My 2019 in Film: Top Ten

I expect to see this on the cover of a textbook about postmodernism some day.

I was going to beat my breast and confess that I didn’t see as many movies this year as I did last year as an excuse for why my list seemed so paltry, but I actually didn’t come up as short as I thought: last year I saw around fifty new releases, and this year I saw around forty, enough to make a list of favorites without feeling that I had missed too much of the good stuff to be credible. There are some films I didn’t get to that I would have liked to consider for inclusion, such as High Life, Jojo Rabbit, and Uncut Gems, but ultimately there were fewer that I regretted missing than last year. It was a busy year, and in the end I suppose I resigned myself to not seeing everything I might want to. (Even with new films on Netflix and other streaming services, I eventually just ran out of time in December to check them out.)

As I mentioned in my New Discoveries column, I began a Letterboxd account this year, mostly to keep a diary of first-time viewings, and while I didn’t write much in the way of reviews or ratings, it did make it easier for me to look back and see which of this year’s releases I had watched. (As always, for purposes of this list I am using U.S. release dates, so a few international productions show up on Letterboxd as being older; I’m including them anyway.)

So what kind of a year was it? I saw enough good-to-great films that it wasn’t hard at all to fill out a Top Ten (subjective and subject to change as such rankings may be), and I look forward to catching up with many that I missed. Some themes stick out: class-consciousness was a prominent concern in 2019, with many of my top picks reflecting rising awareness of (and frustration with) the growing divide between haves and have-nots. Surely related to this is my sense that climate change is out in the open even in the lightest of entertainment: in one way or another, movies as diverse as Crawl, Parasite, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Frozen II either have extreme weather as a plot element or seem to be driven by underlying climate anxiety.

One reason I wasn’t as hot on the killer-alligator movie Crawl as some others is that it completely disregarded the ways in which climate disasters disproportionately affect poor or marginalized communities: as in Parasite, living on high ground is one of the perks of wealth, and one’s geographical position can mean the difference between a cleansing shower and a catastrophic flood. One could argue that it isn’t the job of a thriller for casual audiences to tell such truths (and to be fair, it is a well-made and exciting film), but the way Crawl borrowed the experiences of Katrina survivors and centered them on a thoroughly middle-class white family felt, at the very least, as if it weren’t telling the whole story, and in this year especially, in which filmmakers have repeatedly married social commentary to dynamic and exciting genre moviemaking, it struck me as cowardly.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think my list is that reflective of the state of the film industry or the discourse surrounding it, which is dominated more than ever by big franchises, especially those now owned by Disney. As a consumer and a citizen, I don’t think any one company should have such a large market share; the bullying tactics theaters have reported, with Disney demanding ever-greater screen presence and cuts of ticket sales, at the expense of smaller films, is one obvious example, and the announced rolling back of the Paramount decrees, which have for decades prevented companies from owning both the studios that produce films and the theaters that show them, is ominous. (And for everyone excited about Disney’s purchase of Fox because it would allow the Avengers to finally share the screen with the X-Men, it’s worth recalling that they would never have been separated in the first place if it weren’t for the same kind of corporate skullduggery the fans are now cheering.) However, aside from concerns about their size, influence, or business practices, Disney has made some terrific entertainment, and they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in if they weren’t skilled at drawing in and pleasing audiences. I’m part of that audience, and thus part of the problem. That is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not excluding Disney products, or parts of the Marvel or Star Wars franchises, from my Top Ten list for political reasons.

I’m excluding them for artistic reasons.

Ha ha, just kidding. Actually, I enjoyed most of the superhero films on offer very much this year (the latest Star Wars is another matter, but I don’t know if I even want to get into it). Avengers: Endgame, which capped off the (at the time) twenty-two-film Marvel Cinematic Universe that began in 2008 with Iron Man, was both an impressive feat of production (in the organizational sense, not just the nuts and bolts of making the individual film) and a rousing and satisfying climax for the series. As I said after seeing it, fan service it may be, but consider this fan serviced. If, however, I didn’t see fit to include Endgame in my Top Ten list, it’s only partly because there were at least ten other films I thought more highly of. In the already-tiresome “are Marvel movies cinema or not?” argument, I’d say they most assuredly are: spectacle and morality play are genres that have been part of the cinema since the very beginning, and the Marvel movies fit within those traditions quite easily.

There is something to be said, however, for the idea that the long-running, multi-stranded narratives the MCU features are closer to what we have traditionally gotten from episodic television, and that much of the impact of Endgame‘s various comings and goings is due to the literal decade-plus we’ve spent with many of them. (Despite pejorative comments calling them empty, nothing but special effects, or theme park rides, most fans I know are more enthused by the characters and actors who portray them than by the action sequences, with each movie an opportunity to hang out with them; again, that’s more like Friends than, say, Independence Day.) There’s nothing wrong with that, but to me that’s the number one reason I sometimes have to remind myself to consider them in the same category as other films I’m ranking.

In any case, without further preamble, here are the movies that, at least today, I consider the ten best new releases I saw in 2019:

10. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)

The Lego Movie was my favorite movie of 2014 and still one of my favorites of the decade; the cliffhanger on which it ended seemed like a joke as much as an actual dangling plot thread, but the notion that Finn, the boy whose imagination drove the action in the original film, had a little sister whom he might have to share with turned out to be enough to build a thoughtful plot upon about ideas of masculinity and the differences between boys’ and girls’ style of play. The fact that in the interim, Chris Pratt, the voice of Emmett, the main Lego character, had graduated from playing schlubs and transformed into a buff alpha-male leading man provided the perfect opportunity to spoof that image as Emmett comes face to face with Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), the man he thinks Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) wants him to be.

9. Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

A live-action adaptation of a manga I’ve never read? Apparently that is now one of my things. I don’t know how faithful Alita is to the original comics, but this tale of a cyborg warrior woman (Rosa Salazar with CGI-enlarged eyes) who doesn’t remember her past is the kind of lavishly-produced high-concept sci-fi that deserves to be seen on the big screen. The film could have ended stronger instead of teasing a sequel, but there are enough dazzling set-pieces, from a futuristic roller derby arena to a showdown in a club for bounty hunters, to scratch the effects-driven blockbuster itch, all of it anchored by soulful performances from Salazar and Christoph Waltz as her surrogate father.

8. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

I’ve missed out on Tarantino’s last few films–not because I’d stopped being a fan, exactly, but partially because I don’t live near a theater that could show them in 70mm, so the urgency that often helps me get to the movies on time was lost–so I’m probably not in a position to comment on the writer-director’s growth (or lack thereof) over his career. But in a way, the questions and thematic concerns his films always seem to engender–what’s he trying to say? Is this look at Hollywood on the cusp of generational change a salute to professionals, like Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth? Or a lament for the perceived classiness of the old studio system, now that the hippies are in charge? Is its treatment of Bruce Lee racist? Or is it just about all those bare feet?–are beside the point, as moment-to-moment Once Upon A Time is thoroughly entertaining, a mesmerizing recreation of a particular place and time, a hang-out movie full of charismatic stars (Margot Robbie doesn’t have a lot to do as Sharon Tate, exactly, but the screen lights up when she appears, which I think is the point), and a mash-up of genres that continually surprises. As washed-up TV actor Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio unites all of these disparate threads (and gives Tarantino plenty of opportunities to recreate different styles of film and TV production) as he gropes toward a new phase in his career. As for the controversial ending, well, Tarantino gonna Tarantino.

7. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

A clever inversion of classic teen movie formulas, Booksmart presents a pair of overachieving best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) on the verge of graduating from high school, only to find that their years of staying on the straight and narrow haven’t given them the social or academic advantages they had hoped for. (At least one friend of mine found this angle hard to relate to, as the scene in which it’s revealed that the seeming underachievers are getting recruited to big tech companies or heading to Stanford struck him as hopelessly unrealistic even for the most privileged, but I think this is one of those elements that is meant to strike a chord with older, Gen-X audiences, who have had time to discover how little your high school achievements really predict future success, rather than the supposed teen demographic the movie appears to be pitched to; in any case, it’s not exactly a strictly realistic movie.) With one night to go, the pair seek to make up for lost time, veering from one party to another and discovering sides to their friends they hadn’t suspected and belatedly acknowledging truths about themselves and their own friendship. As in Good Boys, another of this year’s movies that takes a similar tack with a trio of sixth-grade boys, at the root of the comedy is the painful realization that growing up sometimes means growing apart and finding your own path.

6. Us (Jordan Peele)

Get Out was my favorite film of 2017; Peele’s follow-up, while less explicitly about race and more overtly surreal, still reads as a metaphor for America and its divisions (perhaps a little too neatly, with its repurposing of the “Hands Across America” iconography by a literal underclass and even its title: U S, get it?). But beyond the deliberate weirdness of the red jumpsuits and golden scissors, the rabbits and rabbit holes, Us is a compelling mixture of family comedy, home-invasion thriller, and sci-fi mystery, and probably the most actually-scary movie I saw this year. Lupita Nyong’o owns the screen in this one.

5. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

A good old-fashioned murder mystery full of familiar stars is an easy sell (or so one would think), but perhaps Knives Out‘s success is in not being quite as old-fashioned as it appears. Sure, there’s the dapper detective (Daniel Craig with an amusing Southern drawl) and a range of suspects (including Chris Evans playing the bad boy again after his run as oh-so-decent Captain America), but the story doesn’t go quite where you might expect, and centering the story on outsider Marta (Ana de Armas), the victim’s faithful nurse, is a smart move, deepening the political subtext and putting Knives Out closer to something like Gosford Park than the Agatha Christie revival it superficially resembles.

