervous laughter of seeing ourselves reflected back at us by something completely alien. As Brian Albright describes it, The Creeping Terror is “almost an un-film.” But honestly, most genre movies involve some mental sorting of this kind, separating what works from what can be enjoyed in a humorous way and what can only be discarded. This may be an extreme example, but it’s short, rarely boring, and includes several memorable sequences.

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In the lover’s lane scene, there’s a guy sitting in his car by himself, smoking a pipe, apparently spying on the young couples parking and necking, or maybe just checking up on them. When the monster shows up and starts attacking teenagers, the pipe smoker just sits and watches in disbelief before driving off. He’s the only completely passive observer in the movie. I guess he’s a little like the audience for this film: he came to see one thing, possibly with a prurient interest, but he got a lot more than he bargained for.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Les Vampires

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Philippe Guérande, investigative reporter for the Globe, arrives at his office one morning to begin another day of battling with his pen against the dangerous criminal organization known only as the Vampires. Discovering the documents of his investigation missing from his locked drawer, Guérande quickly zeroes in on a hapless coworker named Mazamette: Mazamette still has the papers on him and throws himself on Guérande’s mercy. The expense of raising his children as a single parent has driven him to seek money by illicit means. Guérande, moved by Mazamette’s plea, forgives him and decides not to call the police, to which Mazamette responds that he owes Guérande his life. (Remember that.)

Summoned by the editor in chief, Guérande is dispatched to cover his next big story: the body of Inspector Durtal, in charge of the Vampire case, has been found decapitated in a countryside marsh, his head nowhere to be found. Before he leaves Paris, Guérande’s mother tells him of an old family friend, Doctor Nox, who lives near the crime scene; Guérande pays Nox a call at the same time that a wealthy American woman, Margaret Simpson, has come to stay at Nox’s house in Chesnaye with an interest in buying his château.

While visiting with her, Guérande admires Mrs. Simpson’s fine jeweled cigarette case. Later that night, sleepless in his bed, Guérande finds a note in his pajama pocket: “Give up the search or something bad will befall you!” Curious as to where the note could have come from, Guérande searches his room and finds a sliding panel hidden in the painting over his bed, opening into a secret crawlspace. During the same night, a hooded figure enters Mrs. Simpson’s room and steals her jewelry while she is fast asleep. The next morning, Doctor Nox asks Guérande for a cigarette and expresses surprise when Guérande finds Mrs. Simpson’s cigarette case in his pocket. Almost immediately, Mrs. Simpson reports that her jewels and money have been stolen! “By fleeing the scene,” Nox says, “the thief has betrayed himself.”

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But Guérande, sensing a frame-up, has not fled: he heads straight to the district’s examining magistrate to relay his experiences and his suspicions. The magistrate has Guérande conceal himself when Doctor Nox and Mrs. Simpson arrive to report Guérande’s crime and asks them to wait in a room which he locks and places under guard so he can investigate the scene himself. When Guérande shows the magistrate the secret crawlspace behind the painting in his room, they find a small chest hidden there. However, it contains not the incriminating jewelry stolen from Mrs. Simpson, but the missing head of Inspector Durtal! Convinced of Guérande’s innocence, the magistrate returns to his office to confront Doctor Nox: but even guarded by policemen on all side, somehow Nox has disappeared, and left behind Mrs. Simpson–dead!

The only evidence left of Nox is a cast-off suit of clothes and a note: “The real Doctor Nox, whose identity I have stolen, is dead, assassinated by me. You’ll never find me. I am the Grand Vampire!” While Guérande and the magistrate marvel at the criminal’s audacity, a hooded, black-clad figure is seen clambering across the roof of the police station, having climbed up the chimney. Guérande escaped with his life and his reputation intact this time, but he will face much greater dangers as he seeks the truth in Louis Feuillade’s follow-up to his successful Fantômas series, the ten-chapter serial Les Vampires!

In this first chapter, “The Severed Head,” the influence of Fantômas is still quite clear, both in the story of an intrepid reporter battling a nefarious underworld gang and in the character of the Grand Vampire himself: a master of disguise, ruthlessly eliminating his enemies and liabilities and disappearing without a trace (not to mention that hooded costume he wears). However, there are signs of the greater freedom Feuillade would take with this story, free of the constraints of adapting a pre-existing property: in contrast to the single-minded struggle between Juve and Fantômas, Les Vampires gives Guérande (played by Édouard Mathé) a family and friends, and there are many elements of the humor and domestic drama that Feuillade incorporated into his many popular film series in other genres. Furthermore, rather than the connected features of the Fantômas saga, Les Vampires is a true serial in ten chapters, each leading to the next, and with a definite ending. Each chapter is between thirty and forty-five minutes, making the total film six and a half hours in length, by far the longest serial I have reviewed for this series.

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As Les Vampires proceeds in the second chapter, the gang strikes at a dancer, Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), “believed to be Guérande’s fiancée,” killing her with a poisoned ring presented to her by the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in one of his many disguises. Was she killed to strike at Guérande, or was it because she dared to portray a vampire in her ballet, symbolically invading the Vampire gang’s turf? In this chapter, Guérande himself is abducted by the Vampires and left to face the torments of the Vampire Grand Inquisitor, but he is rescued at the last minute by an unlikely savior: Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who in the first chapter swore his loyalty to Guérande and is now moonlighting as a Vampire henchman. Again, Mazamette swears that only the expense of providing for his numerous children would drive him to such employment, and he frees Guérande, allowing him to turn the tables on the Grand Inquisitor and steal a Vampire codebook before his escape.

It is in the third chapter, “The Red Cryptogram,” that Les Vampires really comes into its own with a playful combination of suspense, humor, and eroticism. First, Guérande begs off coming into the office, fatigued as he is by his experience as a captive of the Vampires. Doted upon by his mother, with whom he lives, he stays tucked in bed; but the moment she closes his bedroom door, like all kids playing hooky, he jumps up and reveals himself to be in the pink of health, even lifting some dumbbells to show how fit he is. Then he sets to work deciphering the codebook he recovered in the previous episode.

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It is also in the third chapter that Feuillade introduces his most famous creation, the muse and mistress of the Grand Vampire and the star of the floor show at the underworld nightclub The Howling Cat: Irma Vep, whose name is an anagram for–guess what?

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Played by Jeanne Roques, known by her stage name Musidora, Irma Vep essentially takes over the serial as a co-lead, appearing in every chapter after the third and even outliving the Grand Vampire, to whom she is at first a right-hand woman but whose importance increases as she moves to the center of the action. She has true star power, leaning on the double meaning of the word “vamp,” both dangerous and enticing. Interestingly, she only wears the black catsuit that is her most iconic look in one chapter (in retrospect, Marfa Koutiloff and her Vampire act seems like a dry run for Irma): the rest of the time she wears a variety of dresses, pajamas, and men’s suits depending on the role she is playing. Unlike the Grand Vampire, Irma rarely disappears into the different disguises she wears, instead playing the role of a diva showing off her various costume changes.

Most of all, Irma Vep looks modern in a way few of the other characters do and reminds the contemporary viewer that Paris was at the vanguard of both the arts and new forms of self-expression. Like all of the actors in this style of silent cinema, in which close-ups are rare, Musidora makes asides to the camera to show reactions, but unlike the others she frequently appears to be looking through the camera, directly to the audience. With her frizzy hair, dark lined eyes, and mannish clothes, Musidora presents a chic androgyny that transcends the period trappings of the story. Leaving aside such direct sartorial descendants as Catwoman or homages by later filmmakers like Georges Franju, Irma Vep lives on in the personae of such stars as Siouxsie Sioux and Helena Bonham Carter, and is the true distaff version of the iconic Fantômas.

