The Phantom Creeps
Chapter 1: The Menacing Power
Dastardly Dr. Zorka (Bela Lugosi in a super realistic beard) and his escaped dastardly convict sidekick Monk have created many dastardly things. Mrs. Zorka worries about her be-bearded husband and enlists the help of Zorka’s former partner, Dr. Mallory, in an effort to try to talk Zorka down from the dizzying heights of mad sciencedom.
While they discuss this in the foyer of Dr. Zorka’s creepy manse, Zorka for no discernible reason starts reviewing his most recent insane inventions, first unleashing the Iron Man.
Before Iron Man can mosey about, he has to get out of the broom closet he’s kept in. Sadly, the set designer didn’t have a ruler with him, so the doorway is too short for Iron Man to cross without ducking down. Sadder yet, this leads to many scenes where Iron Man takes one step toward the doorway, we cut to a head-on shot of Iron Man looking straight at the camera and wobbling a bit, then we cut back to Iron Man having already gotten past the doorway. HILARIOUS.
Another hilarious invention are the spiders. The story changes moment to moment as to whether these are supposed to be real or not, but the fact that they have six legs and big cute googly eyes pretty much assures they are fake. Yet Zorka claims he injects actual spiders — spiders Monk is afraid to touch — with a special element that makes them track little disks he can plant anywhere. The spiders then explode (in a very cute manner) when they reach the disks. Zorka ruins a perfectly nice houseplant in demonstrating the spider-disk-bomb device.
Mrs. Zorka and the doctor try to talk sense into Dr. Zorka, who went into the discussion claiming he would just tell them enough to fool them into thinking he’s 100% Certified Sane. In less than 15 seconds, however, he’s ranting and telling them his crazy spider invention will be sold to evil doers in other countries, heh heh heh.
Mrs. Zorka standing in the foyer. Note the floor from the MGM ballroom set where these scenes were apparently filmed.
Dr. Mallory heads off to tell the government of Dr. Zorka’s plan. Mrs. Zorka stays to try to talk some sense into her husband, but he’s too busy heading out to sell his wacky inventions. “We will go to meet the agent of the spy ring,” he declares in dialogue more stilted than a Herb and Jamaal cartoon.
A couple of G-Men show up after Dr. Mallory rats out Dr. Zorka (he’s just jealous that he didn’t invent exploding fluffy spider toys), and seconds after they arrive by landing their light plane in the middle of an area with lots of trees and shrubbery, plucky girl reporter Jean Drew arrives. Drew spends the series in a series of inappropriate outfits for daytime work, stuff with veils and sequins and elaborate hats, and her makeup is caked on in a really unappealing way. She can’t muster more than a sleepy-eyed dullness for any reaction shots, and most of her scripted actions are positively priceless.
Yes, this is my Iron Man. No, I won’t help you move.
The G-Men, Bob West (Robert Kent) and Jim Daley (Regis Toomey), are on the case, and Zorka overhears the G-Men are after him. Zorka then unveils his devisualizer, one which sidekick Monk was supposed to finish so it could render the wearer invisible, but clearly Monk just bought a cheap rip-off from Sharper Image.
So it takes a little tweaking, but it finally works and Zorka is as invisible as 1939 special effects can make him. He then engages in De-Bearding Sequence #4 (ask Tom Cruise, he’ll tell you) and heads out with Monk posing as his limo driver. They pick up a hitchhiker and fortunately crash the shit out of their Model T, killing the transient but leaving nary a scratch on their bods. The dead dude looks like Zorka dressed as Torgo, so they get the completely sane idea to dress him like Zorka instead and place him near the burning wreckage so the G-Men think Zorka is dead.
Zorka continues his completely normal, everyday plan by planting a disk in Plucky Girl Reporter’s purse. When she sneaks onto the G-Men’s plane, a fuzzy spider bomb follows her. She hides in the plane’s closet — yes, apparently tiny planes have closets — while Mrs. Zorka and the G-Men board and fly off. Meanwhile Jim Daley (Toomey) is both flying the plane and playing with one of the disks when he learns the hard way just what those disks are. The spidey explodes, Daley is knocked out cold, and Bob West goes hunting for parachutes…
…only to almost get knocked over when Plucky Girl Reporter, who has already stripped to her skivvies and put on a flight suit, parachute, helmet, and goggles in the 17.2 seconds since Toomey got his ass knocked out, bursts out of the closet and runs for the door. She looks somewhat ashamed of herself, at least. As she pops the chute and floats gently down to Opportunistic Asshole Island where she belongs, Bob and Mrs. Zorka are still in the plane when it hits the ground.
OH MY GOD! THE HUMANITY! IS REGIS TOOMEY OKAY?!
Find out in Chapter 2: Death Stalks the Highways!
Nice to see that you’re restarting this series of undoubted moral uplift and social significance.
One query: Are we going to have to repost the comments we made before back at the old place?
Actually, I would like a second shot at my account of the first time I saw Phantom Creeps: when I reread it I winced at all the details I got wrong.