4. Ready or Not (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett)

In a similar vein, but without even the pretense of good taste to hold back its class warfare theme, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as new bride Grace, married into an obscenely wealthy family. Since the Le Domas clan made their fortune on board games, every new member must play a game, randomly chosen, as a sort of initiation to be considered truly “one of the family.” When Grace draws “Hide and Seek,” she doesn’t realize at first that this is one game in which the family means business, and the result is a comic-horror cat-and-mouse take on The Most Dangerous Game. It’s a hoot, and it has a catchy theme song.

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3. In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

When I saw In Fabric in October, I wrote that “Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway.” Since writing those words, I’ve probably given more thought to In Fabric and looked forward to watching it again more than anything else on this list (it’s available to stream now, but I haven’t gotten around to rewatching it yet). Like a few entries on this list, this tale of a literal “killer dress” could be classified as comic horror, but it’s a comedy that explores the line between “funny ha ha” and “funny strange.”

2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

This was another one I saw in October and even considered the best film I saw that month, and I still feel strongly about it. From the moment Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson appear together in an academy-ratio frame so cramped that it cuts off their sides, the theme of two men trapped together by work and the environment is reinforced by the direction and framing of the shots. By turns eerie, hilarious, and shocking, The Lighthouse is unlike anything else I saw this year.

1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Like several of the films on my list this year, Parasite begins as one thing–in this case, a comic caper about a desperate family of hustlers who worm their way into staff positions in the household of a wealthy tech executive–that turns into something else, crossing boundaries of genre and upsetting expectations in thrilling ways. It’s a film that is best approached without too much foreknowledge, but one that has rarely left my thoughts since I saw it in November.

Honorable mention: The internet and streaming has made it easier than ever to see short films and for filmmakers to make projects of whatever length they choose, and Netflix in particular this year released several medium-length shows that in the past probably would have been TV specials. My favorite of these was The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (dir. Akiva Shaffer and Mike Diva), a half-hour “visual rap album” from The Lonely Island relating the rise and fall of sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in 1980s Oakland. The emphasis is on “unauthorized,” as the special ironically celebrates steroid abuse and tacky overconsumption and stars Shaffer as Canseco and Andy Samberg as McGwire, any resemblance to their real-life subjects or even an athletic physique be damned. Like the group’s previous Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the excess is the point, and only barely less exaggerated than the supposedly more serious rap and pop projects they parody.

Not that bad: Serenity (dir. Steven Knight) must have been hard to advertise: the most interesting thing about it is its twist, but movie marketers and trailer editors are notoriously bad at finding the right line to divide “teasing” from “spoiling.” Actually, I’m not sure I even saw a trailer for this, but when I started hearing conflicting opinions about it and its “jaw-dropping” “rug-pull,” I felt obligated to check it out. Yes, you’ll probably catch on to what is happening to fishing-boat captain Matthew McConaughey as his reality seems to come unglued, even before old flame Anne Hathaway appears on his island to dredge up old memories. You could say it’s all a bit silly, especially if you’ve already seen better movies that play with the same concepts. But I dunno, it didn’t bore me, the scenery is pretty, and McConaughey and Hathaway are working their asses off to land this turkey. I’ve definitely seen worse movies this year.

Most Disappointing: Speaking of which, I’m not going to name The Dead Don’t Die (dir. Jim Jarmusch) the “worst” movie I saw in 2019–some of the other movies I would rank lower were just forgettable, and also I haven’t seen Cats yet–but it was certainly the most frustrating. Jarmusch has played with fantasy elements before, but a zombie movie, a genre that has seen many, many self-aware reinventions in the past couple of decades, needs to have more than just zombies moaning “coffee,” “wi-fi,” and “cable TV” instead of “brains” if it wants to be taken seriously in 2019. Of course, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t totally serious, including scenes of deadpan humor and metanarrative awareness–Adam Driver, as a small-town police officer partnered with Bill Murray, makes numerous references to the script and even recognizes the Sturgill Simpson-penned theme song when it comes on the radio–but its relative plotlessness keeps it from ever quite adding up to anything. Ultimately I agree with Outlaw Vern‘s contention that it’s the movie that most felt like life in 2019, frustrations, fears, and all, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it any more than I liked the year. For better or worse, The Dead Don’t Die absolutely counts as a climate change movie like the ones I discussed above: the film’s most original conceit is that “polar fracking” has knocked the earth off of its axis, leading to the zombie epidemic and other ecological disasters, but nobody can do much about it and the powers that be are determined to ignore it. Cowardly it is not, carrying things to their bleakest, most logical conclusion.

On that note, may 2020 be happier and more prosperous for us all, and thanks as always for reading this. My resolution for the new year is to get more writing done, including (insert prayer hands emoji) posting more regularly on this blog. Here’s to better days!

My 2019 in Film: New Discoveries

For a few years now I’ve been keeping track of my film viewing, and as I do most years I have chosen to spotlight a few movies from previous years that I watched for the first time. This year I finally began a Letterboxd account, which I am using almost entirely as a diary of first-time watches; that makes it a little easier to review my list and decide what is worthy of comment, but it also means you can visit my diary and see the complete list of what I watched this year (more or less: there are a couple of movies I saw that weren’t listed on the service, including one I’ve written about below). Plus it’s fun to see all the posters as little tiles you can group and organize, but that’s neither here nor there. As always, not all of the films I discovered this year were masterpieces, but all of the ones I’ve chosen to highlight are at least interesting enough to spark a conversation.

The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)

In this silent film (based on a novel by Somerset Maugham), a deranged alchemist (Paul Wegener) uses hypnotism to steal a beautiful artist (Alice Terry) from her fiancée in order to sacrifice her in an experiment to create life. The simple premise goes to some strange places, and the end result is a kind of Ur-gothic romance complete with a big climactic fight in the “Sorceror’s Tower.” By coincidence, I had just read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, which uses the novel’s “Oliver Haddo” as a stand-in for Aleister Crowley.

Elstree Calling (Adrian Brunel et al, 1930)

This is a series of sketches and musical performances similar to Paul Whiteman’s movie King of Jazz (which I also watched this year) or any number of Hollywood revues. Since it was made in England (at Elstree Studios), however, the cast and crew are predominately British and many of the numbers are influenced by the English music hall tradition. (An exception is a performance by the Three Eddies, a rambunctious black American song-and-dance act, part of a successful revue touring England at the time.) I sought this out for footage of the English xylophone virtuoso Teddy Brown, one of the featured performers, but it is interesting in other ways: some of the sketches were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and a running gag has it that the whole thing is being broadcast on that futuristic device, television. It’s very much of its time, but of great interest to my corny, Vaudeville-loving soul.

The Penguin Pool Murder (George Archainbaud, 1932)

Hildegarde Withers is a character who was played by both Edna May Oliver and Zasu Pitts (among others); in this first outing, the schoolteacher-turned-detective is played by Oliver as a stern busybody who won’t take no for an answer, inserting herself into a murder case (first as a witness, then defending herself as a suspect) alongside exasperated police inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason). Still, more is made of Withers’ soft side than in later installments, and to my surprise it ends with Withers and Piper impulsively getting married! (Later installments walked that development back.) There’s not much to these comic mysteries: they’re more about the characters than the puzzles, but it’s always fun to see character actors getting to play the lead.

Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958)

Has the “space Amazon” subgenre, with its alien planets stocked with beauty pageant winners and brainy women scientists who need to be taught how to love by red-blooded American astronauts, ever been completely serious? If there ever was a version of this premise that played it completely straight, it was long before the thoroughly ironic Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor as the rightful ruler of her interplanetary sorority. I fell in love with this movie when, in the first five minutes, the scientist who developed a space station has to be reminded not to light up a cigarette onboard a spaceship while they’re refueling. That sets the tone, which is far more “Zapp Brannigan” than Star Trek ever was. There’s a bunch of ’50s gender conformity as our rugged heroes wind up on a planet of beautiful women, but at least 50% is tongue-in-cheek. It’s a movie that knows how silly it is.

In the same vein, Invasion of the Star Creatures (Bruno VeSota, 1962) spoofs the spoof, reviving the two-man comedy of Abbott and Costello (in the form of Robert Ball and Frank Ray Perilli as a pair of bumbling privates) and sending up Army life, beatniks, and fan clubs in addition to showcasing its statuesque female invaders.

Two on a Guillotine (William Conrad, 1965)

Cesar Romero plays a famous stage magician who promised to come back from the dead; when his estranged daughter (Connie Stevens) inherits his mansion and fortune, unscrupulous reporter Dean Jones insinuates himself into her life to get the story. Then strange things begin happening: is the house really haunted, or is someone trying to get rid of the young heiress? This is a tight little jewel box of a thriller, and one that deserves to be more widely seen.

Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974)

There have been many cautionary films about animals or other forces of nature turning against humanity, including many made in the ecologically-conscious 1970s, but few are as chilly as this tale of a pair of researchers matching wits with an unusually intelligent ant colony. It’s implied that the ants have been touched by an alien intelligence, but it’s just as likely that they’ve made a spontaneous leap in evolution. The shadow of 2001 looms over Phase IV, especially in the Kubrickian sterility of the researchers’ self-contained base and the eerie monoliths that the ants have started building. The close-up footage of ants for which the film is famous might as well take place on a distant planet, and the effect of alienation is complete in a stunning finale (trimmed down in the film’s theatrical cut, but the full sequence can be seen online) that suggests the ants are no longer part of our ecosystem: we’re part of theirs.

