After two months of accidental hiatus, we’re back on track to finishing the greatest artistic achievement known to mankind: The Phantom Creeps (1939).
Our story thus far: Dr. Crazypants Evildude Zorka (Bela Lugosi) has harnessed the awesome power of a meteorite harvested from the depths of the 1936 film The Invisible Ray, and plans on using elements from the meteorite to conquer the world. With this element he invents six-legged fuzzy fake spiders that blow up under certain complicated and silly conditions, the enormous and sexually attractive robot known as The Iron Man, and a device that turns him invisible — that is, into The Phantom, who then Creeps around doing things. The Feds are after him, mostly G-Man Bob (Robert West) and his unkillable but confused sidekick Jim Daly, played by SBBN hero Regis Toomey. SBBN calls him Toomster, Reeg and various other pet names, because SBBN loves Regis Toomey, and also makes it a policy to be very, very nice to immortals who are prone to sulking and naps.
Edwin Stanley plays Dr. Mallory, a scientist who is supposed to be helping the Feds but pretty much does the exact opposite. Plucky girl reporter Jean Drew (Dorothy Arnold) tags along with the Feds, while spies — incredibly stupid spies — try to get the meteor for themselves. The spy leader Jarvis (Edward Van Sloan, looking as much like “Gov” from Blazing Saddles as possible without actually being Mel Brooks) is mostly ineffective, but he’s supposed to be clever and evil. His henchmen are interchangeable, and by that I mean the actors change frequently, sometimes in the midst of a scene. Toward the end of the serial, George Clooney look-alike Rankin (Anthony Averill) pulls away from the pack as the lead henchman.
The meteor has changed hands a few dozen times, G-Man Bob has crashed numerous cars and planes, Reeg has been through so many explosions and head blows he should be dead by now but instead has turned Highlander, and Dr. Zorka doesn’t have nearly enough screen time. And now…
The Phantom Creeps
Chapter 11: The Blast
As we near the end of our journey, I would like to give a big shout-out to the people, very likely uncredited interns, who wrote the forewords for Phantom Creeps. I may not agree with the random capitalization or occasional ALL CAPS, but making sense out of this serial is difficult, so I give these unsung heroes a pass. They manage to both entertain and summarize that which cannot easily be summarized, encapsulating it into a couple of coherent paragraphs which surely required the work of at least three expert linguists, a series of well-calibrated scientific instruments and a psychologist, Jungian preferably, but Freudian if that’s all the studio had on hand. Kudos, my friends, and for your efforts I hope you were rewarded with jetpacks and snack cakes in the Great Beyond.
In Episode 11’s opening recap, we’re reminded that the train plunged off the tracks into a raging river below:
Over the Halloween week while my computer languished, broken and neglected, I sulked in front of TCM 24/7. But serendipity struck while I was having a snit, because as I watched The Invisible Man for the third time — maybe fourth, probably fifth, but who’s counting — I realized that the train wreck used in Creeps and Green Hornet was stolen — STOLEN! — from Invisible Man, as you can see here. Seems the interns given the task of finding stock footage to pad these babies out lacked imagination: “Hmm, Zorka turns invisible… invisible… Invisible Man! We’ll use clips from that! Oh yeah, that’s good, I gotta write that down…”
Before we get to the meat of Episode 11, I confess that there is a minor error in my last post. This is very scandalous and irresponsible on my part, and there’s nothing to be done except cry a lot and beg for forgiveness. But I have what I think is a good excuse: I cannot hear the damn dialogue at all.
In Episode 10, the spies are hanging out at the train station being really fucking smug, which is why I figure they did use Von Moustache as a diversion. Henchman Clooney Guy and Ringleader Gov took the meteorite, safely held in world’s oldest medical bag, used for centuries to store the original Huangdi Neijing, to another location as Henchman Von Moustache boarded the train. He does not have a bag of any kind, though, so how dumb do Bob and PGR have to be to forget they were following someone carrying a satchel full of meteorite? I submit to you that I cannot be fully blamed for not realizing, even after ten episodes, that PGR and G-Man Bob were that stupid. Sure, they’re “I thought these SweeTarts were aspirin” stupid, but being foiled by Von Moustache in this manner is drowning in a shower because you forgot to close your mouth stupid.
After the intro and the recap, we’re treated to some spectacular footage of the aftermath of the train crash. Much like prime real estate or the restrooms in a tasteful art museum, the train wreck was conveniently located: The tower Zorka had been enjoying a fistfight in was apparently at the exact point where the train derailed, so when he hit those unconnected levers on some old workshop bench used as a prop… er, I mean, when he hit those super important high-tech train controls, the train derailed just at the foot of the tower.