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The fourth chapter, “The Spectre,” introduces the last new major character, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann). Moréno rents a flat from the Grand Vampire in another of his identities, this time a real estate agent named Treps, and specifies that he requires a safe. While “Treps” shows him a suitable apartment, Irma Vep listens from the other side of the wall. After Moréno puts a bag in the safe and leaves, Irma and the Grand Vampire open the safe from the other side of the wall by removing the back, a ploy that has obviously yielded results in the past. Does the bag contain cash, or jewels, or perhaps sensitive documents? As the pair examine the black clothing, mask, and lock-picking tools in the bag, Irma wryly concludes, “Seems to be a colleague!”

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Yes, the Vampires have some competition: Moréno, aka the Spectre, is both a fellow burglar and head of his own rival gang, and his intrusion into Vampire territory marks both an escalation of the Vampires’ reign of terror and yet another complication in Guérande’s campaign against the gang. Later, Moréno captures Guérande, and the journalist is saved only by inside knowledge of the Vampires’ next big heist, allowing Moréno to steal their loot from under the Grand Vampire’s nose. After being freed, Guérande receives a note reading “We are done . . . for now.”

Like its American contemporaries such as The Perils of Pauline, the chapters of Les Vampires are self-contained episodes, without cliffhangers. Although there are storylines that run through the entire serial, each chapter presents and resolves a situation. Largely this takes the form of a new plot or scheme on the part of the Vampires or the Spectre and Guérande’s reaction to it. The question each chapter asks is less “How is the hero going to get out of this one?” than “What will the villains do next?” Film historian David Kalat states in his commentary on the Fantômas series that Feuillade tended to improvise on the set, filming sequences based on a loose outline rather than a rigid script. (Having made hundreds of films in his career, and working quickly, he certainly would have had an idea of what would work in the moment.) If this continued to hold true during the making of Les Vampires, it comes through in the flow from one chapter to another, with a new plot or setting coming up in each one; in the gradual additions to the cast of characters; and in the escalating mayhem as Feuillade strives to top himself with increasingly apocalyptic disasters. (The sense of improvisation also comes through in one sequence where Feuillade reuses some unused footage of a Spanish bullfight, an economy that many later serials would display!)

However, the plotting within each chapter is quite clear and obviously shows some forethought, with each threat the Vampires pose having a solution that is set up within the episode. For example, when Mazamette presents Guérande with a fountain pen containing poison ink, a gadget “borrowed” from the Vampires, Guérande gives it to his mother to defend herself; when she is kidnapped and forced to write her own ransom note, the literal “poison pen” helps her escape her captors.

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From these examples, it is clear that the tone of Les Vampires is much more whimsical than that of the Fantômas features, with witty plots and comic relief characters, especially Mazamette. In one chapter, Mazamette’s son Eustache comes to stay with him and ends up helping to solve a case: the mischievous boy is played by René Poyen, alias “Bout de Zan,” star of one of Feuillade’s long-running series. It probably goes too far to say that Les Vampires is a spoof of the Fantômas films, but the injection of humor and self-awareness is a welcome change from the more claustrophobic Fantômas series. Moréno, Irma Vep, and the other Vampires are convincingly motivated by greed, pride, lust, and other recognizably human motivations, as opposed to being dedicated to crime in the abstract. Some of the nightmarish qualities of Fantômas–of characters being trapped, of secrets spilling out in torrents of Freudian symbolism–are still present, but are grounded in details of everyday life rather than suspended in a surrealistic void. The almost supernatural all-knowingness of Fantômas is replaced by a more realistic dependence on cleverness and the occasional lucky break. Instead of the sensation of being trapped within a struggle against unknown forces, there is a sense of the main characters, heroes and villains alike, playing a game–a game with life or death stakes, to be sure, but one they willingly signed up for. If the morbid terrors of Fantômas suggest Kafka at times, Les Vampires is more like Antionio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoons, playful and ironic. It is in this sense, and with its delight in inventions such as the poisoned pen or the Grand Vampire’s portable cannon, that it foreshadows the superheroics of many of the later sound serials, as well as the often fanciful exploits of James Bond and other super spies.

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What I Watched: Les Vampires (Gaumont, 1915-1916)

Where I Watched It: Kino Classic’s two-disc Blu-Ray set containing the 1996 restoration

No. of Chapters: 10

Best Chapter Title: In “The Eyes That Mesmerize” or “Hypnotic Eyes” (Chapter Six), Moréno traps Irma Vep and, using the power of his hypnotic gaze, bends her to his will, making her his lover and setting her up to kill the Grand Vampire (the serial ultimately goes through three “Grand Vampires”). This incident, and a later one in which she escapes the sinking of the ship that was to take her to an Algerian prison colony, goes a long way toward making Irma Vep more sympathetic. Ultimately, however, her experiences cause her to reaffirm her loyalty to the Vampires and she goes down fighting. The straight and narrow is not for her.

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Best Peril: As noted, the dangers into which Philippe Guérande and his friends are placed are not quite the centerpieces that they would be in later cliffhanger serials, but there are still many dangerous incidents, and a great deal of suspense is wrung out of timed explosives and poisoned wine that Guérande barely avoids. An incident that would be echoed in many later serials is typical: in Chapter Eight (“The Lord of Thunder”), Satanas (the second Grand Vampire, played by Louis Leubas) visits Guérande at his home, a time bomb hidden in his hat. Upon shaking hands with the visiting stranger, Guérande is paralyzed by a poison on a pin hidden in Satanas’ glove. While Guérande cannot move a muscle, Satanas reveals his identity to him and leaves him, the hidden explosive left behind. In a cliffhanger serial, we would have to wait for the next chapter to see the resolution, but in this case it all works out within a single episode: Mazamette arrives just in time to learn the truth and throw the hat out the window, where it explodes harmlessly.

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Sample Dialogue: “Although vice is seldom punished, virtue is always rewarded.” –Mazamette, newly wealthy after collecting the reward for the arrest of an American criminal, presenting his philosophy to a group of rapt journalists (Chapter Six)

What’s Next: This brings us to the end of the summer, but I have a few more serials I intend to get to, so stay tuned for some fall updates. I still plan on covering Feuillade’s Judex; also, Turner Classic Movies has been running Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery on Saturdays, and I’ll have a review of that once it’s finished. In the mean time, thanks for spending another summer with me!

Review: Disenchantment Season 1

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In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

Fates Worse Than Death: Fantômas (1913-14)

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Paris, 1913: The Princess Sonia Danidoff checks into the Royal Palace Hotel late at night. After she picks up an envelope containing 120,000 Francs in cash from the front desk, the elevator operator takes her to her room on the fourth floor (we see the elevator ascend all the way to make its importance clear). She puts the envelope and a string of pearls in a drawer and leaves the room to change into a nightgown.

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While she has stepped out, a mysterious bearded man appears from behind a curtain in the room and heads straight for the drawer. But he is interrupted by her return, and once the maid is gone he reveals himself to the Princess. Since this is a silent film, we don’t know his exact words, but when the Princess expresses her shock and demands to know his identity, he hands her a calling card: blank! He warns her not to make any noise as he takes the cash and jewelry, and then makes one last threat before gallantly kissing her hand and making his escape. The front desk is called, and the manager sends the elevator operator up to assist. The stranger lies in wait on the fourth floor, and when the operator opens the door, he pounces! The elevator begins its descent, showing each floor again on the way down. At the ground floor, the elevator operator emerges and says, “I’ll go for the police!” He leaves–but his face looks familiar. Alone, waiting for help, the Princess examines the blank card the stranger gave her, and to her astonishment, a name appears: FANTÔMAS!

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Of course, when the police arrive and the elevator is opened, the operator is discovered, unconscious, his uniform gone. A fake beard and mustache, worn by the thief, are discovered. This is a job for Inspector Juve of the Department of Security! Juve has his work cut out for him, as Fantômas always seems to be one step ahead: through his network of informants and contacts in all levels of society he always knows where the ripest pickings are to be had; he has no scruples against, murder, kidnapping, blackmail, or any other crime; and because of his penchant for disguises, no one even knows what he looks like! Why, anybody could be Fantômas–even you! Thus begins the first chapter of the 1913 film Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, the first of five Fantômas features directed by Louis Feuillade.

