The Phantom Creeps (1939)

This Universal movie serial — told in twelve parts — shares some similarities with the earlier serial The Vanishing Shadow, including the inventions of an invisibility belt and a remote-control robot.

That makes sense — at the time, Universal was all about recycling. This movie contains stock footage from The Invisible Ray and The Vanishing Shadow, as well as music from the Flash Gordon serials and Frankenstein movies, plus car chase footage that had been used in several other serials and newsreel footage taken from the Hindenburg disaster.

Eight years after his star turn in Dracula, Bela Lugosi’s career was in decline. He had been typecast as a horror star and was not seen as talented as his co-star — and possible rival — Boris Karloff.

This career downturn had many factors behind it. Universal changed management in 1936 and due to a British ban on horror films, they dropped the once popular films from their production schedule. Lugosi found himself consigned to Universal’s non-horror B-film unit — such as the team that made serials like this. And while the actor was busy with stage work, he had to borrow money from the Actors Fund  to pay the hospital bills for the birth of his son Bela George Lugosi in 1938.

However, that year brought Bela back. California theater owner Emil Umann revived Dracula and Frankenstein as a special double feature, a bill so successful that it played to sellout crowds and Lugosi himself came to host the movies. The actor would say, “I was dead, and he brought me back to life.” Universal took notice of the tremendous business and launched its own national re-release, as well as hiring Lugosi to star in new films.

The Phantom Creeps — yes, we’ll get back to this movie in a minute — was the last of the five serials that the actor would make, shot right after he returned from making Dead Eyes of London. It was released a week before his comeback vehicle, Son of Frankenstein.

Sadly, by 1948, the parts dwindled again and severe sciatica from Lugosi’s military service was treated with opiates, causing a downward spiral that the actor would never really emerge from. He appeared in movies like Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. After making that movie, he checked himself into rehab, one of the first celebrities to publically do so. According to Kitty Kelley’s His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, “Old Blue Eyes” helped with expenses, despite never meeting Lugosi before and visited him at the hospital.

The actor died of a heart attack in 1956, having just married his fifth wife. And yes, he was buried in his Dracula cape.

In this film, he plays Dr. Zorka, a man who loves to make weapons and refuses to sell them to anyone or any country. This upsets all manner of people, like Dr. Fred Mallory, his former partner, and government man Captain Bob West.

Dorothy Arnold, who plays love interest Jean Drew, was the first wife of baseball star Joe DiMaggio. Look for Edward Van Sloan, who always played the doctor battling the supernatural in Universal films. He’s Van Helsing in Dracula, Dr. Muller in The Mummy and Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein. In fact, that movie begins by him warning the audience that they can leave now if they’re too frightened. And Ed Wolff, the seven foot, four inch actor who played the robot, was also in Invaders from Mars and The Return of the Fly.

Speaking of the robot, you may have seen him in Rob Zombie’s work. The song “Meet the Creeper” is based on the movie and the robot often appears in the singer’s music videos and stage shows.

You can watch this on Amazon Prime or The Internet Archive. It’s also on Tubi with Rifftrax commentary.

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