THE PHANTOM CREEPS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Lugosi, Robert Kent, Dorothy Arnold
Director: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Whirlwind Media
Length: 265 Minutes
Release Date: September 19, 2000
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
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.
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.
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)
bad…I would have liked to have seen a short program on the lost art of the
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”.