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Feuillade’s crime serials neither begin with Fantômas nor end with Judex (the first was preceded by a series of shorts in which Fantômas star René Navarre played a detective, and Judex was followed by a sequel, The New Mission of Judex), but the trilogy of Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are widely available today in restored editions, and taken together they convey the sense of his influence (I had intended to cover Les Vampires in this entry, but instead I will get to it and Judex at a later time). Fantômas is not strictly a serial in the same format as the other “chapter plays” I have explored in Fates Worse Than Death (it is made up of five films, all but one around an hour in length and released in theaters at intervals of two or three months, although they are divided into chapters), but it is highly serialized nevertheless and is so influential in its imagery and plotting, particularly its characterization of the master criminal, that it feels like splitting hairs to exclude it from discussion.

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The Fantômas series was based on a popular series of pulp novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, which followed the endless (almost literally) struggle between the villainous Fantômas and the team of Inspector Juve and his friend, journalist Jerôme Fandor. Earlier this summer I said that Fu Manchu was “perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind.” Well, I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and Fantômas has Sax Rohmer’s “devil doctor” beaten by at least a year, first appearing in print in 1911 and solidifying an archetype, the modern criminal genius, that had been coming together in a nebulous way in the previous century.

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To digress: when I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I found it a little anticlimactic that Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, appeared in only one story, introduced and eliminated as part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to rid himself of his most famous creation. Aside from later writers’ use of Moriarty as a recurring nemesis in their own Holmes pastiches, many of the long-running villains of the early twentieth century like Fantômas, Fu Manchu, and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse struck me as attempts to justify and expand upon Doyle’s description of Moriarty as “the Napoleon of Crime.” However, learning that there were in the nineteenth century several criminals who engineered clever international schemes, committed infamous crimes that captured the public imagination, and who inspired grudging admiration even among those professionals who failed to catch them, and one of whom was literally described as a “Napoleon of Crime,” did serve to put Moriarty in context. Doyle’s audience didn’t need a long history of enmity to be established in the pages of Holmes’ adventures, for they already knew the type of figure Holmes described when speaking of Moriarty, and the detective’s movement from solving smaller crimes to tackling the kind of worldbeater they read about in newspapers and magazines next to the Holmes stories probably seemed like a natural progression. As in Chester Gould’s creation of Dick Tracy to battle forces of criminality that the real police couldn’t get a handle on, Doyle directed his pen toward the real crime bosses of his day, at least within the pages of his fiction.

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Such was Fantômas, but in Souvestre’s and Allain’s books, and in Feuillade’s films, the crimes he committed became surreal and grotesque, and his powers seemingly unlimited. A dead man’s fingerprints are stolen to divert blame for Fantômas’ crimes; a “silent executioner,” sent to destroy Fantômas’ enemies, turns out to be a deadly snake. As his “ghostly” name implies, Fantômas can appear or disappear almost at will, and as a master of disguise he maintains multiple identities, both respectable and criminal: posing as a landlord, he hides a corpse in a freshly-plastered wall, only to take credit for “discovering” the body in one of his other roles, an American detective. Through such strategems he is even able to convince the public and the authorities that Juve, the man hunting him, is actually Fantômas!

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Fantômas and his pursuers are closer to archetypes than fully realized characters, at least in the films (I’ll admit I haven’t read the books): there’s not much evidence that Juve or Fandor have any existence aside from their jobs, and as for Fantômas, there’s even less to him, a hollow man of a thousand faces, an embodiment of pure sociopathy. While I’ve seen the Fantômas series classified as “espionage” (a label that makes sense for its embrace of secret, international conspiracies, multiple disguises, double-crosses, and singularly heroic agents acting alone), there is little to no reference to politics in the external sense–If there is a war being waged, it is between the secret underworld of crime and an orderly society that reacts to it: in short, a “return of the repressed.” The series’ sense of morbid fantasy puts it closer to The Man Who Was Thursday than The Secret Agent.

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However, perhaps we should not be surprised that Fantômas, like Fu Manchu, or the icons of later horror films, gradually came to be treated as the hero of the series, with audiences rooting for him to get away so he can return some other time to continue entertaining us and titillating us with displays of power. As we have seen with Brazil’s Coffin Joe, conservative societies frequently find outlets for antisocial instincts in conscienceless, charismatic antiheroes. Fantômas is, as far as we know, purely in it for profit and personal power, and in a repressive society, such a figure is the ultimate individualist, and thus a potent symbol. The Surrealists who embraced Fantômas as an icon or mascot surely responded to his embrace of freedom at all costs (and generally at the expense of others) just as much as they loved the weird imagery and non sequitur plotting Souvestre and Allain cooked up in their rapid, free-associating writing partnership.

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In his commentary on the Kino Inernational DVD, film historian David Kalat comments on the series’ implicit belief in the possibility of “total disguise,” observing that when Fantômas impersonates a physician, he takes on a practice and even sees patients; when he poses as a real person, copying his appearance and mannerisms, he fools even close friends of the original. I am reminded of the later sound serials’ frequent habit of casting two different actors to play characters in disguise, so that their transformation appears to be truly complete, and their revelation is suitably surprising to the audience. Here, star René Navarre does it all himself with body language and various wigs and mustaches: in fact, most of Feuillade’s Fantômas films begin with close-ups of Navarre showing off the various disguises Fantômas will be wearing in the upcoming episode (in some, Edmund Bréon, who plays Juve, shows off his own disguises in a similar manner). Thus, even though a character is introduced as “Gurn” or “Nanteuil” or “Father Moche,” we the audience already know that it is Fantômas. Sometimes Juve or Fandor recognize their quarry right away, but other times the disguise is completely foolproof. In such cases, the suspense comes from the audience’s knowledge of what is going on, and wondering how long it will take the film’s heroes to catch on and unravel the scheme.

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In other cases, however, the audience is as mystified as Juve and Fandor, and what we get are only fragments of a plot seen from the outside, with the pleasure of seeing the pieces fall into place only at the climax, a conception of the suspense film that has come to be the norm: it feels more “traditional” to save revelations for the most dramatic moment, but it is actually the opposite, a modern approach that withholds information until the tension is at its breaking point.

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Aside from the fluidity of his identity, the other constant is Fantômas’ slipperiness: several times he is cornered, even taken into custody by the police, but each time he wriggles free by some last-minute escape hatch (one of the hallmarks of the mastermind type as seen in later serials and pulp fiction). When apprehended by Juve and Fandor outside a nightclub, Fantômas slips out of his coat, leaving the two men holding a pair of false arms; held at gunpoint in his office, he leaps backward through a false panel behind him and escapes yet again. In fact, one major difference between the Fantômas saga and most of the other serials I have covered is its open-endedness: at the end of each feature, including the last one, Fantômas manages to get away and “Once again, Fantômas, the uncanny, the master of crime, was free.” (The original novels by Souvestre and Allain ran to 32 installments, with 11 more by Allain alone; Feuillade had no more reason to close off his series permanently than the producers of the James Bond movies would.)

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While episodic, there are a few cliffhangers in the modern sense: at the end of the second feature, Juve vs. Fantômas, Fantômas blows up the house in which Juve, Fandor, and the police are searching for him, exulting at his victory. “Were Juve and Fandor killed by the explosion at Lady Beltham’s villa?” the title card asks. Answers would not be forthcoming until deep into the next feature, The Murderous Corpse, which begins with Jerôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), recovered from his injuries and investigating in the footsteps of his presumed-dead friend. (Again, the audience knows from the beginning that Juve, alive, has infiltrated the Fantômas gang in disguise, but it takes a while for Fandor to learn the truth.)Fantomas.triumphant

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of Fantômas’ most iconic disguises: in a few episodes, when Fantômas himself deigns to get his hands dirty, he dons an all-black costume complete with a long hood like that of an inquisitor or executioner. I have frequently commented on the ubiquity of hooded villains in the later serials, and this seems to be one of the primal founts for that particular costume.

