Directors: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind
VCI Entertainment

Horror icon Bela Lugosi became a household name in the 1930s, his most successful decade in terms of the kinds of roles he was getting following the success of DRACULA. This era also found Lugosi propelled into the world of serials, weekly cliffhangers with a total of 12 or 15 chapter installments, which capitalized on his easily recognizable name. Bela’s serial vehicles included THE WHISPERING SHADOW (1933), THE RETURN OF CHANDU (1934), SHADOW OF CHINATOWN (1936) and S.O.S COAST GUARD (1937), all produced for various studios. Lugosi’s final serial, THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1938), was also the last time he’d be top-billed in anything made by Universal, the studio which made him an international star.

Dr. Alex Zorka (Bela Lugosi) is another crazed scientist out to take over the world with the help of his jailbird assistant, Monk (Jack C. Smith). Zorka’s numerous destructive weapons include a mechanism which can make him invisible, a meteorite which extracts an element that induces suspended animation, automated spiders that explode, and an eight-foot tall clunky killer robot. Foreign spies (headed by Chief Jarvis played by Edward Van Sloan) are out to obtain his meteorite at any cost, but Zorka (who shaves his beard, fakes his own death and changes his identity during the course of the program) is also faced with law-abiding adversaries such as former partner Dr. Mallory (Edwin Stanley), G-Men Captain Bob West (Robert Kent) and Jim Daly (Regis Toomey), and hard-boiled bombshell newspaper reporter Jean Drew (Dorothy Arnold).

As far as serials go, THE PHANTOM CREEPS is not one of the best of its type and its various perils and cliffhanger endings are for the most part routine, but there’s still some fun to be had. Lugosi’s presence is the main reason why this 12-parter is still remembered to this day, and good old Bela is fun to watch being over the top when the scene calls for it, outwitting his enemies by making himself transparent. Universal produced this one on a minuscule budget, so tons of stock footage is used, probably enough to make up the running time of two entire chapters. You’ll see an African jungle scene of Bela from THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936), used as a flashback, as well as the burning of the Hindenberg! Much of the sets are recycled, and the bulk of the music is taken from some of Universal’s Frankenstein series (most notably the romantic melody from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). Aside from Bela, most of the other heroes and villains are pretty unremarkable, though Edward Van Sloan (Lugosi’s DRACULA nemesis) shows what a diverse actor he was as a rather restrained baddie. The aforementioned robot, referred to on screen as an “iron man,” is silly and awkward looking (not to mention, its oversized bald head has the expressive face of a deranged genie) has become a semi popular image in pop culture throughout the decades.

The 12 chapters of THE PHANTOM CREEPS are: 1. The Menacing Power, 2. Death Stalks the Highways, 3. Crashing Towers, 4. Invisible Terror, 5. Thundering Rails, 6. The Iron Monster, 7. The Menacing Mist, 8. Trapped in the Flames, 9. Speeding Doom, 10. Phantom Footprints, 11. The Blast and 12. To Destroy the World. Each installment runs an average of 20 minutes, give or take.

THE PHANTOM CREEPS has been a staple of public domain DVDs and VHS cassettes for years, often looking quite horrid in quality -- meaning dark, washed out and dupey looking. This release from VCI (a company which has done some great work with various serials on home video) is an improvement over previous releases, but the print source still is in rough shape. The full screen black and white image looks crisper and has more detail than other releases, and the framing also allows for more head room and less cropping on the top of the screen. There is a fair share of speckling, lines and splices throughout, and for some reason (perhaps it was culled from a different print source?), chapter 6 takes a nosedive in quality, looking noticeably inferior to the others. The sound is scratchy and at times wobbly, but again, better than the audio on most of the versions out there. VCI’s disc of THE PHANTOM CREEPS may not be perfect, but it’s certainly the best home video version to date.

Extras on the disc include the Looney Tunes cartoon “Porky's Midnight Matinee” (1941) starring Porky Pig as well as a lengthy promo trailer for other serials that VCI offers on DVD. (George R. Reis)