• Film reviews

    #443 – The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938)

    The Fighting Devi Dogs (1938)

    Film review #443

    Directors: William Witney, John English

    SYNOPSIS: An American army unit stationed in Singapore is attacked by a lightning-based weapon that all but wipes them out. The two survivors, lieutenants Tom Grayson and Frank Corby learn that a masked villain known only as “The Lightning” is behind the attack, and is using a range of lightning-based weaponry to terrorise the world. Vowing revenge, Grayson and Corby seek out The Lightning and to put a stop to his villainous schemes once and for all…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISThe Fighting Devil Dogs is a 1938 Republic Pictures serial comprised of twelve chapters. The serial opens up with an American army unit on patrol in Singapore, where they stumble upon an outpost within which another unit has been wiped out. When their own unit is attacked by a strange lightning-based weapon, the only two survivors, lieutenants Tom Grayson and Frank Corby swear revenge by going after the perpetrator, a criminal who calls himself “The Lightning,” who is terrorising the world with his lightning-based weaponry. The serial revolves around Grayson and Corby, along with their friends, attempting to stop The Lightning’s various schemes, alongside trying to track him down, and exposing his identity as they believe him to be one of his inner circle. Nothing very new here. The story does move at an even pace, and is decently structured, with different settings and action sequences to keep things interesting. As always, there’s not too much to comment on in terms of serial plots, as they always revolve around the same two or three tropes. One notable aspect of the serial is that there is a lot of footage re-used from other serials. For example, the Lightning’s “Flying Wing” aircraft that resembles a modern stealth bomber is the exact same one that is seen in the 1937 Dick Tracy serial. There are no new shots of it, and viewers would undoubtedly remember it if they had seen the popular Dick Tracy serial. In a time where you could only watch these serials at the theatre, maybe people would have been less likely to remember what they had seen in previous serials, or maybe they wanted to capitalise on the popularity of the Dick Tracy serial. The real reason for the stock footage re-use is obviously to save money, but there’s certainly worse footage they could have re-used from worse serials.

    The cast of characters is all very familiar and predictable to serial watchers: Grayson and Corby are the young male heroes who do the action sequences and get into plenty of fistfights. The supporting case consists of the usual sole female character, and a cast of minor characters of whom are all suspects for the real identity of “The Lightning.” On the villain himself, he is quite a cool character, with his black outfit, slick helmet, and a lightning gun to shoot people with. The one thing that undoes his image is his nasally, cartoon-ish voice that makes him sound like Skeletor from He-man. A common observation is that “The Lightning” may have very well been an inspiration for the character of Darth Vader. George Lucas is well known to have been a fan of serial movies in his youth, and there’s plenty of aspects of his films that are directly taken from the format, such as the scrolling text openings of Star Wars (and their episodic format), and the general style of Indiana Jones, including his outfit which is almost identical to a character in the Jack Armstrong serial. With this in mind, I think it’s more than a coincidence that “The Lightning” inspired a villain dressed in a black suit, cloak and helmet, who fires lightning from his hands. Also now that I think about it, the “Star Destroyer” ships in Star Wars have the same triangular ship as the “Flying Wing” in this serial…

    William Witney, one of the directors of this serial, has stated that this is one of the worst serials that he ever worked on. From the director’s standpoint, I can completely understand why: the sheer amount of stock footage means that the director wouldn’t have to do much, in particular, direct the more exciting scenes which are taken from previous serials. There’s also the fact that there are two flashback chapters which just re-run footage of previous chapters, meaning even less need for a director. It’s no surprise that the serial was only one of three that Republic Pictures made that came in under budget. Another thing holding the serial back is that some of the acting is pretty bad, especially from the two male leads, who often sound like they’ve just barely memorised their lines. Other than the director’s misgivings, I would not classify The Fight Devil Dogs as one of the worst serials. It has some problems in it’s constant re-using of footage, and it’s poor acting, but the plot is fairly even and easy enough to follow, and the villain has a pretty cool design, making it watchable and mildly entertaining.

