The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind)

For the first few chapters, Bela Lugosi can carry The Phantom Creeps. He’s hamming it up as a mad scientist surrounded by actors who can’t even ham. Creeps has some truly terrible performances, particularly from its other leads, Robert Kent and Dorothy Arnold. He’s the military intelligence officer out to discover what’s happened to Lugosi’s missing research–Lugosi fakes his death because he wants to sell his secrets to foreign agents. Arnold’s the reporter who’s after the story. Kent’s got a negative amount of charm. Arnold’s charm level is extraordinarily low, but it’s not negative. But when the two of them have a scene and banter… the chemistry is toxic.

And then Lugosi’s got this palooka ex-con sidekick, Jack C. Smith. Smith is awful too. Edwin Stanley and Regis Toomey–as other good guys–they’re terrible. Edward Van Sloan–who could be reuniting with Lugosi post-Dracula here–is the leader of the spy ring. He’s terrible. Anthony Averill, as the lead henchman who does all the action scenes, goes from bad to okay. Mostly because by the end of the serial, Lugosi’s nowhere to be seen–literally–and Averill’s just not as patently unlikable as everyone else.

Lugosi’s missing from the second half because he’s mostly being The Phantom, which is what he calls himself when he’s using his invisibility belt. Lugosi has four inventions. He has the invisibility belt, he has an iron robot (remote controlled), he has these discs and mechanical spiders–when the spider crawls to the disc, it explodes and puts anyone nearby in suspended animation–and then he has another suspended animation device, a ray-gun. If there is anything else, he doesn’t use it often. I may have blocked too much of Creeps from my memory already–for example, I can’t remember if it’s a flub when the bad guys know Lugosi’s alias because no one sees him in the half chapter he uses that alias or if someone does see him. It’s not worth remembering.

The serial starts with Lugosi faking his death. But the spies want what he was going to sell them so they go to his house to try to get it. But the federal agents also want what Lugosi was going to sell because his old friend, Stanley, ratted him out for, you know, wanting to commit treason. Stanley’s a square from the start.

Anyway, the first half of the serial–so, you know, six twenty-minute chapters–is the good guys and bad guys goofing off around the house while Lugosi and Smith try to escape. They have to keep coming back to the house because their secret base is underneath it. In the second half of the serial, Lugosi’s secret element–from a meteor, I think–gets traded back and forth between good guys, bad guys, and Lugosi for five chapters. Sure, there are different locations, but rarely any original big action footage. Lots of stock footage instead. Lots of not matching at all stock footage.

And some things about Creeps are just relentlessly bad. Kent’s investigatory reasoning is nil. The way the good guys and bad guys meet is when one of them sees the other driving on the highway, so they then follow them. It happens over and over and over and over again. Even when it’s a different shooting location, it’s just how the screenwriters make these things happen.

There are no gems in the script. There’s no funny bit part. There are no diamonds in the rough, acting-wise. There is some charm to the special effects, but only in the first half really. By the second half it’s all invisiblity stuff (sometimes reusing the same footage) and it’s not particularly creative. It seems creative the first time Lugosi vanishes, not the rest. Mostly because he doesn’t interact with anyone. Occasionally an inanimate object, but it’s not like he’s pantsing the good guys while invisible.

The music is a bunch material of thirties Universal horror scores. It’s kind of cool to hear the music. Not really alongside anything going on onscreen, of course.

The direction’s not good. It’s not atrocious, unless somehow Beebe and Goodkind could’ve gotten better performances out of the cast. It doesn’t seem possible. Technically, nothing stands out.

The cliffhangers in The Phantom Creeps are particularly bad. Usually people just survive disasters. There’s something like one death in the thing; no one’s in much danger, if any. Though at least Arnold never gets used as damsel. She does get used as Toomey’s doormat, which is a particularly tiring affair. She’s going to steal boss Kent away with her feminine wiles or something. Or maybe there’s no reason for it. There’s no reason for anything in Creeps. It just goes on and on and on.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


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