Habfürdő (Kovásznai György, 1979)

In this Hungarian animated film, a man gets cold feet on his wedding day and confides in a nurse who happens to be friends with the bride. The farce elements suggested by the frothy title (which translates to “Bubble Bath”) are at odds with a realistic investigation of marriage and childbearing, and the whole thing seems rather ambivalent about marriage. The mixture of tones suggests a state directive at odds with the filmmakers’ inclinations, or at least people with different perspectives working on it. But the style is the real draw, and still pictures don’t do justice to the constantly fluid, expressionistic animation, in which classic squash-and-stretch is taken to cubist extremes and no technique is off the table. On top of that, it’s also a musical with a groovy soundtrack.

Death Nurse and Death Nurse 2 (Nick Millard, 1987 and 1988)

Nurse Edith Mortley runs a clinic with her brother, the doctor, but patients keep dying. It seems like the doctor has lost his mind (the sequel reveals that he’s actually a veterinarian), but Edith just likes killing, and a flashback (which looks like it was edited in from a different project) reveals that she has a history of murder. Both films were shot-on-video cheapies meant to satisfy video stores’ voracious appetite for genre content, but “cheap” doesn’t even begin to state how bare-bones these films are. They’re also only 60 minutes long each and the first one has a hilariously abrupt ending, so it just seems greedy that Slasher//Video packaged Death Nurse 2 separately instead of issuing them together. Call it “so bad it’s good” if you must, but there’s something captivating about how dopey these movies are: Priscilla Alden, who plays the title character, would have fit perfectly in a John Waters film.

Brainscan (John Flynn, 1994)

A horror-obsessed teenager gets his hands on a new video game that promises to be the most immersive experience yet; but when the murders he commits in the game turn out to be real, is there any way out but to eliminate the witnesses? I loved everything about this: the WarGames-style paranoia about hackers and home computers updated for the CD-ROM era; Edward Furlong as the creepy-yet-sympathetic Michael (although considering that he is supposed to be burdened by a dead mother and absent father, he makes being a latchkey kid look pretty sweet); Frank Langella as one of his patented enigmatic, slightly sinister authority figures; even Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), a transparent Freddy Krueger knock-off who dresses like Adam Ant, worked for me in this because everything is just so, so ’90s. It winks just enough, and there is humor, but I loved how it leans into its dreamy, slo-mo screensaver aesthetic, the opposite of what we usually think of as ’90s filmmaking, aided by George S. Clinton’s moody score: Wes Craven by way of Twin Peaks.

Remote Control Grandpa (Matt St. Charles, 2006)

I thought my days of “this is so ridiculous I have to buy it” were behind me*, but when I found a DVD called Remote Control Grandpa for 99 cents, I couldn’t resist. And it was actually pretty good! A video game wiz and his stoner buddy discover that the kid’s overbearing drill-sergeant grandfather has a chip implanted in his brain that makes him follow orders. At the same time, the kid is trying to win a video game competition sponsored by the U.S. Army. In addition to having some amusing gags, this has a very pointed view of the military and government (its comparison of the then-current Iraq War to Vietnam is not exactly subtle), and it’s got a few things to say about those violent video games, too.

* my ownership of two Death Nurse films notwithstanding

Thanks for reading! My best of 2019 post will appear closer to the end of the year.

In Praise of Maximum Overdrive (and 34½ other films): Spooktober 2019

Happy day after Halloween! October this year was another busy month, but between work, church, and family activities I explored a variety of Halloween-themed media. For the first time I experimented with a daily Twitter update, sharing “31 Days of #SpookyMusic” (see my Twitter feed for links). I’ve created Halloween playlists and mix CDs in the past, but this selection was more of a sampler from a variety of genres than a single playlist, as I didn’t choose songs based on their flow or stylistic affinity. The weather here in Kansas was variable enough this month that I could veer from the warm-weather spookiness of Lee Morse singing “‘Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones)” to Yoko Ono’s eerie “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow)”; other songs and pieces of music were drawn from a variety of pop music, film and television, video game, and classical music sources.

And of course I watched as many movies as I could fit in. Once again the only unifying theme was “this pile of unwatched movies on my shelf.” In addition to going through the DVDs and Blu-rays I’d accumulated during the year, I streamed a few on Netflix, Prime, and Night Flight. I also saw several movies on the big screen, including several as part of the annual October at the Oldtown retro horror series, and a couple of new releases; In Fabric was shown as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

October has become the month in which I watch the most movies by far: it’s partly because the post-October wrap-up has become a reliable blog entry, something for me to post. It’s also fun being part of several horror-themed discussion groups on Facebook, seeing what everyone else is watching and being part of that conversation. I don’t approach the numbers of films that some fans watch, but it is satisfying to take some discs out of the “unwatched” pile and check off some previously unseen classics from my list. More than that, it’s the media equivalent of gorging on candy; the excess is part of the point of the season. So, without further preamble, here are the films I took in during the month of October, the sweet and the sour:

1. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) *

2. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007)

3. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009)

4. Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

5. The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959)

6. The Power (Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, 1984)

7. Blood Mania (Robert Vincent O’Neill, 1970)

8. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)*

9. Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986)*, **

10. Point of Terror (Alex Nicol, 1971)

11. The God Inside My Ear (Joe Badon, 2019)

12. The Vampire Doll (Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

13. Lake of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

14. Evil of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

15. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

16. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

17. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)*

18. Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)*

19. The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

20. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)*

21. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

22. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), **

23. Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019)*

24. Saint Bernard (Gabe Bartalos, 2013)

25. I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. (Marius Penczner, 1982)

26. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)*

27. Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman, 1980)

28. Mayhem (Joe Lynch, 2017)

29. The War of the Gargantuas (Ishiro Honda, 1966)

30. Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

31. Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)

32. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)*

33. A Cure For Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

34. Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

35. The Pit (Lew Lehman, 1981)

35½. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (David L. Hewitt, 1965)

(This one was only 30 minutes long, originally a “spook show” in which costumed actors would invade the theater and interact with the audience during the film, a William Castle-like gimmick that would have played alongside other features at the time; it made a fitting cap to the month’s viewing.)

* theatrical screening

** rewatch

Best Movie: There were several very good films I watched this year, including the original Poltergeist (a film I’d been too scared to finish as a kid, although now much of it seems downright playful). The most impressive overall was The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers trapped together on a remote island. Like writer-director Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, this is historically-informed, atmospheric horror, drawing on documents from the past to build up the dialogue. I enjoyed The Witch, but The Lighthouse is more assured in every way, and the creepiness of the premise (involving mermaids, bad omens, and the secret of the lighthouse’s lamp) is the stuff of classic weird tales.

Worst Movie: It’s often interesting when special effects artists make their own movies, because plot and logic can take a back seat to whatever crazy visuals the filmmakers feel like cooking up. Saint Bernard (by Gabe Bartalos, FX man for Frank Henenlotter and Matthew Barney, among others) shows the downside of that, however: in the film, an orchestra conductor (Jason Dugre) experiences an existential crisis and carries a severed dog’s head as he wanders from one elaborate set to another, mostly as an excuse for trite symbolism. (In an early scene, the protagonist raises his arm to conduct a piece and a bunch of drugs fall out of his jacket; later, a greedy preacher sees the hero as wearing a suit made of dollar bills and chases him from the church trying to grab them; the hero ends up on Wall Street where passersby strip him of his money suit.) Despite some interesting scenes and images, there is very little forward momentum, and it feels much longer than its 97 minutes. The inadvertent message of all this is that film, like music, is an art that unfolds in time: if you want to make installation art, you should really just do that.

Weirdest Movie: Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway. As Berberian Sound Studio (also watched this month) channels Italian giallo and The Duke of Burgundy borrows from European softcore of the late ’60s and ’70s, so In Fabric, about a cursed “arterial red” dress, suggests the horror anthologies of the early ’70s such as From Beyond the Grave, with their interlocking stories of terrors lurking beneath the mundane surfaces of modern Britain. The main part of the plot follows one of the dress’s unfortunate buyers, divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who finds the price tag (and the incomprehensible jargon of the saleswoman, Fatma Mohamed) impossible to resist during a large department store’s seasonal sale. There is quite a bit of dry and absurd humor, much of it local in nature but still apparent. Large swathes of the film are deliberately abstract or cryptic and don’t make things easy for the audience, but there is no attempt to elide the B-movie premise. Strickland seems to understand how goofy scenes of the dress wriggling off of its hanger, crawling across the floor on its own, and floating in mid-air while its owner sleeps are, but having had nightmares of similar scenarios as a young child during the time period in which he has set his film, I think he’s on to something. A throwaway scene, late in the movie, proposes a childhood origin for one character’s erotic interest in tights; like much of the rest of In Fabric, it suggests that Strickland is either an unreconstructed Freudian, or at least he has found Freudianism a useful language for his art.