  • Film reviews

    #443 – Gingerdead Man 2; Passion of the Crust (2008)

    Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust (2008)

    Film review #443

    Director: Silvia St. Croix

    SYNOPSIS: At the production of another cheap horror movie, the production team are dealing a myriad of problems that only get worse when the Gingerdead Man turns up in a box of pastry and goes about slaughtering the staff in order to enact and ancient spell to return hi to human form…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISGingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust is a 2008 comedy horror film and the sequel to the 2006 film The Gingerdead Man. The film centres around a low-budget film production studio, where their are problems abound with it’s latest production, and director Kelvin Cheatum is trying to keep everything together on set. They are visited by Tommy and his carer Heather from the “End of the Rainbow Last Wish Foundation” (obvious parody of the make-a-wish foundation) in order to fulfil Tommy’s dying wish of seeing where his favourite movies are made. Polly Bonderhoof attempts to bring some peace to the set with a box of freshly baked pastries from her sister, but unfortunately one of those pastries is the Gingerdead man himself, who stumbles upon a spell book that contains a spell to transmigrate his soul into a human body, requiring the blood of six victims to perform it. With this in mind, The Gingerdead Man starts off on another killing spree to accomplish his goal. The film starts off by recapping the events of the first film, but none of the original cast are in this sequel or even mentioned apart from The Gingerdead Man, so it seems pretty pointless to recap those events…unless, of course, it’s to pad out the runtime, which I’m pretty certain is what is happening. Most of the film doesn’t even feature The Gingerdead Man at all, but rather focuses on the other characters who aren’t really that interesting. It’s only in the last act that he becomes the focus of some attention, whereas for the rest of the film he is skulking around in the background talking to himself, and the kills are not a point of interest, which is pretty essential for a slasher flick.

    The characters apart from the Gingerdead Man aren’t all that interesting, although they do have some development and a few twists along the way. You can’t help but feel you’re not really interested in them though in comparison to what the Gingerdead Man is doing. It’s never explained how the Gingerdead Man returned after the first one, but since none of the other characters or plot points return, it’s not an issue that is lingered upon.

    Being set in a movie studio, I think it’s pretty obvious that this is used as cover to use film equipment and sets as part of the film itself to make it cheaper to produce. Some of the puppets are decently designed and animated, and the sets are at least fairly full of props and scenery to make it look somewhat genuine. One of the big problems is that a lot of the Gingerdead Man’s scenes and the subsequent gore are shot close up (so you obviously can’t see the wires or puppetry), and as such, you don’t really get a sense of action and movement from these shots. The film also makes a habit of having long scenes of dialogue that dissipates any sense of pacing or tension. I think the film is also a bit of a self-commentary on the production company Full Moon Pictures, which itself makes low-budget horror films, but whether this is something average film goers will appreciate is debatable. The film ends with the Gingerdead Man being crucified by the other puppets, which I guess fulfils the subtitle of the movie, but is the only thing that does. Overall, Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust suffers from the problems of its predecessor, but has a more interesting setting and story that ties up all the characters. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a low-budget slasher comedy, so you get what you would expect, but with a bit more polish than its predecessor.

  • Film reviews

    #442 – Daredevils of the Red Circle

    Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)

    Film review #442

    Directors: William Witney, John English

    SYNOPSIS: Three daredevils are performing their regular circus act when sabotage leads to a huge fire breaking out, and the death of the young brother of one of the performers leads to them wanting to seek revenge. They learn that a former prisoner is responsible, and is attempting to destroy the properties of Granville, the man which put him away. The daredevils team up with Granville, but little do they know that the Granville they are working with  is actually prisoner “39013″, who has assumed Granville’s identity and kept the real one locked up in his basement as a means to exact his revenge. The daredevils must work together to stop 39013 and unravel the mystery, aided by a mysterious ally known as the “Red circle,” who communicates with them only through notes in order to alert them of 39013′s plans and to keep their identity a secret…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISDaredevils of the Red Circle is a 1939 serial film comprised of twelve chapters. The serial opens up with the daredevils Gene, Tiny and Burt performing their show at a circus owned by millionaire philanthropist Horace Granville. Meanwhile, ex-prisoner and former business partner of Granville Harry Crowel, who now goes by his prisoner number “39013″ (pronounced thirty-nine oh thirteen), plans to get revenge on Granville, who put him in prison. 39013 sabotages the next show of the daredevils, causing the circus to go up in flames and killing Gene’s kid brother. They decide to get revenge by teaming up with Granville to stop 39013, but little do they know the Granville they are working with is actually 39013 himself, disguising himself as Granville, who is actually locked in the basement, and ruining his life from within. The rest of the serial comprises of the Daredevil’s attempts to foil 39013′s various schemes, while being aided by notes left for them by the mysterious “Red Circle.” The story and format are all very familiar to serial goers, with the opening chapter actually showing off the unique aspects of the characters doing their daredevil tricks and stunts, and then in subsequent chapters hardly ever being seen again, with the aim of the expensively produced first chapter being used to draw viewers in and convince them to come back to the theatre week after week to watch subsequent ones. The death of Gene’s young brother Sammy is an unusually dark premise to open on, as the kid character is a staple of many serials that younger viewers may relate to, rather than them being killed off in the first ten minutes. The rest of the serial is a very familiar story though, with each chapter introducing a new plot to destroy another of Granville’s industries or properties, and the daredevil’s attempting to stop the. There’s some decent variety and action sequences, but nothing too memorable amongst the huge amount of times they have been done across the format.