If I get your go-ahead, I’ll be happy to give you the Revised Standard Version.
The comments can’t be moved over here as far as I know; I could move over every single post from the old SBBN with comments, but I wanted to start over, so to speak, so I decided against that and am instead just moving over a few posts manually.
Feel free to comment however you want on the reposts! You can say what you said before, you can say new stuff, you can talk about random things, it’s all good.
I have only one comment, and if not a precise and verbatim recitation of what I said at the old site, it captures my ode to joy upon first learning that Stacia was going to do THE PHANTOM CREEPS, and that is: “Yes! And again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” (N.B: I’m working from the Isaac Asimov Annotated version, so for “mountain flower” please read “Awesome but Unpersuasive Bobble-head Robot,” and for “my breasts” read “Regis Toomey” — ed.)
Thanks Scott! But I will not replace breasts with Regis Toomey. I like breasts, I like Regis, but the twain shall not meet.
I’m amused that I made a Tom Cruise de-bearding joke in this post about six months ago. Apparently, I was very prescient. Oh, wait, everyone in the world knew the de-bearding was coming eventually.
With Stacia’s kind permission, herewith the Revised Standard Account of
The First Time I Saw The Phantom Creeps!
Back around 1957, WBKB-ch 7, the ABC station in Chicago, had a weekday afternon show called Adventure Time. On this socially significant, morally uplifting program, ch 7 showed daily episodes from a stash of old cliffhangers they’d bought in bulk from Universal-MCA, along with a few odd Mascots (the ones with John Wayne).
The MC was staff announcer Chuck Bill, who presided over the show dressed in a bush jacket, boots, and slouch hat, and addressed his audience as “little feather merchants” (at age 7 or 8, I had no idea what this meant, but it sure sounded cool).
There was an Adventure Time club that you could join, and get coded messages about how that day’s cliffhanger would come out, despite the nefarious efforts of the Outer Mongolian CodeCrackers (and their minions the South American RoadRunners), who would occasionally cut into the film with clips from other unrelated movies.
It was in this context that I saw The Phantom Creeps for the first time; I was no more than 8 then, but a typical Chicago Irish Catholic kid, i.e. nasty and mean, so a serial where the villain was the lead character had a special appeal..
Sometime around 1959, Adventure Time was moved from weekdays to Saturdays, for two hours in the morning and (after a lunch break) three more hours in the afternoon. This enabled the renamed Serial Theater to run an entire twelve episode serial in one day, to the delight of the bloodthirsty kiddies of Chicagoland.
It was on one of these Saturdays that I saw Phantom Creeps for the second time, and saw that Bela Lugosi was the star. Because I associated Lugosi with the horror movies that ch 7 ran “after my bedtime”, this led me to the belief that Phantom was something “grown-up”, and that by watching it I was getting away with something – pretty heady when you’re not yet 10.
But all that was a long long time ago. I am now a mature, responsible adult: taxpayer, voter, homeowner, all like that there.
Butb guess what?
Several years back, I bought The Phantom Creeps on DVD.
Before you started writing about it.
So this thread is a natural for me.
And now, coming up on 62 years of age, I am once more a “Little Feather Merchant.”
… and I still don’t know what that means …
… but it still sounds cool!
I thank you.
I thank you, Mike. That was a highly evocative, not to mentioning touching, Timmy-and-Lassie-style tale of a Boy and His Serial. My first and only exposure to Phantom Creeps was on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as an adult, so not only was it tinted, not to say tainted, by all the ambient meta, but as a result I’ve only seen the first four or five episodes, and have been counting on Stacia to tell me how it comes out.
But then, experiencing a serial should contain a certain intrinsic suspense — although I’m no longer biting my nails about the ultimate fate of Regis Toomey, ever since I learned at the old site that he’s made of liquid metal.
I had already forgotten TPC was on MST3K. How does one forget something like that? Easily, apparently.
To be fair (and having made a recent visit to the MST Wiki), TPC only appeared in three episodes of the show; as opposed to Commando Cody and the Radar Men From the Moon, of which MST3K aired 8 chapters over 7 episodes (Joel and the bots get a double dose of Cody in Robot Monster). But it represents a tie for second place with the those 3 repurposed General Hospital shows starring Roy Thinnes, and a clear victor over the Crash Corrigan/Lon Chaney, Jr./Monte Blue serial, The Undersea Kingdom, which only appeared twice. But by that point, they were running low on bad continuity jokes, and were realizing that the one-shot mental hygiene films from junior high they’d started to mix into the rotation were actually funnier.
Nevertheless! While I don’t care what happened with Crash, Billy, Unga Khan, Diana, the plucky girl reporter, and Professor Norton and his atomic submarine, in Undersea Kingdom, I also don’t much care whether Roy ever consummated his adulterous lust for Sally, the mousy, otherwise engaged doormat of his dreams, I do want to find out whether Zorka goes to his MPAA-mandated death in a suitably grand fashion (I’m not even keeping my hopes up for a refreshing splash of irony at this point), or whether he’s redeemed by a post-Pearl Harbor spasm of patriotism.