Scariest Movie: On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC broadcast a supposed live investigation of a poltergeist haunting in suburban London, casting real-life children’s presenter Sarah Greene as the on-site host while genial Michael Parkinson held down the studio, interviewing experts on the paranormal and fielding calls from the audience. As with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, the attempts at verisimilitude worked all too well, and many viewers took the proto-reality TV special for an actual report. Even at this distance and knowing that it’s fiction, Ghostwatch pulls its tricks incredibly smoothly, building from odd but explicable anomalies to all-out terror in the haunted house–and in the studio. I can only imagine what this must have been like when it was shown.

Least Scary Movie: Actually, only a few of the movies I watched this October were capital-S Scary. One might expect this year’s genre outlier, Ad Astra, a relatively hard science fiction movie, to be the least scary, but what could be scarier than the prospect of growing old and being alone in the universe (not to mention the risk of a crazed research primate chewing your face off)? Leaving aside kids’ movies like Beetlejuice and The War of the Gargantuas, I’d like to focus on a pair of movies starring Peter Carpenter, Blood Mania and Point of Terror. In both films, Carpenter (apparently the driver behind both projects) plays a charismatic, irresistible lover of women who gets in over his head, and like all film noir patsies, he pays for his previous transgressions; there’s a Joe Sarno-like disgust at the hedonism depicted, even as the film keeps it coming. Given their titles and posters, I fully expected these films to fit into the Spooktober spirit, but it would be more accurate to describe them as erotic thrillers. Blood Mania at least builds up to a climax that justifies its title, but Point of Terror just isn’t that kind of movie. A flashback to a giallo-style murder couldn’t be more than a minute or two, and the rest of the violence in the movie is purely emotional. Blood Mania and Point of Terror aren’t bad movies at all, but based on their misleading marketing I’m calling Point of Terror the Least Scary. If Point of Terror is a horror movie, Basic Instinct is a horror movie.

Goriest Movie(s): Late in his life, George Romero expressed frustration that he couldn’t get projects financed unless they involved zombies, and some of that boredom comes through in the last two entriees in his “living dead” series, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. In the first, a group of student filmmakers are making a monster movie that turns into a documentary as a mysterious zombie epidemic emerges (that distinguishes Diary from the first four Dead movies, which roughly trace the collapse of civilization). Romero was clearly interested in commenting on the new media landscape and “citizen journalism,” and he has a few things to say about filmmaking and the state of contemporary horror (“dead things move slowly”), but the zombie stuff revisits all the greatest hits: loved ones turning, good old boys and rogue authority figures who are the real monsters, disenfranchised minorities given a chance to be in a charge, and even a clown zombie. It’s uninspired, but serviceable.

By contrast, Survival seems like it would be better without any zombie business in it at all, giving Romero free reign to make the magic-realist Western he appears to have had in mind (but then of course it wouldn’t have been made at all). The film centers on two families feuding on an isolated island. One side sees the cold logic in putting down the zombies, even if they were once loved ones; the other holds on to them, corralling them into stables in the hopes of curing them one day, or at least training them to eat something other than human flesh. In the previous Dead films, a dividing line between the living heroes and villains is how they treat the dead, with the bad guys using them as sport or slave labor or scientific experiments, revealing their own inhumanity. Survival touches on that theme, and in fact makes it the central point of the conflict, but that thoughtfulness is at odds with with the inventive ways the protagonists dispatch the zombies, like in a slasher sequel trying to up the ante with more and more outlandish kills.

Funniest Movie: Speaking of sequels upping the ante and dispatching zombies in creative ways . . . well, I laughed a lot at Zombieland: Double Tap.

Most Fun at the Movies: I also laughed a lot at Maximum Overdrive, a rewatch that was part of a “Stephen King killer car double feature” with Christine. Readers of this blog have seen me gradually turn from a Stephen King skeptic to a fan over the years, and stuff like Maximum Overdrive is part of the reason why. King’s only directorial effort, the film is based on his short story “Trucks,” about a mysterious revolt by the machines of Earth against their human masters. King made a trailer in which he directly addresses the audience, infamously declaring “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”; Maximum Overdrive doesn’t live up to that threat, at all: how could it? But it’s a hoot nonetheless. Sometimes when reading King’s books, you recall that he was an English teacher, that he has written intelligently about literature and the writing process, that he knows what he is talking about. Maximum Overdrive isn’t the work of Mr. King, man of letters. It’s the work of Uncle Steve the trash-hound, enthusiastic reader of EC horror comics and watcher of B-movies, the slightly disreputable older relative who shows you his scars and tattoos and has a story behind each of them, who will happily loan you the movies they won’t rent to you at the mom-and-pop video store, or failing that will lovingly describe the best parts to you. From the moment King appears in a cameo as a bank customer being called an asshole by the ATM (in the trademark “loudmouthed townie” persona he used whenever he showed up in his buddy Romero’s movies), to the shots of stuntmen ecstatically flying through windshields, to the generous use of blood squibs as people are riddled with bullets, it is clear: this is the work of a fan who is thrilled to finally have his hands on the controls. Looking back at his small role in the film, Giancarlo Esposito complimented King’s direction, saying, “He certainly directed me beautifully. I’ll never forget when I was shaken to death at the game machine, and he wanted me to shake harder and shake more.”

Shake harder. Shake more. I can’t think of any wiser words to leave you with as we say farewell to Halloween 2019.

Disenchantment, Season Two

“Everybody talks about ‘happily ever after.’ Y’ever try to read about the after? Ya can’t! The book just stops!”

So says King Zøg in the fourth episode of the newest season of Disenchantment, the animated series co-created by Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein, and which premiered Friday on Netflix. It’s a sentiment that many fantasy spoofs and “fractured fairy tales” have expressed in one way or the other, and it’s at the heart of the series’ interrogation and deconstruction of fantasy tropes. The context of Zøg’s lament is the fallout of the events that ended the first season: with Zøg’s first wife, Queen Dagmar, revealed to be a conniving sorceress who turned most of the population of Zøg’s kingdom to stone (they got better), and his second wife, the amphibious Oona, divorcing him and taking up a new career as a pirate, Zøg is disillusioned, depressed, and alone. Alone, that is, until an encounter with the mysterious, forest-dwelling Ursula, a forest selkie who can alternate between human and bear forms with the aid of her magical pelt. Zøg is smitten, and invites Ursula to live with him in the castle, where she struggles with the human business of wearing clothes and eating with knife and fork. Zøg knows her secret, and he senses that she wants to return to the forest: he knows that without her bearskin she will be a human, and belong to him, forever.

Zøg’s brush with temptation is, of course, the setup to a classic fairy tale, and probably the most direct borrowing in this second series of ten chapters. It’s also one of several episodes that focus on side characters, instead of the lead character, Zøg’s daughter Tiabeanie (nicknamed “Bean”). Like previous Groening-created series The Simpsons and Futurama, Disenchantment builds out a troupe of colorful supporting players, and one could even say (cliché alert!) that the series’ setting, Dreamland, is nearly a character itself. New developments in the second season include the continuing aftermath of Dagmar’s betrayal (Zøg spends the first couple of episodes alone, surrounded by the petrified remains of his subjects, and the desolate kingdom is looted by barbarians) and the influx of a population of elves, whose slumlike living conditions are a fertile source for new plots.

Still, Tiabeanie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) remains the show’s heart, and it is her trials that are the show’s main focus. At the end of the first season, Tiabeanie had been spirited away by her mother, Dagmar, on a ship after Dagmar’s magical attack. Taken to the desert kingdom of Maru, she is introduced to the two mysterious strangers who sent the demon Luci to corrupt Bean, and who were occasionally seen watching her through a magical fire, in the first season: they turn out to be Dagmar’s brother and sister, Croyd and Becky (err, Rebecca). In the first episode, we learn of a prophecy that Bean would be the greatest woman of her age, as well as a family curse: madness, striking members of every other generation. Bean distrusts the obviously unstable Croyd and Becky immediately, only gradually realizing that her own mother is the real threat. Dagmar intends for Bean to fulfill the prophecy, even if it means screwing a painful-looking crown directly onto her head. Even after escaping Maru and seemingly ridding herself of Dagmar and her schemes, Bean continues to dream of her mother and find signs of her lingering influence, including a very creepy music box. Bean’s gradual discovery and processing of the truth about her lineage is the main long-term arc in the second season, and like the first it ends on a cliffhanger. The pleasure is in the many digressions and side quests along the way.

Perhaps it is simply the difficulty of maintaining an air of mystery as characters and settings become familiar, but even as Disenchantment‘s second season shifts between settings as diverse as Maru, the afterlife, and a retro-futuristic city-state, there is less of the awe of visiting new and strange vistas than the later episodes of the first season evoked. In my review of that season, I compared those scenes to early episodes of Adventure Time, in which one of the primary appeals lay in the vast emptiness of the landscape, full of atmosphere and potential. As Adventure Time continued, it became more crowded with recurring characters and settings, and even its weirdest features became downright cozy with familiarity. That feeling of being alone at the edge of the world (or at the edge of a Legend of Zelda world map, which amounts to the same thing) became rarer. A similar process is at work in Disenchantment: even new, strange settings feel like home as long as the characters we’ve come to know are centered in them.