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Fantômas was an international hit: in addition to European success, the films were imported to the Americas and proved very popular (at the time, at least). William Fox handled the series in the United States and produced his own Americanized Fantomas serial (now lost) in 1920. Prior to the explosion of costumed superheroes in the 1940s, the serials and pulp magazines were full of villains (and sometimes heroes) who looked like they all shopped out of the same catalog for members of secret tribunals: it was a standard-issue costume.

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(Interestingly, Fantômas is seen only once in the film series in his other iconic costume, the eveningwear and domino mask seen on the cover of the first book and made famous as a popular poster, and that is as a daydream in which he appears to Inspector Juve, taunting him and daring him to arrest him.)

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The worldview cultivated by the Fantômas features is ultimately a paranoid one: just as the queasy ethnic stereotyping of the Fu Manchu series means that any Asian character is a target of suspicion, for they could be one of Fu Manchu’s agents, so in these films anyone you meet could turn out to be Fantômas or someone in his pocket! Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), one of the few recurring characters aside from the trio of Fantômas, Juve, and Fandor, is compromised, having been the mistress of one of Fantômas’ alter egos and subject to blackmail ever after: even the convent is no escape for her.

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The sense of persecution extends to the inexorable workings of justice, in case you were tempted to take comfort in Inspector Juve’s opposition to Fantômas. In Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, an actor who specializes in making himself up as the master criminal finds himself in prison and scheduled to be executed in Fantômas’ place! (In the film, Juve discovers the imposture just in time, but apparently in the book the miscarriage of justice is permanent; again, I haven’t read it.)

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As mentioned previously, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas (the fourth feature), the public turns against Juve, believing him to be the criminal himself (with more than a little help from Fantômas in his various identities), and he is arrested and imprisoned; incredibly, Fantômas goes so far as to bribe a guard to drug Juve and cut him so that he will have an injury matching one Fantômas had recently incurred in public, so that it will seem as if Juve had escaped to commit the crime. Yes, it is a little convoluted: no scheme is too baroque for Fantômas, and few ordinary people would have the resources and stamina of Juve and Fandor to stand up to them. In the fifth and final feature, The False Magistrate, Juve willingly takes Fantômas’ place in a Belgian prison in order to lure Fantômas back to France, where he can be subject to the death penalty, as clear an example of the policeman adopting the criminal’s way of thinking as you’ll find.

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In the Fantômas series, the ubiquity of masks, assumed identities, and deadly secrets is thrilling to watch, but becomes oppressive after a while. The setting also contributes to this feeling: beneath the modern Paris of neat row houses and elegant society are the catacombs and secret passages through cellars and abandoned warehouses, and above are the moonlit rooftops over which black-clad cat burglars and assassins nimbly make their way. The secret world of cutpurses, fences, and killers is separated from ordinary life by only the thinnest of membranes, and the naïve forget it at their peril. Although largely filmed on location in and around the city, the persistence of shadows and crumbling, empty places anticipates the stark, agonistic productions of German expressionism that would arise in the next decade. Paris á la Fantômas is a place full of wonders, but dangerous in which to linger.

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What I Watched: The Fantômas series (Gaumont, 1913-14)
Where I Watched It: A 3-DVD set from Kino International (This is a restored version undertaken in 1998; it also includes the commentary by film historian David Kalat I have alluded to above.)
No. of Chapters: As mentioned, this isn’t quite in the format of a serial as it would be understood later, but the five features that make up the Fantômas saga are themselves divided into chapters, so taken altogether there are 22 including prologues.
Best Chapter Title: I like the title of the second chapter of Fantômas vs. Fantômas, “The Bleeding Wall,” which is not a metaphor.

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Best Peril: As noted, there are only a few genuine cliffhangers (I don’t really count Fantômas’ inevitable escapes, which are more like hooks for future adventures), but chapters within each feature are (unsurprisingly) more like chapters in a book than the sequence of perilous episodes found in a serial proper, each chapter developing one of several mysteries which, when taken all together, explain Fantômas’ overall scheme. Although not a peril faced by Juve or Fandor, it’s hard to top the sequence in The False Magistrate in which Fantômas sends one of his underlings to fetch some jewelry hidden inside a church bell and then leaves him stranded in the bell tower; the next time the bell is rung, a shower of hidden jewels and blood from his mutilated body falls on the funeralgoers below. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it demonstrates the degree to which the world of Fantômas is one of free-associating dreams and nightmares. In a series full of Grand Guignol horrors, this is one of the grandest.

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Sample Dialogue: “If you are Fantômas, we want our cut, tout de suite. If you are Juve, then it’s bad news for you.” –a member of Fantômas’ gang, still under the impression that Inspector Juve is secretly their leader, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas Chapter Four, “Settling Accounts”

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What’s Next: Next week, I’ll continue the Feuillade theme with his follow-up serial, Les Vampires (and this time I really mean it!).

Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty

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On the small island of Sujan, whose people venerate the Horse “as sincerely as did the Assyrians the Bull; the Egyptians the Cat; or the Mayans the feathered Serpent,” a group of Americans haggle with the high priest Tanaga, wanting to buy one of the fine animals, but the horses are not for sale for any price. In order to prove his point, Tanaga shows the incredulous Americans the “god-horse,” a black Arabian who is the living incarnation of their god; the god-horse lives in a sort of preserve, protected by the mounted Royal Guards, except when he is paraded through the village to the temple for important ceremonies. Of course, this is the horse the Americans most want, and they hatch a scheme to steal him. They successfully kidnap the god-horse, leaving Wheeler, one of their own, behind to die. The horse is taken to America, where their buyer Crawford (Harry Woods), an “unscrupulous polo player,” is determined to break him to the saddle. When that inevitably fails and the horse escapes into the countryside, Crawford is determined to stop at nothing to get it back.

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Enter Rinty, a stray dog “with near human intelligence.” Rinty is first shown scrounging for scraps in alleys and outsmarting a jewel thief who pretends to be blind to escape a police manhunt. Meanwhile, at the Bruce Riding Academy, we meet our (human) heroes, star polo player Frank Bradley (Kane Richmond) and Dorothy Bruce (Norma Taylor), daughter of the Academy’s owner and a rider in her own right. Crawford makes an appearance, just long enough to establish that he’s a “bad feller” who threatens to shoot Rinty if he gets in his way again.

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Out in the country, Rinty gets stuck in a hunter’s trap, and when the god-horse finds him and helps him free his leg, the two animals become fast friends and inseparable companions. When the god-horse takes refuge from the men hunting him in an abandoned mine and gets tangled up in rope, Rinty runs to the Academy and gets Dorothy’s attention: “What’s the matter, boy? He’s trying to tell us something!” Crawford’s men attempt to smoke out the horse, not knowing that he’s tied up; Rinty attacks them; and Dorothy rides to the rescue before falling off her horse for no apparent reason at all other than increasing the suspense. Then the mine caves in. Thus ends Chapter One (“The God Horse of Sujan”) of The Adventures of Rex and Rinty!

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Once the god-horse is (of course) recovered safely, Dorothy and Frank take him to the Academy, where Frank recognizes his quality and promises to restore him to his rightful owner, should such appear–but not before (gently) breaking him to a saddle and maybe taking him out for a round or two in the next big polo match! Crawford recognizes the black Arabian when they play together, and begins scheming to get it back, legally or otherwise. The pattern is established: the horse is stolen, or escapes, and goes back and forth between Frank and Crawford, with a few episodes where the horse is out on his own with Rinty. Crawford, at first merely a bad sport, goes full gangster, bellowing threats and sending his underlings out to do his dirty work–and it does get dirty, up to and including murder. There are lots of guns drawn and shots fired along the way, but anytime things get too dangerous for our heroes, one of the bad guys says something like, “Put that thing away! You could hit the horse!” It’s no good to Crawford dead or injured.