    The characters are the usual suspects in this serial, with the three daredevils being the usual young, athletic, ideal Americans who can pull off all the necessary stunts and fistfights that the story demands. They are all defined as having a speciality in particular aspects of daredevilry, but we never see those particular talents define their character beyond the first chapter, and they all feel very similar to one another. Blanche as the granddaughter of Granville plays the typical token female character and as usual has very little to do for the majority of the serial. 39013 is a fairly typical villain, but at least he has a clear motive and purpose. He is played by Charles Middleton, who most famously was the villain Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials, and later the villain in the Jack Armstrong serial. The man certainly knows how to play a villain. The rest of the characters don’t leave much of an impression, apart from the dog Tuffie, who is obviously well trained. The one seriously problematic character is that of “Snowflake,” a black man who serves as a “servant” in the Granville household. Like nearly every black person in cinema at this time, they are portrayed as simple-minded and clumsy, alongside being the butt of every joke. Obviously this is an extremely racist and problematic representation that films created and perpetuated during this time, and badly dates the serial.

    The serial makes use of some decent settings and set-ups for it’s end-of-chapter cliffhangers, such as chapter two’s flooding tunnel in which one of the daredevils has to escape on a motorbike. The effects aren’t convincing by today’s standards, but are decent for the time. The plot ramps up at the end of the tenth chapter, where 39013 is unmasked and flees while the real Granville is rescued, and this makes a change to everything usually being resolved in the last five minutes in other serials. However, it throws away that excitement by using chapter eleven as a “recap” chapter consisting mostly of clips from the previous chapters, which really stops the excitement in its tracks. Overall, Daredevils of the Red Circle has some decent moments and a fair amount of excitement, but a number of problems make it feel very dated and not really worth returning to.

  • Film reviews

    #441 – The Gingerdead Man (2005)

    The Gingerdead Man (2005)

    Film review #441

    Director: Charles Band

    SYNOPSIS: Following a robbery in which two people are killed, the criminal is executed for his crimes. Sarah, whose Brother and Father were the ones killed while she survived, is working at her family’s bakery when a mysterious delivery arrives. When she bakes a gingerbread man with this delivery, it comes alive with the soul of the robber that killed Sarah’s family, and seeks to finish the job he started…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISThe Gingerdead Man is a 2005 comedy horror film. The film starts off with a robbery in progress at a diner (who robs a diner?), where Sarah watches her brother and father get shot and killed by the robber, but before he can kill her, he is stopped, and eventually executed for his crimes. Years later, Sarah is working at her family’s bakery when a mysterious delivery arrives, and when she bakes a gingerbread using this delivery, it comes alive with the soul of the robber who murdered Sarah’s brother and father, and is looking to finish what he started. The film follows a typical format of horror films, with the cast of various personalities attempting to survive the murderous spree of the villain, who picks them off one by one through somewhat creative deaths. Despite the absurd premise of cursed bakery products, the film for the most part plays it straight, and takes the whole scenario seriously. There’s a few silly one-liners and some of the deaths are over-the-top, but other than that it’s a pretty straightforward affair that doesn’t take much advantage of it’s bizarre premise, and the uneven pacing means that there isn’t really enough tension built up to make it interesting. The whole premise of the robber’s soul being transferred into a gingerbread man isn’t explained at all, and while it’s somewhat easy to piece together what happens, the specifics aren’t explored. This isn’t the type of film to worry about the details though.

    The characters resemble a fairly typical horror film cast, full of conflicting personalities and drama between them. There’s Sarah Leigh and the other employees of the bakery ‘Brick’ and Julia, and also Lorna Dean, whose father runs a nearby commercial bakery attempting to put the family-run bakery out of business, and her boyfriend Amos Cadbury (nice sweet-related surname there), with whom a love triangle is set up between him, Sarah and Lorna. A lot of the character development is done through scenes of dialogue that really slow the film down, and also don’t really add anything to what’s going on. The Gingerdead Man himself we hardly see enough of, as he appears only nearly half way through the film, and given it only really has a sixty minute runtime, there’s not much exploration of the set-up, or giving the villain opportunity to creatively enact his killing.