It is the nature of spoofs to puncture, to deflate: it’s probably a mistake for me to expect Disenchantment to maintain a sense of awe in a consistent way when its mode of comedy is snarky, down-to-earth–in short, Gen X. It’s right there in the title! That’s not to say that it doesn’t frequently dazzle, however. The blend of hand-drawn designs over computer-assisted 3-D models is much more seamless and less distracting in this season, for one thing, even as it becomes more ambitious: Hell, to which Bean and Luci travel in the second episode to reunite with their friend Elfo (who died at the end of the first season, and whom they must convince to leave Heaven in order to bring him back to life), is rendered as a cavernous space full of floating stone platforms, constantly in motion; the ninth episode’s Steamland scratches the itch for intricate mechanical and architectural complexities that Futurama regularly satisfied, but with a handsome nineteenth-century overlay, a city of the future as envisioned circa 1885.

Some of the more distracting story elements are also streamlined or absent. Elfo’s unrequited love for Bean, a plotline that never seemed likely to go anywhere interesting in the first season, is tempered in this one by Elfo learning the truth: that Bean chose her mother over him when using the single dose of elixir of life to revive her. Elfo (Nat Faxon) is far too good-natured to hold a grudge for long, of course, but jettisoning this particular subplot makes room for better gags and more compelling stories (including an unresolved tease about Elfo’s own parentage). As Elfo has become a little more world-weary, Bean’s other companion, the demon Luci (Eric André), has settled into his worldly existence, free of the mandate placed on him by Croyd and Becky and apparently abandoning his ambition to earn his wings (give or take a few twists in the “Stairway to Hell” episode). After winning the local pub in a bet (“and you barely cheated!”), Luci finds that slowly poisoning people is rewarding, too.

Ultimately, the theme that has remained constant throughout the series is the difficulty of being a woman in a quasi-medieval society (the “quasi” part allows for direct comparisons to the modern world, of course, and the ways in which things have or haven’t improved). At the beginning of the first season, Tiabeanie found herself unwillingly betrothed to a man she didn’t love (or even know) in order to serve her father’s political ambitions, and there are frequent reminders in the second season of her second-class status: unable to speak at court, left out of battles she is capable of fighting for herself, and even excluded from staging her own play in the theater.

Yet, the show is hardly about victimhood, as the resourceful Bean constantly finds ways to exert her will and insert herself into situations, and the male characters and their issues are frequently B-plots. Moreover, Disenchantment is full of powerful women: Dagmar and Oona, of course, but also the savage Ursula and a number of walk-ons. Bean’s trip to Steamland is illuminating not because of the city’s technological wonders but because women are free there to pursue careers closed to them in the relatively backward Dreamland. Disenchantment pokes fun at the tropes of “strong female characters” (Shelly, a circus performer, is physically strong but her real strength is in being the single mother of two kids) while centering a female perspective. On paper, Bean could easily be taken for a cliché–a hard-drinking tomboy princess–but the tight serialization of Disenchantment allows her something not all animated characters get: a sense of depth and growth over time.

Medleyana, Year Six: The Future of Fates Worse Than Death

I made a key decision when I began Medleyana (six years ago this week!): I gave myself permission to write about whatever I felt like rather than covering a single narrow topic (the blog’s motto, “In praise of the eclectic,” was thus aptly chosen). I could not have predicted, for example, that a good chunk of my time would be spent covering old movie serials. Related to that freedom, and as an antidote to a phobia of leaving any angle uncovered I had developed in grad school, I accepted, even embraced, that I would not always be comprehensive in my discussion of every topic. Building up over time, each article adding to the big picture, the writer I have become has been revealed (to myself, not just to readers) over the past six years. This is, of course, normal for reviewers, who write about one thing at a time, but it was a new way of thinking for me. In retrospect, it was silly of me to think that I could do it any other way.

This is also the sixth year of writing Fates Worse Than Death, mostly during the summers. I originally started the series as a way of motivating myself to watch a few serials I had on DVD (while, at the same time, providing fodder for my blog). I have since bought many more serials for the specific purpose of writing about them, as well as hunting them down online (not to mention the books I’ve bought and checked out of the library to bolster my writing). I feel that I’ve graduated to “aficionado” status, but I wouldn’t say I’ve yet earned the right to call myself an expert. More than 250 serials were produced during the sound era, and I’ve watched and reviewed about 20% of them at this point.

However, I have watched enough that many patterns and similarities have emerged. Originality (as opposed to novelty) was not the primary aesthetic goal of the serials, so evaluating them individually is often a matter of judging the skill and artistry of filmmakers who were ringing changes on familiar formulas rather than breaking new ground. The question I face is this: should I continue writing about the serials in individual summaries, as most of the articles in Fates Worse Than Death have been, or should I condense and consolidate my coverage, while continuing to watch and research the serials? As I have frequently pointed out, I wouldn’t continue to do this if I didn’t enjoy it, and while I sometimes have criticism to level at the serials, I hope that my affection and interest in the genre and the era comes through in equal measure. If I am critical, it is because I am a fan who was been moved to think about what I am watching.

I also feel that I have written enough installments of this series to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my approach. There is a great deal of material already available on the production of the serials: the careers of the actors, directors, and crew members; the box office results and later television revival of the serials; and the places and people that often go nameless in the original films but have been identified over the years by eagle-eyed fans. I do not feel that Fates Worse Than Death is primarily about those things, although I touch on them occasionally. Nor does my work quite fit the nostalgic approach taken by many of the first-generation fans who grew up attending Saturday matinee showings of these films; as I have written previously, my own nostalgia is for the films and TV shows made in reaction to this material such as the Indiana Jones movies and The Rocketeer (I couldn’t really see the serials uncut until I was an adult anyway). Researching the serials (as well as the comics, pulps, and radio shows of the Golden Age) helps me to understand the influences that went into those works, but the serials are ultimately part of someone else’s childhood. On the other hand, I hope that I have more to offer than just snark.

No, I have come to find that my primary interest is in the form itself, in the way the demands of the cliffhanger and the weekly episode shape the story, as well as the way low budgets encouraged economy, from the use of recycled props and sets to the use of in-story flashbacks and that reliable staple, stock footage. One strength of this approach is that I have tried to watch as broad and representative a sample of serials as I could, taking on the serial as its own genre, not just as early film vehicles for my favorite comic-book superheroes or as an embarrassing cousin of the Western, gangster, or science fiction genres.

I also believe that there is room to explore the influences that flowed into and from the serials: the popular crime novels of Edgar Wallace, the fantasies of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the comic strips of Alex Raymond, for example. I’ve mentioned those names many times, and they keep coming up because of the repetitions of formula I’ve mentioned; again, I’m not the world’s foremost expert on popular culture, but I’ve learned a great deal from writing this series, and I hope to continue exploring those elements. (Because of the way I write installments of this series, I generally like to go into each serial as a blank slate, only afterward discovering what other materials I need to fill out my review; a more comprehensive approach would necessarily make research a greater priority.)

Similarly, as the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past every year, details from the serials that contemporary audiences took for granted become more obscure. A work that delves into those details, that separates fact from fiction and provides a clearer picture of everyday life in that era, the better to appreciate the flights of fancy, strikes me as overdue (Christopher Miller’s book American Cornball, which explains to modern audiences what used to be so funny about castor oil and other jokes that turn up in old cartoons and movies, is a model I have in mind here).

In short, I put it to you, dear reader, especially those of you who have stuck with Fates Worse Than Death this far: what would you like to see going forward? Would you read a longer work, partly an explainer about the serials and the world that produced them, partly a guidebook with selected reviews of individual serials? Or are the reviews themselves compelling enough that you would prefer to keep reading them? Are there specific serials or related subjects you’d like me to write about? I intend to keep watching them, but I don’t want the article format to become stale, for myself or for readers. If you’ve followed this blog or read Fates Worse Than Death (all available here), let me know what you think: comment here, or drop me a line through the Contact page or on Twitter. As always, thanks for reading!

Fates Worse Than Death: Secret Service in Darkest Africa

Casablanca, 1943: North Africa is in turmoil! Nazi Germany, through its spies and undercover operatives, hopes to solidify its hold on the region and undo Allied gains. At the center of the plot is Sultan Abou ben Ali, whose leadership of the regional Sheiks makes him an important player, and who is staying at a hotel in the city while conferring with his council. After learning that the Germans plan to assassinate the Sultan, journalist Janet Blake goes to warn him, but unbeknownst to her the real Sultan is abducted and replaced by an imposter, German Baron von Rommler. From the first chapter, the “Sultan” is actually von Rommler, with the real Sultan held prisoner in a basement lair accessible by a hidden staircase. Once secret agent Rex Bennett, who had been in Germany posing as an officer, arrives, he, Janet, and the French police captain Pierre LaSalle meet with the “Sultan” and reveal their plans to him, never suspecting that he himself is the German agent they are searching for!

The German plan involves the Dagger of Solomon, a genuine artifact venerated by the Arab population, and the key to an ancient tomb; the Germans have forged a scroll commanding the Arabs to give their loyalty to the “people of the Swastika,” to be planted in the tomb when it is opened. Rex knows this and even has the dagger and scroll in his possession for a time, but can he convince the Sheiks that they are being misled when their own Sultan cannot be trusted? It’s all in a day’s work for the Secret Service in Darkest Africa!