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And since Rex (“King of the Wild Horses”) and Rinty (Rin-Tin-Tin Jr.) are the title characters, they get lots of opportunities to show what they can do, and their characters at least do display more intelligence than the people around them most of the time. (It’s worth noting that at some point Frank and Dorothy start calling them “Rex” and “Rinty,” but there’s never a scene where they come up with names or say “I will now call you . . .” There’s some of the same fluidity of names I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials, such as the conflation of the “Thunder Riders” with Queen Tika’s royal guard in The Phantom Empire from around the same time.)

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Mitchell (Al Bridge) writes a dying message on Frank’s bridle after being double-crossed by Crawford

There is also a subplot involving the Sujan islanders’ attempt to get their god back: Wheeler (Wheeler Oakman, a frequent presence in this series), left behind by his countrymen, is forced to bring Pasha (Pedro Regas), one of Tanaga’s men, with him to America to recover the horse. He reconnects with Crawford, only to double-cross him. Pasha uses his (non-lethal) blowgun to knock out Frank and others who stand in his way; he also psychically communicates with Tanaga (Mischa Auer) to update him and receive instructions, but only in the presence of the god-horse. Ultimately, Wheeler makes the mistake of putting his own life before the god-horse’s and Pasha realizes how untrustworthy he is. Recognizing that Frank Bradley sincerely wants to return Rex to his rightful owner, Pasha switches sides and communicates to Tanaga that Frank is an ally. This is crucially important once the action moves back to Sujan in the last couple of chapters.

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There is in general a certain malleable treatment of time and place which makes the Mascot serials feel particularly dreamlike: although the characters travel back and forth (mostly between the Riding Academy and Crawford’s ranch), the amount of time it takes depends entirely on the amount of business that needs to take place between arrivals. Jensen, the comic-relief stable hand played by Smiley Burnette, is especially apt to turn up wherever he is most convenient to the plot: in one scene he is present when Rex is stolen from the Riding Academy’s barn; then, in practically no time at all, he is found lounging on a riverbank with a fishing pole (and not, say, looking for that goddam stolen horse). Most films play this sleight-of-hand game for the sake of pacing or using interesting locations, of course, but it is particularly noticeable here. Being one of the last serials Mascot made before reorganizing and becoming Republic, there are many elements here that would become part of producer Nat Levine’s winning formula–near-continuous music; a mixture of action, characterization, and comic relief; and even such touches as the art-deco title cards used in the recaps at the beginning of each chapter–but that looseness is one quality that I miss in the more “professional” Republic serials.

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The fistfights, gunplay, and chases typical of serials blend surprisingly well with the more sentimental tone struck by extended scenes of the two animal stars exploring or interacting. I have already alluded to the frequently-used device of Rinty getting help from one of the humans and taking them to the scene where they are needed, so similar to the scrapes Lassie or Benji would be getting into decades later. The bulk of Chapter Five, “Babes in the Woods,” is taken up by an episode in which a little boy, lost in the country, is imprisoned by a hermit (a prospector? a moonshiner? the Unabomber?) in his shack. The boy is freed by Rinty and then rides away on Rex before the hermit even realizes he’s losing his prize. The lad turns out to be wealthy heir Junior Hammond, and the publicity surrounding the boy’s rescue leads Frank and Dorothy to head straight for Hammond’s home to claim Rex before Crawford can do the same. (Amusingly, while Frank demands ironclad proof of ownership before relinquishing Rex, Hammond Sr. accepts Frank’s word without question before disappearing from the story.) This is the kind of plot that could either be expanded to fill an entire serial or could be one of many episodes as Rex and Rinty wander the countryside helping people, but here it’s sort of an undeveloped side quest.

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Several serials of the 1930s featured animal heroes. The original Rin-Tin-Tin, a German shepherd rescued from a World War I battlefield, was the star of numerous films until his death in 1932, including two earlier Mascot serials; Rex and Rinty was the third to star Rin-Tin-Tin, Jr. Rex had a career of a decade and a half, earning his nickname “King of the Wild Horses” by starring in a film by that name in 1924; Rex and Rinty was near the end of his career and his last serial appearance. (Although billed as Rex, the “King of the Wild Horses” who later appeared in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, which I reviewed way back in the first “season” of Fates Worse Than Death, was apparently a different horse.)

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Finally, the other element that appears unusual to a modern viewer is the focus on polo. There is even a brief training montage, a device I haven’t seen used much in the serials, in which Frank trains Rex to wear a saddle and play the game. Now stereotyped as a pastime of wealthy elites, polo was evidently widespread enough in the 1930s to be part of popular culture without making a specific comment on class (recall that Flash Gordon was originally a polo player, not a football star). Surely the widespread use of horses in comparison to today was part of this, although even in the mid-’30s the writing was on the wall. In general I haven’t seen very many serials focused on sports of any kind (give or take an automobile or aeroplane race, which is cinematically close enough to a chase to satisfy the need for action), although I know some were made. In Rex and Rinty, scenes from polo matches are part of the action in a few chapters, and the atmosphere and variety of people–wealthy owners, competitive athletes, the unsavory hangers-on and spectators of all classes–are very similar to the way horse racing is portrayed on screen today (in fact, Chapter Two, which prominently features a match, is titled “Sport of Kings”). As a setting, the Bruce Riding Academy and its field are not as ritzy as a country club, and the atmosphere is similar to the small, private airfields that similarly populate the serials of the time period: a hub of activity where different kinds of people and their stories intersect.

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I haven’t seen any other serial that’s quite like this one. The combination of animal heroism, sport, horseback intrigue similar to the modern Western, and Eastern mysticism (however fanciful) more typical of the adventure-exploration genre, makes for an unusual blend of story elements.

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What I Watched: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube. I had to hunt around a bit to see all the chapters in order, but they’re all there.

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “New Gods for Old” (Chapter Eleven)

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Best Cliffhanger: Taking place largely on horseback, several cliffhangers involve people falling off their mounts, whether it be while chasing someone, playing polo, or simply crossing an open field. Being a Mascot serial, there are also a few examples of people appearing to be shot and dropping to the ground, only for the resolution to change the context so that they fell down for some other reason or were just faking it. There are a couple of car crashes, too, and I think my favorite is the end of Chapter Seven (“End of the Road”), in which Dorothy and Jensen drive through a road construction barrier to get away from Crawford’s men, only to abruptly drive over an unfinished bridge. This one isn’t technically a cheat, since it cuts off quickly once the precipice comes into view; at the beginning of the next chapter, their car is stuck hanging, the front wheels having gone over the edge before the car stopped.

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Sample Dialogue:

Wheeler, drawing his gun: Want me to take care of that dog?

Pasha: No! He is a friend of the god-horse.

–Chapter Four, “Homeward Bound”

What Others Have Said: “These horses are all furnished, like most movie horses, by a livestock supplier, to the order of the production people. . . . Most of these aren’t trick or fancy animals, just run-of-the-mill stock. But they are experienced actors. They can walk over snaky electric cables, have lights flashed in their eyes, walk right up to a whirring camera, or have a gun fired off in their ear, all without it bothering them. . . . Some animals possess special talents. How many times, in various movies, have you seen a big black stallion rear high on his hind legs and strike with his front feet? That was probably all the same horse, the star of the old ‘Fury’ series. He was so good at his job that he was used in dozens of pictures, where a rearing stallion was needed. In some cases, even the script was changed to make the black horse fit. Remember Will James’ book, Smoky? Smoky was a blue dun in the book, but a black on the screen!”

–Don Coldsmith, “Animal Actors” in Horsin’ Around (Note that Coldsmith’s examples are from a good deal later than Rex and Rinty–I don’t wish to imply that he’s writing specifically about Rex!)

