Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind, 1939
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Arnold, Robert Kent, Edward Van Sloan
Bela Lugosi stars as the diabolical Dr. Zorka in this 12 part serial from Universal that blends horror, sci-fi, action, and espionage. Zorka creates a number of powerful weapons that he refuses to share with the government. His beloved wife pairs up with his former mentor, Dr. Mallory, to contact military intelligence and inform them of Zorka’s 8-foot killer robot and invisibility belt, among other things. Government agents and foreign spies try to steal his inventions, particularly a box with a meteorite that allows Zorka to attain suspended animation in his enemies. His wife is killed in a plane crash, which drives Zorka over the edge, and he plans world domination and absolute vengeance on those trying to steal his devices. Unfortunately, he is constantly delayed by his hateful and incompetent assistant, a convict named Monk.
The wonderful tagline obviously promises us more than it will ever be able to deliver, but Phantom Creeps gives it the old college try regardless. “CRASHING... SMASHING... DASHING DYNAMITE! 12 spine-shivering chapters of thunderbolt action and amazing adventure!” The series borrow liberally from some other films of the period, such as The Invisible Ray, from which it steals the powerful, radioactive meteorite concept as well as some actual footage. But Lugosi’s Dr. Zorka goes much farther than many of the other mad scientist films Universal produced during the period, and manages to create a giant robot and an invisibility belt, figures out how to accomplish suspended animation, freezing his enemies in time (a la Charles Xavier a few decades later), and much more. The script was written by George Plympton, also responsible for The Green Hornet, a Flash Gordon film, and the early Batman and Robin.
Along with the monsters and robots, Bela Lugosi is the best thing about this series. He seems to completely ignore the fact that he is starring in a B-serial and just gives it his all. The only way the series could be better is if we spent less times with spies, reporters, and G-men and more time with Dr. Zorka. Edward van Sloan, who costarred with Lugosi in Dracula makes a nice, albeit brief appearance as a spy. Dorothy Arnold is the typical nosy female reporter and, like an early Lois Lane, just bogs down the story.
The first few episodes were covered by Mystery Science Theater, which should give you an idea of exactly what you’re getting into with Phantom Creeps. It’s enjoyable and over the top, but completely absurd most of the time with some really hammy, scenery-chewing performances and a script that obviously revels in its own ridiculousness.
Speaking of ridiculousness, there are plenty of shots that are obviously stock footage, from fires, explosions, plane crashes, and a particularly unbelievable scene featuring the Hindenburg. But this is the sort of thing that makes it so likable. Almost an early version of Ultraman or The Power Rangers minus any central hero, the series tries to include as much action as possible. There are fight scenes, car chases, numerous crashes, spies, and some sci-fi in the form of Zorka’s many inventions including the delightful robot. Every episode ends with a cliff hanger and the music is so dramatic that it’s difficult not to get sucked in at least a little bit. Star Wars fans will probably be a little surprised to notice the early use of scrolling text at the beginning of each episode to catch audiences up on the story.
Though originally filmed as a 12 part serial with episodes of roughly minutes, this was later redistributed uncut as what must have felt like a very long feature film for audiences of the time. The original chapter titles are pretty entertaining and are as follows: “The Menacing Power,” “Death Stalks the Highways,” “Crashing Towers,” “Invisible Terror,” “Thundering Rails,” “The Iron Monster,” “The Menacing Mist,” “Trapped in the Flames,” “Speeding Doom,” “Phantom Footprints,” “The Blast,” and “To Destroy the World.” There are a couple of really cheap DVDs available, though the VCI release seems to have the least offensive print quality.