Dr. Z trots on down to the wreckage, where sirens and people are screaming exactly as they did during the 1920s factory fire footage, in a short 12-second loop with a Wilhelm-esque “Aaaah!” that makes the repetition obvious. Zorka overhears the meteorite was not on the train, so he smiles quietly to himself as the scent of burning flesh wafts about.
Meanwhile, Reeg and Dr. Mallory head to Zorka’s lush manse to “give the place a real once-over” which, in the middle of chapter 11 of a 12-chapter series, is a pretty good indicator that a whole heap o’ shit has gone wrong during the investigation of this case.
To add to the list of things that have gone wrong, I’m reasonably sure Plucky Girl Reporter was driving this car in Chapter 9, though now Dr. Mallory and The Toomey have it. It’s allegedly a 1939 Nash Lafayette, according to a guy in comments who is just as rude as I am, which is karmically satisfying but a touch irritating. Truth be told, I can’t find a clear online picture of a 1939 Nash Lafayette that looks like this car, they all look to have slightly different lights and grille. This seems to be the 1939 Nash Ambassador identified here on the IMCDb rather than a Lafayette, and pretty much every character has driven it at some point, with no explanation as to why or how it is changing hands. What else do these people share? Toothbrushes? Prescription medications? BEDS?! This erotic vagrancy will not stand!
Speaking of wrong, the moment Reeg steps into the mansion in pursuit of that good once-over, he fires wildly at movement off screen. That movement is, of course, Monk, the worthless sidekick who was just shot, like, eight minutes ago in Episode 10. He was apparently already up and walking around like nothing was wrong, something you’d think that he’d know not to do after 11 damn chapters of this shit. Just play dead, Monk. It’s the safest way outta this serial.
But Monk does not learn, which is why Reeg and Mallory, once again losing focus and forgetting to give the mansion that “real once-over” they promised, drag Monk’s wounded ass out to the car and drive him somewhere. Reeg is just straight-up lounging in the car, half pretending to drive, half napping, with Monk in the back pretending to be unconscious — something the Toomster has already fallen for at least once, mind you — when he passes the spies going the other way. Because, as we have already established, there is no traffic to speak of during the day on this major California coastal highway, and this is the only road to anywhere, which is why the Feds and the Spies and the Zorka and the Plucky Girl Reporter pass each other constantly.
There is a bit of fun for the viewer at this point, though. When it’s time to act as though he has seen the spies passing the other way, Regis Toomey leans forward, shakes off the drowsies and blinks himself out of his half-nap, like he just woke up on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner. You can tell Regis is a cool cat, though, because when he keeps himself from shouting, “Hey what’s the score are we ready for some pie do you need help with the dishes? Where am I?” A consummate professional.
To follow the spies, the driver hired for these interminable second unit road shots doesn’t make a U-turn. Oh no, he opts for the excitement of what must have been a 17-point turn, the entirety of which we are forced to watch. The spies, heading to the port to get the meteor out of the country, are unconcerned because they have… a smokescreen!
It works, of course, because Regis, god love ‘im, really kind of sucks at this whole G-Man thing. And then Monk conks Reeg on the noggin since a head blow was exactly what the guy needed, although he kind of deserves it because he already fell for this once and should know better, plus a head blow is no big deal to a man who has been literally exploded and survived, so we’ll chalk this up to tough love. Monk runs off, an impressive feat given he has been shot a dozen times and is also on the verge of complete stress-induced cardiovascular shutdown thanks to all the Monk menacings.
“There’s no use going after him now,” intones Regis as he comes to, which is exactly the weak-ass reason given by Bob for not chasing after the bad guys in the first several episodes of this serial. A moment later, he sulks as Bob the hypocrite lectures him. “I wish I hadn’t let that guy get away,” he pouts.
After a Monk menacing too short to really be satisfying, the robot is used to unlatch the safe he’s opened a couple dozen times before, which again seems like a ridiculously inefficient use of a 7-foot mechanical man. But we do learn that Zorka has a bit of the element left behind: “I still have enough elements to destroy all my enemies!” he gloats.
You gotta admit, that’s a game changer right there. It’s also one of two amazing plot twists that turn the finale into the glorious bag of what-the-fuckery that it is, my friends. See, because Zorka doesn’t want to directly attack the spies with the elements he has retained because it would probably destroy the meteorite, he’s relegated to… oh, but I don’t want to spoil it.
Back at the Bradley Building (“For All Your Evil Spy Headquarters Needs. Off the Beltline.”) the spies try to broadcast coded messages to let their international cohorts know the meteorite will be on a submarine out of the country. Their code, by the way, is brilliant, with the secret word for “urgent” being… “urgent”.