The “venerated artifact” plot device has seen use in some other serials: recall the scepter of Genghis Khan in Drums of Fu Manchu and the Sword of Tongu in Jungle Queen. The idea that colonized populations would be swayed to rebellion by a mystical or nationalistic totem was clearly one that exercised the imaginations of pulp writers in the early 20th century, or at least promised a useful hook for adventures. Combined with its Nazi villains, it’s not surprising that Secret Service in Darkest Africa would be promoted in the 1980s as an obvious inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Nazi raiders steal a lost Arab treasure!” proclaims the cover of the VHS copy I watched). In this case, however, the plot to fool the Arabs fizzles out quickly–by the second chapter the Sheiks recognize the scroll as a forgery, having never made it to the sacred tomb where it was to be “discovered”–and there’s very little archaeology or mysticism in this serial. The North African setting is full of colorful locations–a grotto, an old castle, as well as the more modern city of Casablanca with its diverse inhabitants–but it’s neither a treasure hunt nor a ghost story.

But that’s okay. What we get instead is a series of von Rommler’s (Lionel Royce) attempts to steal or sabotage Allied supplies, troop carriers, and humanitarian aid, leading to his biggest score, a diplomatic pouch containing all the details of the Allies’ military plans in North Africa. Von Rommler maintains his cover as the Sultan, aided by his secretary Muller (Kurt Kreuger–it’s surprising how long it takes Rex and Janet to become suspicious of the Sultan’s obviously German aide) and right-hand man Wolfe (Frederic Brunn), who does most of the dirty work. Meanwhile, the real Sultan (also played by Royce) is held in chains in the secret basement headquarters, offering withering commentary as von Rommler’s schemes are repeatedly thwarted by Rex Bennett and his allies: “You are reckoning without Rex Bennett,” he says in a typical exchange. “Death is the only real escape for his enemies.”

The Sultan is right: Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron) is the kind of square-jawed one-man army who can foil saboteurs and spies (almost) single-handedly. (Cameron had already played Bennett once in another serial, G-Men vs. The Black Dragon, the same year.) Bennett is first seen in Berlin, undercover as a Nazi officer (in fact the officer credited for killing Rex Bennett!); just before taking off for Casablanca, he gives the airfield attendant a tip “as a reward for your efficiency”–a badge that says “God Bless America”! Once in North Africa, Rex solves many problems with his fists or a gun; there is a lot of Republic-style fisticuffs action, as well as a number of stunts and explosions. Buildings have a tendency to blow up or collapse around Rex and his pals, and there are a few chases, but the fights are the real draw. Director Spencer (Gordon) Bennet has shown in some of his other serials a fondness for close-up shots of approaching fists or thrown objects during fight scenes, but he really goes crazy here: there are enough of these proto-GoPro shots that one might think they were from a 3-D movie.

Rex Bennett is not only a man of action, however, as he also puts together clues to decide where to go next. My favorite involves LaSalle, captive, punching circular holes in a pair of playing cards, so that when Rex and Janet find them they recognize the holes as Os and correctly guess that LaSalle has been taken to the Oasis Café–“O aces,” get it?

Janet Blake is another of the era’s gutsy female reporters, stopping at nothing to get a story, and the role seems to have been a change of pace for Joan Marsh, who had spent the ’30s as a singing and dancing starlet (“In lighter fare her characters tended to have names like Beanie, Toots or Cuddles,” according to imdb.com). Like many of her breed, Janet is just as capable as the top-billed hero (she would have to be, just to keep up), flying a plane and picking up a gun when necessary.

Rounding out Rex Bennett’s allies, Captain LaSalle is played by Duncan Renaldo, best known for playing the Cisco Kid later in the ’40s and ’50s; even by 1943 he had a long list of credits, largely playing Latin roles in Westerns and adventure films, including a few other Republic serials (he played Zamorro in The Painted Stallion). LaSalle is a capable brother-in-arms, but he doesn’t have much personality beyond “French” (and in case we forget, the burst of “La Marseillaise” we get every time there is an exterior shot of the French Diplomatic Headquarters serves to remind us).

Secret Service in Darkest Africa doesn’t feature Nazi imagery quite as much as Jungle Queen, given the Nazis’ covert actions, but what is used is memorable. There is a fantastic transition in which the Swastika in von Rommler’s lair spins around like something from the Batman TV show, warping us to a similar office in Berlin, but nothing like that happens again. There are a couple of uniformed Nazis, especially Luger, the officer who mans von Rommler’s hidden basement hideout, but von Rommler spends most of his time disguised as the Sultan, and Wolfe likewise goes about in Arab burnous and keffiyeh, wrangling agents who are either genuine Arabs or Germans in disguise.  

What I Watched: Secret Service in Darkest Africa (Republic, 1943)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video (Both the packaging and the opening credits have it as Manhunt in the African Jungles, the title under which this serial was rereleased in 1954; neither title is quite accurate, as it doesn’t take place in the jungle and the North African setting isn’t really the sub-Saharan interior usually meant by the obsolete phrase “Darkest Africa.”)

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Funeral Arrangements Completed” (Chapter Eight) I’m usually critical of prosaic chapter titles, but the cut-and-dried character of this one makes it more ominous in my opinion, like a subtle threat. It reminds me of the grim but polite finality suggested by the title of the 1964 paranoid thriller No Survivors, Please. The “funeral arrangements” are actually for Wolfe, who has taken a Japanese neurotoxin to slow his heartbeat and thus feign death, but the implication is clear: for standing up to the Nazi war machine, Rex Bennett has signed his own death warrant.

Best Cliffhanger: Secret Service generally stays within the bounds of realism (up to a point), but what serial would be complete without a secret wonder-weapon? In Chapter Ten (“Racing Peril”), Wolfe and his cronies managed to steal an Allied “munitions disintegrator,” a ray-like device that detonates any explosive at which it is directed, from the cartridges in Rex Bennett’s rifle to the payload of a bomber in the air. The Allies plan to use this device to eliminate enemy ammunition caches, but von Rommler and Wolfe see the true potential of the disintegrator as a weapon, and in Chapter Eleven (“Lightning Terror”) they set it up in a fishing cabin to wipe out the fleet of planes scheduled to deliver Allied leaders for a conference.

While the disintegrator warms up and Wolfe waits for the planes to fly within range, Rex Bennett bursts into the cabin and the fight begins. During the melee, the disintegrator is knocked around and it swivels toward a stack of crated hand grenades, setting them on fire. As in many cliffhangers, the excitement is built up by cross-cutting between the fight inside the cabin, the burning grenades, the approaching planes, and the clock showing how little time is left before their destruction. At the very end of the chapter, Rex, having put Wolfe on the run, turns the disintegrator away from the planes, but the grenades blow up the house, seemingly before he can make his own escape.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Secret Service includes a couple of classic serial-style deathtraps, including a “Pit and the Pendulum”-inspired “execution wheel” to which Rex Bennett is bound, complete with drumroll, in Chapter Twelve (“Ceremonial Execution”). Bennett gets out of that one fairly, however, so the biggest cheat is found in Chapter Seven (“Torture Dungeon”): Janet Blake has been kidnapped by Wolfe and taken to a “Moorish castle,” the base of a Nazi intelligence officer (clearly the same set as the Berlin Gestapo office in Chapter One). Hitler is scheduled to give a speech proclaiming victory in North Africa, and Janet is to deliver a pre-written report confirming the Fuehrer’s words–compelled by force, if necessary.

The instrument of persuasion is a huge stone slab on a hinge, lowered to crush the noncompliant (a few splintered bones can be seen beneath it). Of course Janet refuses to be made party to propaganda, so she is knocked unconscious and thrown beneath the slab, just before Rex bursts in to rescue her (Rex does a lot of bursting in). During the fight, Wolfe accidentally hits the lever lowering the slab, and it closes on her still-prone body. Seems like the end for Janet, no? But wait! At the beginning of the next chapter, Janet wakes up and leaps out of the trap before the stone even begins moving. Cheat!

Sample Dialogue:

von Rommler: When you see Rex Bennett, tell him it was Baron von Rommler who finally defeated him.

Rex Bennett (entering): Your trip to Berlin is cancelled, von Rommler.

–Chapter Fifteen, “Nazi Treachery Unmasked”

What Others Have Said: “Not blending very well with these colorful, but still legitimate, chapter-play elements is an oversupply of hokum, commencing with one of several contrived sword fights. Discovered in Gestapo headquarters, the hero gives the full Errol Flynn treatment to a duel with a German instructed to take him prisoner. With time at a premium and a plane waiting for him nearby, Bennett disarms the Nazi and then flips his weapon back to his enemy so that the duel can continue. After finally disposing of his opponent, hero Rex takes some more time to pick up a sword and hurl it into a portrait of Adolf Hitler.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment (I don’t know what to say to this other than that you’re either on board for this kind of thing in the serials or you’re not; for his part, William C. Cline in Serials-ly Speaking names Secret Service in Darkest Africa “one of the most exciting chapterplays ever filmed.” Different strokes, etc.)

That concludes Fates Worse Than Death for this summer; thanks for reading, and stay tuned! You never know what and when I might decide to post again–I certainly don’t!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Creeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. of Chapters: 12

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

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

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

SCIENTIST AND WIFE MEET DEATH SAME DAY IN DIFFERENT ACCIDENTS!

MAD GENIUS RUNNING WILD!

