“One by one, my enemies will be disposed of, and I will be master of the universe!”
In 1939 – only eight years after Dracula, and while he was still a big name in Hollywood – Bela Lugosi starred in a twelve episode television serial called The Phantom Creeps. Ten years later, 265 minutes were condensed into a 78 minute feature film that, as a result of such drastic cutting, is absurdly quick-paced and barely coherent. Yet it’s quite compelling, primarily – though not exclusively – because of Lugosi, whose Dr Zorka is by far one of the most deranged, power-hungry mad scientists to ever grace either the big or small screen.
Zorka initially appears to be a mercenary – happy to sell his considerable discoveries and inventions to the highest bidder, regardless of their morals. Among his many fantastic creations, mostly as a result of a meteorite fragment he discovered several years previous (revealed in flashback form as footage recycled from The Invisible Ray), are a hideous eight foot robot, small spider-shaped robots that explode when they come into contact with a special metal disc, a hypno-machine that performs painless surgery, and a utility belt that allows him to become invisible. It is the latter that features most frequently, after the scientist realises he has come to the attention of the government, who plan on containing and controlling both him and his inventions. This outrageous slur on his character leads Zorka to fake his own death – entirely thanks to pure coincidence, he picks up a man who looks identical to him just moments before his car is destroyed in a horrific crash. In the words of the megalomaniac, “this man [the doppelganger] is dead. How fortunate!”
To recount the plot of The Phantom Creeps would be too arduous and word-consuming, but suffice to say, Zorka and his minion Monk (an escaped convict) encounter a number of adversaries, including detectives, other scientists, a plucky female reporter and, for some reason, a group of foreign spies, and spend a madcap eighty minutes trying to achieve global domination. In spite of its cut-and-paste nature, the feature appears to contain the entire series’ plot, just edited down in the most concise manner possible. Consequently, scenes last mere seconds, while dialogue is limited almost entirely to exposition, which does explain what is happening but does little to actually prevent confusion. It’s most definitely not lacking in action, however – there is a spectacular plane crash (and a parachuting survivor), several car crashes, numerous outlandish threats by Zorka, betrayal, subterfuge, and an epic concluding sequence, in which the scientist (via documentary war footage) blows up ships and houses from his light aircraft before being attacked by an entire squadron of military planes.
The Phantom Creeps (the television serial) was undoubtedly low budget, and the lack of money is particularly evident in both the robot (clearly a man in a suit) and the mini spider-robots, which don’t skitter across the floor so much as get dragged. Yet Zorka’s lair is a joy, filled with everything a b-movie lab should be – smoking pipettes and Tesla coils, boxes covered with blinking lights, and the mandatory secret entrance. In fact, there appear to be a number of ways in, all hidden behind moving walls and fireplaces. It’s a good thing, too, because people appear to spend a substantial amount of time roaming freely around the scientist’s stately home.
Lugosi is, as always, a charismatic lunatic, and leaps into the role with gusto. It’s a shame that the film’s quality is so poor – the picture is constantly washed out and over-exposed, and the sound on my DVD was dreadful. I doubt there’s a better version, and to be honest, it’s impressive that it has survived at all, considering only half of all American productions prior to 1950 are still in existence. The Phantom Creeps is a delight: daft, low budget, overly ambitious and delirious in terms of both plot and pacing. A final shot suggests that, in the original serial more screen time is allocated to a blossoming romance between reporter Jean Drew (Dorothy Arnold) and one of the heroic detectives, but Lugosi is the film’s real star, and rightly so.