The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: The Phantom Creeps

Basic Story Line
Both government agents and foreign spies are after a mad scientist who has discovered an element of great power.

Quick Facts
Released in 1939
Directed by Ford Beebe, Saul Goodkind
Written by Wyllis Cooper, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Mildred Barish
Starring Bela Lugosi, Robert Kent, and Dorothy Arnold

Horror movie star Bela Lugosi raises this serial from your average good guy hunts bad guy story into something really worth watching.

God bless Ford Beebe. As a director, he doesn’t have the dynamic style William Witney and John English have. For a serial director, even his fight scenes are largely forgettable. Ford Beebe is more interested in plot and character. He never lets his female characters be useless. When most serials have their female leads serve no other purpose but to look pretty and give the heroes someone to rescue, Ford has his women rescuing his heroes. In The Phantom Creeps, Jean Drew is a good example of this. As well as looking pretty, she is determined, intelligent, and self-confident. On more than one occasion she provides crucial information to our heroes when they are at a loss. I don’t think Ford Beebe was consciously making feminist characters. I think he just realized that your typical damsel in distress was less interesting than a woman who could actually think for herself.

It is a good thing that our hero, Captain Bob West, is never on screen next to Bela Lugosi, because we would completely forget he existed. As an actor, Bela has charisma, talent, and above all presence. You buy that Doctor Zorka could be brilliant enough to have created all the gadgets in his laboratory because Bela sells it to you. You also makes you understand his motives. He found the meteor, containing this new element, when all other scientists dismissed it. He endured physical and mental hardships to uncover its’ secrets. Now that he has done all the work his friends say he should just hand it over to the government. Zorka’s wife also dies while in the custody of the government, a plot point that sometimes gets lost but does help explain his mad wrath.

Unfortunately, as with most serials, around the half-way point, The Phantom Creeps starts to degrade. The subplot of a spy ring, also trying to get their hands on Zorka’s meteor, becomes a distraction from the main story. As all three parties try to steal the meteor away from each other, and decoy boxes get added, the serial starts to feel more like a French farce then an action adventure. Dr. Zorka has an invisibility shield that our heroes spend a fair amount of time discussing how to counteract. When they finally develop a weapon that will disable the shield they never actually use it. On more than one occasion the solution to the previous week’s cliff hanger is the dreaded, “Indestructible Man Syndrome”. These poor resolutions include our two of our heroes walking away after the train they were on derails and plunges into a canyon.

The Phantom Creeps is an interesting bit of history. It was made in 1939, while the war in Europe raged, but America had not yet entered. This gets brought into the story with a group of foreign spies, who are trying to get their hands on Zorka’s meteor, to make weapons that could threaten the United States. Captain West worries that these weapons could draw America into the war. The fear that they could be drawn into the war, but only if they felt directly threatened, was probably the predominant feeling among Americans at the time.

The Phantom Creeps is an interesting serial with quasi believable science, cool gadgets, a giant robot, and a sympathetic villain. A lot of the complaints that I have with it, I have with most serials. And yes, Bela Lugosi can make me forgive a myriad of sins.

Things to watch for
-A car with a steering wheel that seems to switch sides.
-A derail switch, in the train station, that will cause the train to jump the tracks and crash into a canyon

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: Although I don’t claim to know much about trains, I personally feel the derail switch is worth two drinks, but that’s up to your discretion.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium

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