What’s Next: I’m taking a detour to France with a look at Louis Feuillade’s silent serial, Les Vampires (actually, it ended up being Fantomas)!

 

Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Africa

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On the docks of a seaport close to a Near Eastern jungle, Ted Arnold watches animal trapper Nat Coleman loading crates of live leopards and other animals onto a ship. Suddenly, a cable snaps, and a heavy load crashes to the dock! Suspecting foul play, Ted spies an Arab workman panic and run away from the scene, and follows him into the city. Tracking the suspicious dockhand to a house and confronted by a beautiful woman, Ted is surprised when Nat Coleman himself, the man’s employer, catches up to them and vouches for his workman. The Arab’s name is Omar, and he has been an employee of Coleman’s since stumbling out of the jungle, haunted by a fear he refuses to name. In this instance, he ran because he thought the men who sought his life had intended for the sabotaged crate to fall on him. Trusting Coleman’s word but eager to discover Omar’s secret, Ted gladly accepts Coleman’s invitation to be a guest at his jungle compound. This is but his first step into a tangled web of international intrigue that involves a dethroned Caliph, a subversive foreign plot to enslave the jungle tribes, and even an alliance with the secretive guardian of the jungle himself, Captain Africa!

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In the age of Black Panther (or really any time in the last fifty years or so), the idea of a white hero calling himself “Captain Africa” sounds comically tone-deaf, but we have already encountered African-set “white savior” heroes in the serials, and this one follows a long tradition. The heroism of Captain Africa, “a strange being whom the natives fear, yet worship” (Chapter One), is an example of the “white man’s burden,” living in the jungle, settling disputes, and (most importantly) protecting the innocent tribes of the area from outsiders who might exploit them, and nobly asking for nothing in return (except the tribes’ absolute deference, of course). As such he is instantly recognizable as a thinly-veiled gloss on the Phantom, the long-running comic strip hero created by Lee Falk, and who had starred in a Columbia serial twelve years earlier. Rather than pay to license the character from King Features again (as one of the very last theatrical serials ever produced, Captain Africa was made long after the era in which studios spent much money on them), Columbia instead created their own version of the jungle guardian, his gaudy honorific an alias for an alias. (Columbia wasn’t the only studio to play this game: Republic had “Don Daredevil” replace Zorro, for example.)

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It had been a while since I watched The Phantom, so I went back through my old notes to compare the two serials. Let’s see: the Phantom is attacked by a lion; Captain Africa is attacked by a lion. The Phantom is almost crushed by a portcullis, only to roll out of the way just in time; Captain Africa is almost crushed by a portcullis, only to roll out of the way just in time. The Phantom fights a gorilla; Captain Africa . . . hmm, I’m starting to see a pattern here. For the most part, Captain Africa’s costume is different enough from the Phantom’s to avoid confusion (or litigation) up close. It sort of looks like the Phantom costume you might throw together at the last minute for a Halloween party: instead of a skin-tight bodysuit, he wears a jersey and breeches. Captain Africa’s headgear resembles one of those old-time leather football helmets, and paired with goggles, well, the original Phantom could probably count on his lookalike to run errands in his place on dark nights. At the same time, when compared side by side, the shots from the two serials are clearly different: it is the plot points that are recycled, not the scenes of the Phantom in action. (See the comments below regarding the conflict over rights, which goes a long way toward explaining why whole scenes might have been filmed, only to be cut into the stingiest flashbacks.)

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The way the title characters are presented in their respective serials is also different: The Phantom is told from the hero’s point of view, beginning with the death of the old Phantom and covering his son’s assumption of the hero’s name and identity (one of the conceits of the Phantom being that it is a persona adopted by generations of fathers and sons, making it seem as if he were a single immortal being). The main protagonist of Captain Africa, however, is Ted Arnold (Rick Vallin), covert operative for a secret, unnamed organization; Captain Africa (John Hart) appears in every chapter, sometimes briefly and sometimes extensively, but he is at first an unknown quantity, a sort of guest star in his own movie, and once Ted wins the confidence of Omar and his displaced Caliph, he must convince Captain Africa to join in the project of restoring the Caliph to his throne. (We eventually learn Captain Africa’s backstory, and it is similar to Ted’s: after a heroic wartime career, under orders from his superiors he assumed the identity of Captain Africa and convinced the natives of his “magical” power in order to keep the peace in the region–there is no hint of a multi-generational tradition.)

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So, playing along, what does happen in Adventures of Captain Africa? Working with Nat Coleman (Bud Osborne), Ted follows Omar (Ben Welden) to a rendezvous with the exiled Caliph (Paul Marion), who relates the story of his overthrow by a usurper only referred to as “the tyrant.” The Caliph, Abdul al-Hamid, and his daughter, Princess Rhoda (June Howard)–exoticism only goes so far, I guess–escaped to live as nomads in the desert with a handful of loyal retainers, avoiding the bands of outlaws and slave traders that rule the desert, as well as patrols by the tyrant’s guards. There they await the opportunity to return to their homeland and return Hamid to his throne. (All of this is conveyed by voiceover accompanied by stock footage from desert swashbuckling epics.)

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Ted is convinced that Hamid, in addition to being the rightful Caliph, would be a force for peace in the region. With the help of Captain Africa (who, in a parallel story, works to prevent subversives from provoking a rebellion among the jungle tribes–the same subversives who are in league with the tyrant who dethroned Hamid), Ted convinces Omar to break his vow of silence since they already know all about Hamid’s position, and presents himself as an ally. From then on, Ted, Omar, and Captain Africa work together on the Caliph’s behalf (Nat Coleman retires from the action to continue running his business once the alliance is cemented), seeking loyalists in the tyrant’s capital city and fighting off the subversive elements who would seek to enslave both the jungle tribes and the Arabs of the desert.

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The resulting adventure is a mélange of Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling and jungle adventure: despite taking place in 1955, Adventures of Captain Africa feels much older. Of course the reliance on stock footage is a big part of that, but the typical avoidance of specific politics is another. My guess is that the unnamed political organization for which Ted Arnold works is meant to be the CIA, and the similarly unnamed subversives who promise freedom to the jungle natives but who, Ted warns, have enslaved every other population they have come in contact with, are meant to represent Soviet communism, and both the tribes and the Caliph’s people are a football tossed between them. But really, all you need to know is that there are good guys and bad guys. The various people of the desert wear traditional caftan and burnous, ride horses, and fight with wicked, curved scimitars; the jungle tribesmen are the kind of loincloth-clad, spear-throwing savages typically depicted in jungle movies. Only the white men use guns. In short, it takes place in serial never-neverland, and a more simplified version of it than most.

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The reliance on stock footage and voiceover has a distancing effect, as well. In the best serials, editing and camera work give the action a thrilling immediacy, a feeling that you are there, watching or participating in the scene. From the first chapter, however, when Nat Coleman describes his first meeting with Omar and several mysterious incidents of sabotage to Ted, the tone is one of rambling digressions and things that happened in the past or to other people, with frequently thin narrative reasons for including one scene or another, except, of course, for the fact that the footage is on hand. (It doesn’t help that Coleman isn’t the most dynamic narrator, and it’s a relief when, after a few chapters, he disappears from the story.) The serial that I was most reminded of was not The Phantom, but The New Adventures of Tarzan, from twenty years before.

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A few of these scenes are interesting from a technical perspective, including the use of rear projection to insert Coleman or other characters into the foreground of the old footage, as in Coleman’s flashback to a lion attack in his own bedroom. Even when the action shifts to the present, the early chapters are full of jungle business inserted so that Ted and Coleman have something to point out and talk about while they walk from one location to another: various animals, the daily routine of a rubber plantation, a police raid on a riverboat carrying contraband rubber. Coleman explains that there has been a campaign of rubber theft by well-organized gangs. “Do you suppose your unknown enemies are involved in it?” Ted asks, to which Coleman replies, “If they are, I wish they’d stay with it and leave me alone,” acknowledging that these scenes are nothing more than padding. As always, there is something magical in the way whole worlds can be stitched together out of unrelated footage, but Captain Africa shows that you can only stretch leftovers so far before they go stale.