See, I really liked the General Hospital episodes on MST3K and was getting sucked into them unironically. There was something so bleak about them, with their tiny sets and the really ugly looking celebratory cake made from sawdust and rubber cement.
I know what I’m doing for my second serial, but Undersea Kingdom may end up being the third if I keep the series up.
A kid’s-eye view of Phantom Creeps. Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that, it is fascinating to hear first-hand accounts of horror hosts and the kind of TV that used to be available. Even by the 1970s we didn’t have any horror hosts left, just PBS’ Matinee at the Bijou, which was weekly so it was difficult to get into a serial and I never even tried.
I can really see a kid thinking they were getting away with something deviant when watching Phantom Creeps. There is something very, very repressed going on with The Iron Man.
I guess I’m really feeling my age here.
The thing about TV in the ’50s is that it was local. The networks didn’t lay claim to all the available time, and back then there was a lot less of it: stations signed on at 6AM (all times here are Central; I’m a lifelong Chicagoan) or thereabouts, and signed off (if they were really daring) at maybe 1 or 2AM.
The network sometimes took from 9AM to noon, off for a local hour, and back from 1 to 4PM, back to local until maybe 6 or 6:15 for the network news, prime time until 10, back to local (unless it was an NBC station, picking up Steve Allen’s Tonight!), signoff sometime after midnight.
In Chicago, we had all networks represented, and a strong independent in WGN ch9. Each station had its own local performers and voices, who combined to give the channels their own personalities.
Channel 7, the ABC station which carried Adventure Time/Serial Theater, had more time to play with than the other network stations, because ABC didn’t even try to mount a full daytime schedule until the early ’60s. Thus ch7 made do with Laurel & Hardy, The Little Rascals, and all those cliffhangers.
I mentioned Chuck Bill, the announcer host of Adventure Time, who was often introduced with the info that he bred Black Angus cattle on his ranch in one of the collar counties; this added to his cred as an outdoorsman, and a man of adventure.
There was also Chubby Jackson, the longtime bass player for Woody Herman, who joined ch7 as a staff musician, and hosted the daily comedies for kids; he would start the hour at a makeup table, where he would comb his hair forward, color in his philtrem, don a derby and tight jacket, and play Oliver Hardy, introducing the Laurel & Hardy short of the day (Stan was represented by a derby-wearing mannequin with back to camera). At the halfway point, Jackson would return to the makeup table, doff the Hardy duds, don a sweater and beanie, and host a Little Rascals short, with a studio audience of kids.
Then there was “Marvin”, the host of Shock Theater on Saturday nights. During the week, he was Terry Bennett, the genial ventriloquist-host of The Jobblewocky Place, a zany kid show. Of course everybody knew, and both shows enjoyed a considerable crossover audience. Someone’s just written a book about Terry Bennett, but it’s a McFarland, so I’ll have to save my nickels and dimes (about $50 worth) to get it.
I could go on and on and on, but I want to get back to the local angle. As you’ve pointed out, the local horror host has mostly gone the way of the DoDo bird. Here in Chicago we had just about the last one: Svengoolie, aka Rich Koz. But now MEtv has taken Sven national, which means that the local jokes we Chicagoans always loved will soon, of necessity, be a thing of the past.
And now I’m back to feeling my age again.
And cherishing the fine madness that it was my privilege to grow up with.
I do remember local television stations, the ones out of Springfield MO that had a lot of local programming (much of it either religious or about hunting). We had a kid’s show on Saturdays that was live, and the weather guy on Channel 10 (CBS I think) would read letters and show pictures that kids sent in — mine was chosen once! All that was starting to go away by the time we moved to Kansas, though I do remember getting a very nice letter from the WIBW station manager when I wrote in to complain that they had stopped showing “WKRP” reruns.
You just wouldn’t expect any of that nowadays. Horror hosts were replaced with MST3K and riffing, local shows with national, and network with cable. We’re both feeling our age, I think.
With all due respect, Stacia, I believe I’m feeling just a tad more age than you are …
See, as a little kid, I thought everyone everywhere had TV, as much and as long as we did. Living in Chicago, with four stations available (later five, when the “educational” station started up), the choices seemed almost endless.
Up above, I mentioned some (by no means all) of the personalities on channel 7, the ABC station; I didn’t even get around the people on channels 2 (CBS), 5 (NBC), 9 (independent, but it used to be DuMont), and 11 (educational, long before anybody thought of PBS).
If I were to do that, I’d never get off this blog.
Over the years, I watched as the networks gradually took over more and more of the schedule, squeezing out the local faces/voices that gave their stations their audience (their “base”, to use the modern term). Today, people tell their local stations apart by their news teams, and they get to look more and more alike every year. (Plus, many of them jump from one station to another, blending in together more and more.)
So in the end, what I have left are the years from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, which somehow managed to more diverse than the hundred-channel cable universe we’ve got now.
Which (I guess) makes me the lucky one … doesn’t it?
Which means (I guess) that I’m the lucky one … doesn’t it?
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