Tuesday, August 2, 2011

50's Monster Mash Blogathon: PHANTOM CREEPS

Graphic by Rachel Hood. Adapted from ROBOT MONSTER.
In the 1950s, Universal Pictures took a number of its movie serials and re-edited them into 75-80 minute features for television.
For example
  • Buck Rogers serial was condensed into Planet Outlaws
  • Flash Gordon became two features: RocketShip and SpaceShip Into the Unknown.
  • Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars was edited into Mars Attacks the World.
  • Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe became Purple Death from Outer Space.
Some serials like Green Hornet retained their title for the feature film version.
So did The Phantom Creeps.
It was this version I first saw in the early 1960s on Saturday afternoons on WNEW in New York.

BTW, the title refers to the giant robot, The Phantom, not a group of phantom people or beings called "Creeps" or a villain called "The Phantom"!
Phantom Creeps stars Bela Lugosi in his final serial appearance, once more as a villain.
(His previous serial role was as the heroic Chandu the Magician in The Return of Chandu, which was also released as two features in the 1950s.  Universal Pictures sure knew the meaning of "repurposing"!)
Here, he plays Dr Alec Zorka, a genius who has developed numerous super-science devices including a near-invulnerable giant robot, an invisibility device, and a suspended-animation raygun!
With both the US government and various "foreign powers" attempting to acquire his weaponry, it's literally "Zorka Against the World", with the mad scientist holding the advantage since the Americans both want to capture him alive and prevent both the scientist and his devices from ending up in enemy hands!
You'll note that some pics from this film have Lugosi clean-shaven, and others (left) show him with a beard.
There are two reasons for this..
1) Lugosi's character shaves his beard midway through the film.
2) It was done in order to match stock footage taken from Universal's feature The Invisible Ray, where Lugosi played another scientist, but with a beard.
Along with stock footage, the serial borrowed props, sets, costumes, and music from earlier genre features (A common practice to keep costs down).
Interestingly, when a comic adaptation of the serial was done, the artists (who were using a weird combination of photos and illustrations in a semi-fumetti,) kept the beard on him for the entire story!
C'mon, admit it, that was kool, although it is a severe abridgement of the serial script (and pretty close to the feature film version)!
The design for The Phantom was so unique that, unlike most other robots of the era, he never appeared in another live-action movie, either in new or stock footage!
However, Rob Zombie loved the robot so much he built a duplicate, which has appeared on-stage during his concerts and in the video for his single, "Dragula"
Zombie also "recast" The Phantom as Murray the Robot, transformable cybernetic aide to Susi-X in his animated feature Haunted World of El Superbeasto!
He didn't have that gun in Phantom Creeps!
Both the original Phantom Creeps serial and feature are available on inexpensive DVD, or free at YouTube, and the Internet Archive.
Since it's PD, the source prints are pretty battered, but still watchable and very entertaining.

I hope you enjoyed my contribution to the Blogathon.
Bookmark this blog and visit often.  I post several times a week.


  1. Enjoyed your post, Captain -- but you've left out a pair of Lugosi chapter plays between The Return of Chandu (1934) and The Phantom Creeps (1939): Bela did Shadows of Chinatown in 1936 and S.O.S. Coast Guard the year following.

    Creeps, being in the public domain, is available from a variety of DVD companies but the best print that I've seen is the one available from VCI. You might have to spend a few more pennies for it but as my grandfather always said, "It only costs a few extra bucks to go first class."

    Finally, the Classic Movie Blog Association is going to host a Guilty Pleasures blogathon later this year...and I think I might do this one as my entry.

  2. Figures. I downsize into a one-bedroom from a two-bedroom, put most of my reference books into storage, and make a goof like this!
    Thanks for the catch, Ivan!

  3. Fascinating post - really enjoyed the comics (like the touch of the concerned wife; that seems unusual for movie villains). Lugosi's mad Zorka seems like a re-do of his equally mad Roxor from CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, where he also had a secret ray and wanted to conquer the world. Love the Phantom's 'look,' as if carved from a totem pole.

  4. Madame Zorka's death pushes Alex over the edge quite convincingly, giving him a sympathetic side not usually found in genre villains.

    I found it odd that Lugosi played the villain in the feature film Chandu the Magician, then played the title hero in the sequel (the only time that's ever happened, AFAIK).

  5. I would have never dreamed of doing a blog post on "The Phantom Creeps" comic! Great idea! This is just the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes blogathons legendary! Great job!

  6. Glad you liked it.
    I've enjoyed seeing what other people do with similar material, including their takes on films I've covered.
    There's always something someone else knows that we don't...

  7. Hey, a comic tie-in. I have a wierd fondness for them, no matter the quality. I can't blame them for keeping Lugosi's beard consistent throughout. Because of the comic's style, that beard is the main thing that distinguishes him, even if you can sort of see Lugosi's features in the close-ups.

  8. I first discovered the Phantom Creeps through MST3K. They would show an episode of the serial as a short before the feature movie.
    That comic is pretty cool, thanks for posting it! I had no idea that serial had comic adaptations, especially in the form of half photographs, half drawings.

  9. Love the comics. I don't understand why the robot has a face like that though. They actually chose to make him always look like he smells something bad?