What I Watched: Adventures of Captain Africa (Columbia, 1955)

Where I Watched It: Captain Africa was among the bootleg DVDs I bought and went through a few years ago, but for whatever reason I didn’t get around to watching this one until now. However, the transfer was quite poor indeed, full of missing frames and even whole scenes. Luckily for me, the whole serial was on YouTube in better (although still not pristine) quality.

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: What Captain Africa lacks in originality, it makes up in exclamation points: every chapter title ends with a bang (as does the serial’s subtitle, “Mighty Jungle Avenger!”)! So whether Ted and company face a “Midnight Attack!” (Chapter Three) or “Slave Traders!” (Chapter Six), writer George H. Plympton and director Spencer G. Bennet are sure to extract as much excitement out of the situation as possible. Several chapter titles refer to the “Mystery Man of the Jungle!” (Chapter One) himself, and of those my favorite is Chapter Nine’s, “Blasted by Captain Africa!” (emphasis in original).

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Best Cliffhanger: Many of the cliffhangers are not set up especially well, so they end their chapters abruptly, and they frequently suffer from the same murkiness that makes much of the serial’s action sequences so hard to follow. In addition, the feeling of going through the motions–hitting familiar perils such as animal attacks, fire, falls, and cave-ins–is readily apparent. However, there are a few sharp, well-executed, and interesting cliffhangers in the last few chapters (they must have saved the best for last). At the end of Chapter Twelve (“Fangs of the Beast!”), Captain Africa, exploring the caverns underneath the Caliph’s city, is trapped in a cell with an angry gorilla–a gorilla who, we later find out, carries a key for safe passage through the city around his neck (the “key” is a narrative repurposing of the last piece of the map to the lost city of Zoloz in the original Phantom serial). The subsequent battle is more of a choreographed fight than we have seen so far, and the chapter ends with the gorilla on top of Captain Africa, strangling the life out of him. (After turning the tables on the gorilla and escaping in the next chapter, Captain Africa modestly explains to Ted and Omar that despite appearances, captivity had made the gorilla fat and lazy: “Otherwise, I never could have beaten him.”)

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Sample Dialogue: In Chapter One, a fight has broken out in a dockside watering hole.
Ted Arnold: What’s it all about?
Nat Coleman: Who knows? Perhaps nothing. Then again, it might be over something that threatens the peace of the world.

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What Others Have Said: “It was over ten years before Columbia considered making a sequel to The Phantom. By this time, [producer] Sam Katzman was in charge of serials, and he was making them cheaper than anybody had ever produced union-made theatrical movies. One story has it that Katzman’s company had actually begun filming the serial before negotiations with King Features, owners of The Phantom comic strip, were completed. In any case, either before or during the production, the King Syndicate wanted too much money, and The Phantom could not be used again on the screen. At least, not exactly.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

(Interestingly, while Harmon and Glut claim that Captain Africa included numerous reused shots of Tom Tyler’s Phantom, they also note that at the time of writing their book, 1972, the 1943 Phantom serial had not been available to view for many years. With the distance in time, it was surely easy to believe that the shots were identical.)

What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at one of several serials with animal heroes: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty!

Fates Worse Than Death: Drums of Fu Manchu

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A man steps into a taxi; at every step of his journey, he is being followed as he makes his way to his destination. Just as the traveler reaches safety, one of the lurking pursuers attacks, throwing a knife that the would-be victim only barely dodges! The man? Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Foreign Office. His attacker? A Dacoit in the service of Smith’s deadly archenemy, Dr. Fu Manchu!

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Just as the first of the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) begins, so begins Drums of Fu Manchu, the 1940 Republic serial loosely adapted from them. As in Rohmer’s books, the only thing standing between the fiendishly brilliant “devil doctor” and “nothing less than the conquest of Asia” is Smith (played by William Royle), a hero who stands midway between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (temporally as well as in style); and his assistant, Dr. Petrie (it was Dr. Petrie’s doorstep on which Smith was attacked in the first scene). There is usually also a younger man of action who encounters the diabolical conspiracies surrounding Fu Manchu and his secret organization, the Si Fan, as a newcomer, drawn in by some personal connection and allying himself with Smith and Petrie once the stakes are clear to him. In Drums, that young man is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), son of James Parker, an explorer in possession of knowledge desired by Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s goal is to recover the sacred scepter of Genghis Khan, an artifact which will allow him to unite all of the peoples of Asia in rebellion against the white occupiers. According to prophecy, a leader will arise to take up the scepter during the “Holy Year”–Sir Nayland has spent months undercover in Burma observing Fu Manchu’s surrogates riling up the local tribes “from the Nihali Mountains through Branapuhr,” in expectation of the leader’s–Fu Manchu’s–arrival. From the point of view of the British authorities, the High Lama is a much better candidate to receive the scepter, as he promises peace (and continuing cooperation with the British, naturally). Both Fu Manchu and Sir Nayland Smith must work through the various clues left behind–scrolls, a plaque, a stone from an altar, and so on–to locate the missing tomb of Genghis Khan, each trying to recover the scepter first. Even once the action moves back to Asia and the scepter is found, the serial isn’t over.

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In order to accomplish his goals, Fu Manchu has (and will again) resorted to murder: the explorer Lionel Barton, whose transcriptions of certain scrolls revealed the existence of the scepter, is already out of the way. Dr. Parker will be next, and things aren’t looking too good for Professor Randolph, an expert on Mongolian languages who accompanied Barton on his expedition. Another victim is Wally Winchester, the radio columnist who is felled by a “gelatinous dart” hidden in his microphone, right before he attempts to reveal on-air the hideout in which Fu Manchu has Parker held captive! Elaborate murders, death-traps, and methods of torture are Fu Manchu’s stock in trade, and they complement the Republic serial style quite smoothly: many of the serial’s cliffhangers consist of traps or torture devices, the question of the hero’s survival left for the following week, and in other cases they are incidents along the way or the basis for action set pieces.

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Most of these killings are accompanied by the drums of the title: a sinister drumbeat that builds ominously, indicating the presence of the villain. It’s not always clear what or where the drums are: sometimes they are part of the diegetic sound of the film, and the characters call attention to them, knowing that they are threatened. At other times they are a spooky, atmospheric effect, ladled onto the soundtrack like gravy. In any case, they are never directly explained, but they are an effective dramatic device, and a symbol of the atmosphere of dread that hangs over the whole serial like opium smoke.

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At the center of this malign web is Fu Manchu himself, played by Henry Brandon. Fu Manchu is one of the great pop culture villains, perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind, and has been portrayed on screen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, among others (even Warner Oland, who would later give the best-known portrayal of Charlie Chan, took a turn as the devil doctor early in his career). Here’s what Sir Nayland has to say to Dr. Petrie in their first adventure together:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

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The unironic use of the phrase “yellow peril” suggests, of course, that the character has little to do with the actual culture or politics of Asia and everything to do with the West’s anxieties and fears of same. (It should also be clear that, in addition to his vicious, criminal acts, Fu Manchu’s dream of throwing off British imperialism is enough by itself to make him villainous in Sir Nayland Smith’s eyes.) Fu Manchu embodies a host of troublesome, contradictory stereotypes: he is bound by a strong sense of honor, yet is underhanded, secretive, and treacherous; he is described in terms that seem physically inhuman and is completely exotic in his costume, yet his knowledge of white ways and mastery of disguise allow him to blend in undetected in Europe or America; he is coded as effete, even effeminate, but represents a sexual danger to white women (this doesn’t come through as strongly in the Hays Code-approved serial, but it often does in other representations of the character); in short, he can be anywhere and can be anything that inspires fear or disgust in his (presumably white) audience. (His command of all Asians also has the unpleasant side effect of making non-white characters appear suspicious, beyond even their usual portrayal as others: in this serial, just about anybody in a turban or robe could be a member of the Si Fan.)