ZORKA SHAKES CONTINENT AS HE PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH

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

Sample Dialogue:

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

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

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

–Chapter Seven, “The Menacing Mist”

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: The Vigilantes Are Coming

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

Raspinoff (Robert Warwick) and Burr (Fred Kohler)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief misunderstanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: The Masked Marvel

Worldwide Insurance has been writing a lot of checks for claims lately, big ones: a series of disasters has befallen Worldwide’s major clients, all of them related to the war effort. While Warren Hamilton, Worldwide’s president, gladly pays out, he hopes that the secretive agent known only as the Masked Marvel will be able to dig up some clues that explain this extraordinary run of bad luck. But perhaps it isn’t luck at all–the Masked Marvel has determined that Japanese spymaster Mura Sakima is hiding somewhere in the U.S., coordinating these attacks on shipping and production. When notorious gangster “Killer” Mace shoots and kills Hamilton in broad daylight, it’s only a matter of time before the murder is traced back to Sakima. In the mean time, Worldwide’s vice president, Martin Crane (secretly in league with Sakima), takes over, and Hamilton’s daughter Alice remains to coordinate the Masked Marvel’s investigation.

So, yes, The Masked Marvel is another wartime serial unafraid to name America’s enemies specifically. Hitler is mentioned, but the focus is on the menace of the Rising Sun, personified by Sakima, who appears in every episode, communicating with his underlings until the final confrontation at the end. Thankfully, the overt racism of the contemporaneous Batman serial isn’t present here: Sakima is played by Johnny Arthur as a haughty, effete stereotype, part Tojo and part Mr. Moto, and his lair is decorated with as much Oriental bric-a-brac as the set dressers could get their hands on so we know he’s foreign, but it could be worse. There are no other Japanese characters to paint with a broad brush, much less the explicit approval of interning Japanese civilians on display in Batman. Sakima prefers to work through American turncoats and mercenaries. All of Sakima’s schemes involve stealing a critical invention for Japan or destroying it so that the Allies can’t use it, or blowing up supply lines with time bombs or explosive fuel additives; the end result is a series of episodes similar to any number of crime or superhero serials, but with a unified (and explicit) political angle.

The Masked Marvel is also an almost-Platonic example of a certain kind of serial in which the hero’s identity is unknown until the end (see also: Flying G-Men). In the first chapter, four insurance investigators are introduced: Frank Jeffers (Richard Clarke), Terry Morton (Bill Healy), Robert Barton (David Bacon), and Jim Arnold (Rod Bacon–Harmon and Glut have him as David’s brother, but that doesn’t appear to be the case). All four will be working with Alice Hamilton to get the Sakima affair settled. What’s more, one of these four men is secretly the Masked Marvel! Presumably he is safer in his civilian identity if it’s not known which one he is (although he reveals his true face to Alice early on).

The four investigators do a lot of detective work, tracking down clues and getting in fights, but when it comes to the really dangerous stuff, the Masked Marvel shows up–in the spirit of similar pulp heroes, he wears the same suit and fedora as the investigators but covers most of his face with a rubber mask stuck on with spirit glue. It’s the Masked Marvel who faces death in most of the cliffhangers, although of course he also rescues Alice a couple of times. Sakima and his underlings attempt to solve the mystery by dividing up or delaying the investigators and seeing if the Marvel shows up, but the Marvel always comes through, even after two of the investigators die in the line of duty over the course of the serial.

I’ve mentioned before how often members of the cast in serials look alike, but in this case it’s an essential part of the mystery, since it would be too obvious if the investigators all had different body types. Unfortunately, the similarity of the investigators undercuts any suspense that might come from not knowing which one is the Marvel: they don’t have any individual personality for us to root for one or the other, nor do they have any differences in skills that might help us figure it out. And as in many serials featuring costumed heroes, the good guys are just as effective when out of costume, so why the secrecy?

As it happens, even eagle-eyed viewers wouldn’t have been able to identify the Marvel through his mask, because when in costume he’s played by an entirely different actor, stuntman Tom Steele, and his voice dubbed by radio actor Gayne Whitman. This is actually typical of the serials: not just the use of stunt doubles, which of course was and remains a common practice, but the use of a different actor to play characters when they are in disguise. The Masked Marvel is unusual in the degree to which it is built around this conceit, but the substitution of actors was common enough in the serials. Tom Steele wasn’t even listed in the credits of the original film (fellow stuntman and fight coordinator Dale Van Sickel was), but his name is on the cover of the videotape I watched, reflecting later fans’ awareness of and interest in the work of unheralded professionals like Steele. (Steele also appears, unmasked, as one of Sakima’s thugs; apparently the original plan was to give him top billing, but when producers changed their minds he received no credit at all.)

Tom Steele, behind the mask

The fact that The Masked Marvel is a showcase for Steele also means that fight scenes–many of them big, set-destroying brawls involving leaps or falls–are the main course, with the Marvel and the other investigators getting into dust-ups in every single chapter, in a variety of colorful settings. Location shooting was at a minimum due to wartime restrictions, so most of the serial was shot on the Republic backlot. A pottery warehouse full of extremely breakable crockery in the first chapter is an illustrative example, but other fights take place on rooftops and in underground tunnels, as well as the more typical houses and places of business. (Several impressive explosions are the work of the Lydecker brothers, as usual.) Regular fistfights are alternated with shoot-outs and car chases, as well as a couple of chases involving motorboats. To me, it gets a little repetitive, but if it’s action you love in the serials, The Masked Marvel has what you’re looking for.

Still, there are plenty of the gimmicks and gadgets the serials are known for: I love that Sakima’s lair is actually located directly under Crane’s house, and that Crane descends in his office chair on a platform when he wants to visit Sakima. (The first inkling the investigators get of this treachery is when one of them observes Mace entering through a secret entrance on Crane’s property.) I love how the Masked Marvel communicates through phonograph records with a custom label resembling his mask, anticipating the pop-art flourishes of the later Batman and Green Hornet television revivals. (In fact, the whole serial is more notable for its sense of visual flair than for its plot: check out the cool title cards!) There is also more than one case of our heroes hiding in trucks and crates, hoping to be taken directly to Sakima. Of course, nothing ever works out quite like we’d hope, but it makes for some exciting and surprising adventure.

The cast includes some familiar faces: Mace is played by Anthony Warde, Buck Rogers‘ Killer Kane, and Alice Hamilton is played by Louise Currie, Adventures of Captain Marvel‘s Betty. As in Captain Marvel, Currie displays a mixture of vulnerability and gutsiness; a chapter in which she goes undercover as a waitress at a spy-run café is a high point.

It is William Forrest, who plays the duplicitous Crane, rather than any of the four investigators, who is first billed; Forrest appeared in a few serials and had small, often uncredited roles in many films in the 1940s, and continued to act, especially on television, into the 1970s.

What I Watched: The Masked Marvel (Republic, 1943)

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

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Death Takes the Helm” (Chapter Two)

Best Cliffhanger: Interestingly, for a serial that places so much emphasis on action, The Masked Marvel includes one cliffhanger focused not on immediate mortal peril, but on the danger of being discovered: at the end of Chapter Four (“Suspense at Midnight”), Sakima orders Crane to summon the four investigators while he listens in, confident that the Masked Marvel won’t be able to respond in time. Whoever isn’t there must be the Marvel, and so it seems, as Alice asks “Where’s Jim?” “So,” Sakima concludes, “Jim Arnold is the Masked Marvel!” (Not so fast, Sakima!)

But that’s an exception, and the other cliffhangers threaten as much danger as you could wish. The conclusion of Chapter Three (“Dive to Doom”) is particularly good, as the chapter is centered around the freight elevator in a multi-story building. In the course of the chapter, Alice is threatened with being crushed beneath the platform (Mace uses the elevator to crush a barrel to demonstrate); when the Masked Marvel arrives to rescue her and the fight moves to an upper story, the open elevator shaft remains a danger. First, one of the henchmen falls to his death, answered by the terrified scream of Alice, still on the first floor; then the Masked Marvel falls–or at least appears to. (Several of the cliffhangers rely on mistaken identity for their resolution–i.e., it wasn’t really the Masked Marvel you saw getting shot, it was some other guy in a fedora–but I’m too old to get het up about such cheats anymore. Chapter Three’s cliffhanger at least has a more creative solution than that, as in the next chapter Alice is shown raising the elevator so the Marvel doesn’t have as far to fall, saving his life.)

Sample Dialogue: “You wanted to go for a ride in this truck, huh? Now you can go for a ride, by yourself!” –Mace, abandoning a speeding truck in which the Masked Marvel is trapped in the back, Chapter Nine (“Danger Express”)

What Others Have Said:The Masked Marvel‘s impressive action sequences have frequently caused it to be overrated by admirers of Republic’s stuntwork and effects (most notably the great serial buff Alan Barbour, who tended to treat it as one of the studio’s masterpieces); this overrating has in turn led other reviewers (particularly those of the Internet generation) to criticize Marvel far more harshly than it deserves, sometimes dismissing it as completely uninteresting. While it’s quite true that Masked Marvel could have been a much better serial had its plotting and casting been handled with the same care bestowed on its action scenes, it’s still far from a failure–and remains well worth the time of any serious chapterplay fan.” —The Files of Jerry Blake (Blake’s entry includes quite a bit more information on the stunts for those in search of such detail.)

What’s Next: Regular readers of this column know how much I enjoy the weird serials of the 1930s, and have I got a doozy lined up! “Swashbuckle your seatbelts! Cowboys and Cossacks collide in one of Republic’s most curious cliffhangers ever.” From 1936, join me as I review The Vigilantes Are Coming!