Continuing to display the superior spy skills that make them a leader in the field of international intrigue, neither Gov nor Henchman Clooney Guy notice when Zorka invisiblates into The Phantom and sneaks into their car, even though he opens the door normally and slams it shut. People, people, this is why evil never succeeds!
It is here I need to reveal to you another startling discovery: The Phantom Creeps is apparently almost entirely stolen from the 1934 serial The Vanishing Shadow. Not just footage, as I had thought, but even some sets with a few modifications; for example, the exterior and interiors of the mansion are the same, though a pair of sliding doors inside the mansion in Shadow were removed and one of those Shadow doors became the front door for Creeps. There are other similarities, like the mad scientist with an invisiblator called a Vanishing Ray and a destructive beam called the Destroying Ray, his chauffeur, an airplane fetish, the rustling of bushes to indicate an invisible man walking through, a large metal robot, everything.
Although I think it’s safe to say that the Iron Man in Phantom Creeps outmenaces this little guy any day of the week. So adorable. He even has a cheese wedge for a nose!
Not that there aren’t significant changes made to the Vanishing Shadow plot, but it’s clear the production of Creeps was predicated on finding an extant script and footage to co-opt as their own, then modify just enough to prevent lawsuits and tears. The Vanishing Shadow starring Onslow Stevens and Ada Ince is available on YouTube, though I don’t recommend it for anything but a sleep aid and/or horrible example.
To illustrate how poorly the Shadow footage was integrated with the Creeps scenes: This is a link to The Phantom Creeps, Chapter 11 at about 14:48 in, showing a road crew headed by Lee J. Cobb, whose first screen appearance was in a small part in Vanishing Shadow. Even if you don’t know a thing about either Shadow or Creeps, you can tell exactly where the re-used footage ends and the Creeps footage begins. It’s beyond incompetent, but I still urge you to take 25 seconds out of your day and watch that short sequence. Now imagine that shit for the entire finale of Chapter 11, and you’ll know why I started looking up instructions on the internet on how to chew my own foot off.
This scene isn’t even in this chapter; it’s from Chapter 8 during the “Hey, Bob!” sequence. For fuck’s sake, they couldn’t even get the lobby cards right for this episode! Aaagh! FUCK YOU, Phantom Creeps. Fuck you so much.
For those of you brave souls playing the The Phantom Creeps Really Fucking Sucks home game, you can compare the original footage from Vanishing Shadow with the mangled re-purposed Creeps version here: The Vanishing Shadow begins here and continues here; Creeps begins here.
This episode is a good three minutes shorter than most others, but they make up for it by the fiendish idiocy of the cliffhanger, composed entirely of incompetent second unit footage and poorly manipulated clips from The Vanishing Shadow. The spies pass through the roadblock just prior to PGR and Bob driving through. A wacky plot twist involving Eddie Acuff and stupidity got them into a car that somewhat matches the Shadow footage; basically, PGR said, “Let me drive, in case you have to do any shooting!” thus explaining why an icky gurl is driving instead of a man, which, as described in Galatians 2:1, is a direct affront to God.
And here is where my patience finally crumbled: PGR occasionally drives on the right, U.K. style. There is no reason for that, so I am forced to blame it on stupidity. What’s worse is that the original footage from Shadow has the driver, Ada Ince, on the correct side. The specific clip used in Creeps was apparently something left on the cutting room floor, unused until Creeps needed them. And they were deliberately flipped to put the driver on the wrong side, just to match the mistake of the second unit filming PGR driving on the wrong side!
That’s Ada Ince and Onslow Stevens in flipped footage from The Vanishing Shadow repurposed for The Phantom Creeps, Chapter 12. If your internal organs can handle the pain, here’s the full driving sequence from Chapter 11.
So the road crew blows up a hill as PGR and G-Man Bob drive past, ostensibly burying them in dirt clumps and chunks of unfortunate prairie dogs that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cliffhanger! Will they survive?
The big question, I think, is will we? Because I am very close to posting a video of The Phantom Creeps DVD being burnt, run over by a truck, smashed, spat upon, fed to a goat, the droppings buried, dug back up again, shot, then the tiny little shards gathered up and carried across the country during a three-month road trip where, once a day, no matter where my broken-down Pontiac had carried me, I would bury a piece in a shaded corner of the town cemetery until the entire disc was gone, and so were the nightmares. Then I would return home, aged and bearded, my life a shambles but with a tiny hope that it could be pieced back together, if only because I knew that the same hope did not exist for this accursed DVD.
So anyway! Stock up on Gatorade, holy water and Imodium and meet me back here in a few short days for the exciting conclusion of The Phantom Creeps!