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This is, of course, why none of the actors famous for playing the character were themselves of Asian descent, and a big reason why the character has made few official appearances in recent decades, even as he remains recognizable as an icon. Fu Manchu is now more likely to be spoofed (his last official appearance was in 1980, played by Peter Sellers) or subverted (consider the twist in Iron Man 3) than taken seriously: even among those who still traffic in “yellow peril” anxiety, the Asian villains have been updated to take advantage of current political and economic tensions. (But who knows? Even as I write this a trade war with China is in the offing, and the white nationalism currently embroiling the country has much in common with the panic over immigration that made Fu Manchu and other yellow peril characters so popular a hundred years ago; as much as I would like to consider these stereotypes as a purely academic matter, they are still very much with us.)

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Brandon’s portrayal hits these notes often and hard: he speaks in a high, querulous voice, drawing out words with exacting precision, and delivers his lines with haughty condescension. He is a “villain you love to hate.” (Although Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is largely a riff on James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there’s more than a little of Fu Manchu in him as well, particularly the scenes of gathering his varied henchmen around a conference table, so like the Si Fan council meetings.*) Unlike many other serials, Drums of Fu Manchu keeps its villain front and center, confronting the heroes face to face often rather than keeping distance between them. And why not? Fu Manchu is the star, not Sir Nayland Smith (a point made brilliantly in Gahan Wilson’s short story “The Power of the Mandarin,” which I recommend but won’t spoil).

*On the other hand, Dr. Evil is also said to be modeled on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, and I’ve never seen Michaels and Fu Manchu in the same room together, have you?

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In Fu Manchu’s service are his Dacoits, mostly interchangeable goons sent on missions of burglary, kidnapping, and assassination, sometimes under the direct leadership of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). The Dacoits’ primary weapon is the throwing knife, but strangling nooses and blowguns–both “exotic weapons”–come into play as well. The word dacoit refers to a Burmese bandit or robber, but in Sax Rohmer’s books they are one of several cult-like organizations, along with the Thuggee, who serve Fu Manchu with undying loyalty. In the serial, the Dacoits have had their brains operated on to make them loyal, and they are recognizable by the grotesque scars left by the surgery. Only a few have names (chief among them Loki, Fu Manchu’s muscle and leader of the other Dacoits), and they are narratively equivalent to the zombies of Haitian voodoo (in fact, in one chapter Nayland Smith is himself threatened with being turned into a Dacoit, a true fate worse than death!).

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It should be evident from this partial description that there are quite a few characters in Drums of Fu Manchu, and that’s not even getting into the one-chapter characters like Ezra Howard, the eccentric collector from whom one of the clues must be finessed. I also haven’t mentioned Mary Randolph (Luana Walters), Professor Randolph’s daughter, first seen bringing the “Dalai Plaque” by train and joining the heroes’ forces after an attempted theft and the sabotage of the train. Mary is naturally paired up with Allan Parker as a romantic lead, and she also counters Fah Lo Suee, the other important female character. Allan Parker and Sir Nayland Smith essentially take turns as leads, one frequently falling into peril (when it isn’t Mary in distress) and the other arriving to save the day. Interestingly, Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten), Smith’s nominal sidekick, frequently fades into the background in the serial while other characters take more active roles.

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Drums of Fu Manchu is ultimately more like the popular image of serials than many of the serials I’ve seen: because Fu Manchu makes a personal appearance in every chapter, we are treated to many scenes of him delivering deliciously arch monologues to his intended victims, bound and awaiting death by some slow, gruesome mechanism: “I have a number of Oriental devices for extracting information from stubborn witnesses, but I’m honoring you by the use of an arrangement invented by one of your own countrymen,” he tells Allan Parker in a typical example. “You’re undoubtedly familiar with the admirable writings of Edgar Allan Poe? So you will have no difficulty in recognizing this device, described in his short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.'” The rest of the scene, as they say, writes itself.

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Furthermore, whereas even many serials based on series characters are self-contained, Drums of Fu Manchu never lets us forget that it is but one episode in a never-ending struggle. “From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time–FU MANCHU!” reads the opening crawl. “Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient he is as modern as Tomorrow!” Even though this is Republic’s only Fu Manchu serial (a sequel was proposed, but was dropped because of the wartime alliance with China), his familiarity to audiences (in addition to the novels, Fu Manchu was a multimedia sensation, with previous film appearances, radio programs, and comics) provided a sense of continuity. The introduction of the characters in the first chapter implies earlier adventures, and–very unusually–the serial ends with a single scene of Fu Manchu, alone, still alive, and vowing to continue his war upon the West: “But there will dawn another day, a day of reckoning, when the forces of Fu Manchu will sweep on to victory! This I pledge.” To the end, he is far too dignified to shake his fist and cry, “I’ll get you next time, Nayland Smith!”, but the meaning is the same.

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What I Watched: Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: a 2-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Dials a Number” (Chapter Six) In this chapter, Allan Parker is left tied up next to a telephone whose ringer has been attached to the fuse of an explosive; as soon as either Fu Manchu or Sir Nayland Smith attempt to call, it’s curtains for Allan!

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Best Cliffhanger: As often happens, the title of Chapter Nine, “The Crystal of Death,” foreshadows the cliffhanging peril that will end the chapter. In this chapter, Fu Manchu, having abducted Mary, brings her to the temple of the sun goddess Kardac. Sir Nayland Smith is already there, trying to gain the information from the temple priest that both he and Fu Manchu are seeking (both are in possession of a fragment of the temple’s altar, one the original and the other a replica). Fu Manchu reminds the priest that prophecy says the goddess will speak when the true fragment of the altar is replaced, and speak she does, demanding a sacrifice to atone for the desecration of the temple by outsiders (strange, though, that the goddess’s voice sounds so much like Fah Lo Suee’s!). Mary, placed in a trance by the “incense of obedience,” is laid out on the altar, and sunlight from outside is projected (via a series of mirrors) through the temple’s sacred crystal, which focuses it into a powerfully destructive ray. As the ray moves slowly toward Mary, the small idols on the altar burst into flame, showing just how intensely hot it is. Somewhere, the drums of Fu Manchu begin their relentless tattoo, the pulsing drumbeat that spells doom. . . .

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Sample Dialogue: “May I remind you that among my people, honor is a sacred thing, and those who defile it can expect no mercy!” –Fu Manchu to Mary Randolph, Chapter Three (“Ransom in the Sky”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “Illustrious father, the switch is open; both trains are on the same track; and when they meet, the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal.” –Fah Lo Suee to Fu Manchu on the telephone, Chapter One (“Fu Manchu Strikes”)

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Death by Octopus? Of course.

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Death by Cave-In? You know it.

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Villain Disguises Himself as Hero? Without a doubt.

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Where in the World is Fu Manchu? Note the address on the packing crate: this must be on the same map as Gotham City and Yoknapatawpha County.

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What Others Have Said: “William Witney and John English, mentioned throughout this book as the most professional directors of movie serials, directed Drums of Fu Manchu. Working with photographer William Nobels, the directing team stressed the mystery elements inherent in the Fu Manchu novels, unlike most of their action-oriented photoplays. [There is still quite a bit of action, however. –GV] Most of their serial was photographed in shadows with the eeriest lighting possible falling upon Fu. Before he made his appearance the almost supernatural drums of Fu Manchu began to sound from nowhere. There was no denying the fact that the Witney-English Fu Manchu was more than human and possessed weird powers not even hinted at in the novels.” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at Adventures of Captain Africa, the sequel/rehash of The Phantom. I hope you’ll join me.