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THE PHANTOM CREEPS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bela Lugosi, Robert Kent, Dorothy Arnold
Director:  Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Whirlwind Media
Features:  None
Length:  265 Minutes
Release Date:  September 19, 2000

Film ***

The Saturday morning serial is a lost art.  Movie houses used to play these little cheesy twenty minute shorts at the beginning of their feature programs, for the sole purpose of insuring that everyone would be back next week for the continuation of the story.  Characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were featured in modest, low budget adventures that were nevertheless intriguing enough to earn a return audience, who just HAD to see how the hero got out of that sea of quicksand while surrounded by chomping alligators.

Fans of these serials can rejoice now, as these antiquated staples of a bygone area are beginning to make their way to DVD.  The Phantom Creeps, often referred to as one of the better examples of the serial, is as good a pick to use in starting a collection as any.  It originally aired in 1939 and starred Bela Lugosi, near the medium of his career between his Dracula superstardom and his Ed Wood B-picture finale.  His performance as Dr. Alex Zorka here proves him a man capable of wearing either mantle with a kind of dignity.  The serial would later be edited down to a 79 minute movie (that’s some editing job!) and re-released, but with this DVD, you get the full 265 minute, twelve episode feature the way it was meant to be seen.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because most of the fun of serials is the cliffhanger at the end of each episode.  All of the first eleven episodes here leaves you pondering “what next?” until finally wrapping up in episode twelve.  The good news is, of course, you don’t have to WAIT an entire week to find out.  Unless you want to.  It’s up to you.

Zorka is a brilliant scientist who has managed to harness the energy of a strange meteorite to create wondrous inventions:  a giant robot with a demonic face, an invisibility belt, and suspended animation tablets that go off when a mechanical spider (huh?) seeks them out.  Now, Zorka could use these inventions for the betterment of mankind, but how are you going to stretch THAT over twelve episodes?  No, Zorka plans to sell to the highest bidder, regardless of who it might be.

But others are soon onto him.  First, a couple of FBI agents who are aware of Zorka’s inventions and plan to learn his secrets and stop him.  Then there’s the pretty young female reporter, who wants to scoop the agents’ story.  Then there’s another scientist, who begins to piece it all together.  What happens next?  Come back next week…

Of course, this isn’t high art, and the resolutions to the cliffhangers might be a little less than satisfactory for today’s audiences.  At the end of one episode, for example, you see an unconscious man in a speeding car, and the car zooms over a cliff and explodes.  The next episode shows the same scenario, but inserts footage where the man wakes up, realizes his plight, and jumps from the car…THEN we see it sail over the cliff and explode.  You can’t help but think, this isn’t fair!  Have you all got amnesia?  This isn’t what happened last week!  They just CHEATED us!  HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODY CAR!!!!…Um, sorry.  Lost my head there for a minute.

Still, as far as entertainment value goes, I have to admit, The Phantom Creeps works, even if only from a purely nostalgic point of view.  It has all the ingredients that made the serial such a popular matinee feature in the first place, plus Lugosi’s welcome presence.  And when you start watching it, even amidst the cheese and overacting and broadly drawn story lines, darn it all, you really CAN’T just switch it off without seeing just what happens next.  Even if you aren’t exactly thrilled by it.  

NOTE:  One of my readers pointed out something to me that escaped my attention:  all of the chapters on this disc after the first one do not include the opening logos and closing credits, the way they would have in theatrical presentation.  For a DVD release especially, there should have been better care taken to replicate the exact original program the way it was intended to be seen.

Video **

I’ve seen a few serials on VHS in my day…pretty much all of them public domain copies recorded in EP.  The bottom line is, these prints weren’t cared for very much over the years.  They don’t look that good, and I’m not holding my breath waiting for somebody to dish up $10 million or so for a proper restoration job.  This print is as bad as you’d expect, with plenty of dirt and debris, numerous scratches, and even the occasional botched jump-cut, but as far as the transfer of the source material goes, it’s not bad.  This dual layered disc shows no real evidence of compression artifacts, and generally presents fairly sharp black and white images despite the limitations of the source material.  Some scenes look a little softer and murkier than others, but there aren’t more than one or two problems where clarity becomes a legitimate issue.  It’s safe to say, this DVD has to surpass any previous issue of this title in terms of video quality.

Audio *1/2

This digital mono soundtrack is one of the worst I’ve heard.  The hiss and noise are at a strong level throughout, so much so that if you watch the program for an hour or so, then switch it off, the silence in your room will startle you.  The audio is filled with telltale pops and crackles that won’t let you forget the age of the program.  Dialogue is sometimes affected, but not always.  Often it is intelligible enough, but there are quieter moments when the words get swallowed up in the noise.  A little money spent on noise reduction might have gone a long way here.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.  Too bad…I would have liked to have seen a short program on the lost art of the serial. 

Summary:

The Phantom Creeps on DVD will probably make any fans of the old serials happy, despite the inherent quality problems.  For the historically curious, it might be worth picking up as a rental just for the experience of watching, cheering, groaning…and then being left hanging until next week’s “spine chilling episode”.