Fates Worse Than Death: Lost City of the Jungle

“The warmonger who steals peace is the worst of all thieves.” –United Peace Foundation member

Agent Rod Stanton of the United Peace Foundation should be basking in triumph: thanks to his efforts, the world is rid of Sir Eric Hazarias, one of the most pernicious warmongers ever, Hazarias’ car having driven off a bridge and burst into flame. The Foundation is one step closer to its goals of uniting the world and banishing war forever. However, Stanton cannot be satisfied until he has followed up on rumors that Sir Eric didn’t die at all, but rather one of his doubles, and the warmonger has resurfaced in the Himalayas under the name “Geoffrey London.” Stanton, with the support of the Foundation, flies to the remote nation of Pendrang, even though a consistent headwind makes it nearly impossible for even the best pilot to get into Pendrang with the approach of winter. Add to that the presence of a stowaway, Marjorie Elmore, daughter of the archaeologist whose expedition in Pendrang is being financed by “Geoffrey London.” When the weather brings their plane down in the inhospitable, icy Himalayan mountains, where the threat of deadly cold and avalanches is more immediate than the machinations of Sir Eric Hazarias, nothing could seem farther away than the warmth of the jungle, but that is their ultimate destination: the Lost City of the Jungle, in fact!

Ah, the jungle. Jungle adventures were so popular in the 1930s and ’40s that Africa and South America weren’t big enough to contain them, and new exotic locales had to be found for adventurers to explore. Pacific islands worked for a while, but even those no longer seemed so exotic or scary now that thousands of American G.I.s were returning to the mainland and setting up tiki bars and hosting luau-themed barbecues in the back yard. Particularly after World War II, when the wide-open frontiers of Africa and the Middle East were hardening into closed national borders, and there were fewer blank spots on the map for writers to speculate about, the settings for “lost world” stories and jungle treks moved to less likely but still mysterious places.

So it is that Lost City of the Jungle takes place in the fictional nation of Pendrang, in “an isolated jungle basin in the Himalayas,” making for an odd juxtaposition of ice-covered mountains and sari-wearing natives living among palm trees. Apparently there are some tropical rainforests in the eastern foothills of the Himalayans, but Pendrang, as described, is truly hidden in the center of the range, cut off from the rest of the world by heavy ice that blocks the passes in and out for five months of the year (conveniently trapping good and evil characters alike without escape or outside aid).

Plausibility aside (a disclaimer that should be assumed with most serials), Pendrang is an interesting place and a lively, varied setting for adventures. Although there is a whiff of Shangri-La about Pendrang, there are no lamas or immortals. The capital city of Zalabar is purely worldly, ruled by the casino operator Indra, whose wealth allows her to bend the laws to her liking, and the mystical beliefs of the tribesmen who live in the surrounding jungle turn out to have a surprisingly rational basis. Indeed, the “eternal sun” the natives venerate in the name of the “glowing goddess” is revealed to be a radioactive element, the MacGuffin for which the bad guys are searching. This is the age of science, baby!

Once Stanton (Russell Hayden) and Marjorie (Jane Adams) make it to Zalabar with the help of local agent Tal Shan (Keye Luke of the Green Hornet serials), they reunite with Dr. Elmore (John Eldredge). Elmore is a man of scholarship, completely unaware of the real goals of his patron, or that his assistant, Professor Grebb (John Gallaudet, whose voice sounds uncannily like Bob Newhart’s), is secretly in league with Hazarias. The main thread of the plot is a classic treasure hunt, with characters finding clues in the forms of tablets, tomb carvings, and plaques covered with hieroglyphics that must be translated to determine the next step. (Of course one or more of these artifacts get stolen and must be recovered, and there are still the natives, for whom these are sacred objects, to worry about.)

The land beneath Pendrang is full of caves and tunnels, and needless to say there are deathtraps to snare the unwary, such as tomb chambers that fill with gas and ledges that hang precariously over pools of bubbling lava, forming some of the serial’s cliffhangers. If those don’t bring our heroes’ adventures to an end, perhaps Hazarias’ henchmen Marlow (George Lynn) and Johnson (Dick Curtis) will. There are always henchmen.

Lost City of the Jungle followed Jungle Queen by a year, and shared the same directors, Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor. Like the earlier serial, in addition to the usual action there is an emphasis on spycraft and agents working for global forces, although the apolitical “United Peace Foundation” is a step back from the explicit references to the Allies and Axis in Jungle Queen (the United Nations resolution is mentioned, but the Foundation is a bit more hands-on). Sir Eric Hazarias, who is indeed going by “Geoffrey London” in Pendrang, is first and foremost a capitalist, a non-ideological promoter of war who hopes to profit from conflict around the world. In Pendrang he is looking for “meteorium,” the element critical to his scientist Gaffron’s design for neutralizing the atomic bomb (still a startlingly recent development). Once the element is isolated, this anti-nuke device will be sold to the highest bidder, and the nation who owns it will be free to use atom bombs without fear of reprisal.

Lost City of the Jungle is also similar to Jungle Queen in lacking title cards or narrator for recaps at the beginnings of chapters: instead, each chapter begins with a meeting of the United Peace Foundation back in San Francisco, going over Rod Stanton’s progress in the Pendrang matter. Reminders of important details are also included in dialogue, which makes things flow organically but results in “TV exposition” in which people repeat information they already know to each other. If the relationship between meteorium, the atomic bomb, and the glowing goddess is confusing at first, don’t worry: it gets explained multiple times.

Finally, another similarity to Jungle Queen is the shifting loyalties and hidden motives of many of the characters, making for an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. If anything, the depth of characterization is greater here than in Jungle Queen (while still relying on many stock character types). I particularly like the circle around Indra (Helen Bennett) at her Star of Asia Casino, a neutral territory at which the de facto ruler of Zalabar can interrogate strangers and make deals in safety, as long as she keeps the police and guards paid off. It reminds me a bit of Rick’s Café in Casablanca, and the most colorful side characters are found here: “Doc” Harris (Ted Hecht), the cool casino manager, and “System” Reeves (Arthur Space), a hapless gambler who’s convinced he’ll crack the roulette wheel any day, but who in the mean time is a useful extra pair of eyes for Harris.

On that note, at least one of those character twists was the result of offscreen events: Sir Eric is played by Lionel Atwill, who had been a major horror star in the 1930s; when not playing out-and-out mad scientists, he portrayed well-spoken, monocle-wearing villains (including Dr. Maldor in the Captain America serial). That Atwill, who had at one time been as big as Lugosi and Karloff, ended his career in “Poverty Row” serials and B movies was the result of an earlier scandal in which Atwill was found guilty of perjuring himself following a police raid on an orgy at his house in 1940. After that, the majors (with the exception of Universal, who continued to find parts for him in the Frankenstein series) effectively blacklisted him. Lost City of the Jungle was, in fact, Atwill’s final film; he died during its production, and in addition to such time-honored tricks as using a double to finish some of his scenes, the producers had the script rewritten, bumping up the importance of another character. Early on in the story, it is revealed that Sir Eric’s personal secretary, Malborn (John Mylong), is actually the power behind the throne, directing events from relative obscurity with Sir Eric as a mere figurehead. Of course, eventually Malborn goes too far and Sir Eric asserts himself. . . . The reconfiguration around Atwill’s death makes sense in retrospect, but not knowing it while I was watching the serial, I suspected nothing. It just felt like a particularly twisty plot.

What I Watched: Lost City of the Jungle (Universal, 1946)

Where I Watched It: TCM has been running this one on Saturday mornings this summer, but it’s also on YouTube, so I watched about half on my DVR and then went ahead and finished watching it online.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: It’s a toss-up between “Wave-Length for Doom” (Chapter Three) and “Death’s Shining Face” (Chapter Six).

Worst Chapter Title: Actually, most of the chapter titles in this are pretty blah, but the worst is the title of Chapter Seven, “Speedboat Missing.” The extreme passive voice, as if the title were a flyer announcing a search for lost property, goes against all the principles of dynamic phraseology I’ve been hammering on for the last six(!) years. Even adding the definite article to make it “The Missing Speedboat” would at least be neutral, but it’s not even about a missing speedboat: the chapter ends with a high-stakes chase on the water, with Marlow throwing grenades at Rod and Tal Shan.

Best Cliffhanger: As in Jungle Queen, the cliffhangers are not always the best parts of the chapters, with some of them seeming like afterthoughts. However, there are a few good deathtraps in the serial style, and the best is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Zalabar Death Watch.” After being lured to the schooner on which Dr. Elmore is being held (the presence of the schooner in landlocked Pendrang, justified as a folly built for river trade that never materialized, is typical of serials’ use of stock locations and situations without much concern for realism), Marjorie is tied to a chair and placed in front of a bookshelf. On the mantel are two bronze elephants, and with the flip of a switch they begin to move towards each other, triggering a gunshot from a mounted rifle when they make contact. The kidnappers’ hope is to make Dr. Elmore talk before that happens, but will Rod and Tal Shan decipher the secret message Marjorie left behind in time to rescue her?

Sample Dialogue:

Gaffron: Now our hands are tied, we can do nothing!

Sir Eric: Our hands are never tied, remember that!

–Chapter Ten, “Booby Trap Rendezvous”

What Others Have Said: “The stocky, suavely sinister [Lionel] Atwill was one of the most menacing character actors of the classic age of horror. The man behind that façade was equally fascinating . . . and some would say almost as sinister.” –“Dr. Abner Mality,” “The Rise and Fall of Lionel Atwill” at Ravenous Monster

What’s Next: It’s back to the big box of VHS tapes; join me next time as I review The Masked Marvel!