1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Phantom Creeps

In 1939, Universal put out another serial with a sci-fi spin. In some ways, The Phantom Creeps (TPC) was a recast of the earlier serial, The Vanishing Shadow. Both featured an invisibility belt. Both had scientist labs with sparky things. Both had "amazing" techno-gadgets. Both had a super robot. But TPC was the "dark side." version. Instead of the hero (or heroes) using the gadgets to thwart crime, they were used by the evil scientist -- Bela Lugosi, a.k.a. The Phantom -- to commit crimes. TPC ran as a serial, in twelve chapters. But post-Laemmle Universal was struggling for money. To maximize income on their investment (which was not high), they also released a feature-film version of TPC with all the overlap and redundancy cut out.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Zorka (Lugosi) works in his lab. His servile assistant, Monk, is an escaped convict. Zorka's estranged wife Ann tries to talk him out of being a recluse, but he scoffs. Ann's friend, Dr. Mallory, worries that Zorka's amazing inventions may fall into the wrong hands, so alerts federal agent Bob West. He flies to Zorka's house, but finds the lab empty. Zorka is using his alternate basement/cave lab. West also encounters the pesky reporter, Jean Drew. Zorka shaves his beard and escapes. He picks up a hitchhiker who looks vaguely like him. There is a car crash and the hitchhiker dies. Zorka plants his ID on him so people think Zorka died. Actually, he sets up a downtown lab near a nest of international spies. He has to use one of his stun-disks and spiders to silence Ann, lest she identify the body as not him, but the plan goes awry. The plane crashes as Ann is killed. The source of Zorka's power is a rare and glowing meteorite fragment he found in Africa. It has the power to destroy the world. Zorka uses his invisibility-belt to learn what the foreign agents are up to. The agents get Zorka's meteorite-in-a-box due to Monk's sagging loyalty. Zorka steals it back via his inviso-belt. Zorka also has a gas which renders people vulnerable to his Z-ray gun. With that and his robot, he plans to fend off all comers. Zorka sends his robot to crush Bob. Monk thinks to betray Zorka and escape, but fails. The both escape. Now a car load of spies are after Zorka too. Back at the basement lab, Zorka plots his defense. Monk sabotages the robot. This turns out to be a platoon of doughboy soldiers who surround the house and go in wearing gas masks. The robot attacks, but is blown up. Zorka uses the inviso-belt to escape the cordon of troops. He and Monk flee to the airport and steal a biplane. Several squadrons of Army Air Corps biplanes scramble to chase him. Monk wants to give himself up. He and Zorka struggle (in a biplane), so not too surprisingly, they crash and Zorka's meteorite fragment blows up. Bob and Jim are given medals, but both fawn over Jean as the real hero. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Bela Lugosi. He breathes life into the otherwise pedestrian script. He makes the consummate evil scientist villain. TPC has the usual 30s sci-fi gizmos, which are fun. The invisibility effects, though less frequent, are still fun too.

Cultural Connection
Things were not going well in Europe in 1939. The Nazis were ascendant and flexing their muscles, making everyone (rightfully) nervous. The threat from "international" (meaning European) spies was an easy sell. The trope of the spies using a language school as a front, harkens back to the days of World War One, when America was paranoid that the Kaiser had legions of spies in America. They were imagined to be hiding wherever the German language was spoken: bakeries, beer halls, ethnic neighborhoods, sections of states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And of course, language schools. "If they have nothing to hide, why don't they just speak English!" -- so ran the logic of the day.

Nuclear Prototype -- Even though the atom had not yet been split, the mindset was already in place for nuclear weapons. Dr. Zorka's meteorite contained some rare and exotic power source which could also "destroy the world." The script writers were ahead of their time.

Almost Invisible -- TPC borrowed its style of invisibility from The Vanishing Shadow ('34), in that sometimes the invisible person cast a shadow. At other times, the invisible person still left a faint glowing smudge, which the other characters seemed to see. In this effect, Universal was not re-inventing any wheels, but going with a proven formula.

Recycled Footage -- Serials, as a marketing gimmick, were more profitable in the days of silent films. The advent of 'talkies' increased production costs to the point that serials were more of a break-even proposition. As long as they boosted feature film sales, that was fine. To help reduce costs, studios recycled expensive action footage. In TPC, watch for a repeat of the scene where the hero and heroine drive through the blasting zone. This was borrowed from The Vanishing Shadow. Several chase scenes were recycled too, which explains why the 1939 characters get into rather old cars, not new late-30s models. They needed to match the recycled footage. Note the recycled burning-Hindenburg footage. Watch the aerial footage scenes and note how many different makes of biplane appear.as Zorka's stolen plane. Continuity took a back seat to savings.

Mad Scientist -- Bela Lugosi's Dr. Zorka is the stereotypic mad scientist. He is a technical genius, but is the outcast recluse (with a basement lab!). He has a minion-helper whom he treats badly -- thus establishing his inner badness. He talks of ruling the world. Some Zorka quotes along these lines: "With science and genius combined. Nothing can withstand its power." -- "You are attempting to destroy the greatest genius the world has ever known -- now let the world beware my vengeance." -- "One by one, my enemies will be disposed of, until I am the master of the universe!" No lack of self-esteem among mad scientists.

Angry Robot -- Almost standard equipment for serial mad scientists is their huge, unstoppable robot. Dr. Zorka's was given a large humanoid head with a very angry expression -- for no practical reason. When it walked, it had the usual mechanical whirrs and grinding sounds.

Faux Equality -- At the end of the film, when the two G-men are being awarded their medals, the screen writers insert a bit of feigned feminine equality. Both heros, who did all the punching, shooting and being beaten up by a robot, say they think Jean deserves their medals as the "real" hero. All Jean did aside from drive the car at one point, was whine, be annoying and intrude.

Bottom line? TPC is great nostalgic fun, as long as viewers are willing to accept B-level production values. Bela Lugosi's flamboyant performance is, alone, worth watching TPC for.


Randall Landers said...

Lugosi is just terrific in this.

And that poor robot ends up on Tatooine in the Jawa's Crawler.

Nightowl said...

What's this? Zarka's robot got a cameo? I don't remember seeing that.

Randall Landers said...

Look around at the robots in the Jawa Crawler. He's leaning against a support frame.

Randall Landers said...

Actually, I think I'm wrong about that upon reviewing the two robots. They're very similar, and it may be a reworked version of the PC robot, but it doesn't appear to be the same as I remembered it to be. My bad!

buzz said...

Not Phantom Creeps related, but just wanted to say I just discovered your blog & think it's great! You're covering the era of sci-fi films I'm most interested in!

Darci said...

Also, the flashback of Dr. Zorka retrieving a sample of the meteorite was recycled footage from 1936's "The Invisible Ray". Bela was in that film too, but not as the character doing the retrieving (that's Boris Karloff).
Hope this helps!

Nightowl said...

Thanks for the detail on yet another borrowed bit of footage. "The Invisible Ray" was a great film too.