    The Gingerdead Man is obviously a low budget affair, with the short runtime, the use of a very limited amount of sets, and plenty of scenes consisting of just talking. Gary Busey as the robber/The Gingerdead Man is the only recognisable casting, and is probably where the majority of the budget went (even though he was paid “only” $25,000). The music seems to also to be a bit misplaced; it never seems to fit the scene, or builds up too soon or too late. The Gingerdead Man himself is decently animated and fairly lively, but we only ever see him from close-up shots and never in full view of the camera, probably to hide the strings or whatever puppetry was being used to animate him. Also, the credit sequence consists of the slowest possible crawl of people involved, and runs to over ten minutes in an obvious attempt to increase the runtime, which is ridiculous for such a low budget feature. Overall, The Gingerdead Man does nothing to fill the ridiculous premise that its title promises, and also doesn’t offer much as a parody of horror tropes either. Everything it does the Child’s Play films have done much better, so it has little to offer as a unique film experience.

  • Film reviews

    #440 – Mandrake, the Magician (1939)

    Mandrake, the Magician (1939)

    Film review #440

    Directors: Norman Deming, Sam Nelson

    SYNOPSIS: The magician Mandrake and his assistant Lothar are performing magic shows on a cruise liner when they make the acquaintance of Professor Houston, who claims to have invented a “Radium energy machine.” When this miraculous invention is stolen by a criminal known only as “The Wasp,” Mandrake must use all of his cunning to recover the machine and defeat the villainous criminal mastermind.

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISMandrake, the Magician is a 1939 movie serial comprised of twelve chapters, and based off the comic strip of the same name. the serial starts out on a cruise ship with Mandrake performing a magic show with his assistant Lothar, when they make the acquaintance of Professor Houston, who has developed a radium energy machine for the good of mankind. When Mandrake visits Professor Houston and his family at his home, he finds that the radium gun has been stolen by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Wasp,” who wants to use it for nefarious purposes. This begins the usual serial plot of attempting to stop the mysterious criminal mastermind and his henchman by foiling their various plots, with car chases, fistfights and explosions along the way. It’s fairly standard stuff for the format, and content I have reviewed plenty of times for the other serials I have reviewed. There’s enough action and variety to be entertaining for the time, but not much to enthral viewers nowadays.

    The comic strip character Mandrake was very much a proto-superhero, using illusion, hypnosis and trickery in his masked disguise to thwart villains. This serial adaptation does what most similar adaptations of these characters do, and simply use a recognisable name and strip down anything unique or interesting (or anything too expensive to accomplish) to fit them into the serial format of the All-american hero who solves all his problems with his fists. Mandrake’s “magic is reduced to some cheap novelty tricks which only feature prominently in the first chapter (with the usual purpose of enticing viewers into theatres to watch it and returning for subsequent chapters, despite these subsequent ones lacking the excitement of the first). There’s a scene where the villains tie up Mandrake’s hands, but obviously being a magician, he can easily slip out of them; the villains should probably have thought about that a bit. The rest of the characters are unnoteworthy: Lothar as Mandrake’s assistant is the only non-white person and refers to Mandrake as “Master,” which is a typical portrayal of non-white characters as subservient to the main characters. Professor Houston’s family includes his daughter Betty (as the token female character) and Tommy Houston as the “kid” character the younger viewers can identify with. The Wasp is another serial villain who takes the identity of an animal, and is also secretly one of Mandrake’s allies; a plot point that is only revealed in the last ten minutes or so, and has no real impact on the plot anyway. His disguise is quite distinct, but other than that there’s nothing particularly memorable about him.

    As always with these serials, there’s a strict (no) budget to these serials, with nothing too fancy beyond explosions, car chases, and stock footage from anything more extravagant. The sets at least have some effort put into them as well as the radium machine itself looking like an interesting prop. The shots of models being destroyed are, while not convincing by today’s standards, are visually arresting. The cliffhangers employ a variety of situations that put the protagonists in danger, but as always are resolved rather unremarkably. I think Mandrake, the Magician could have been an interesting serial if it would have focused on the “magic” angle a bit more, and offered some different action and heroics to set it apart from other serials. As it is though, it follows the typical formula of using the name of a popular character and taking out all their unique features to fit the pre-established serial format to allow for quick production and release. There’s nothing overly bad about it, but it is unremarkable in the plethora of these stories in the serial format.

  • Film reviews

    #439 – Evil Bong 777 (2018)

    Evil Bong 777 (2018)

    Film review #439

    Director: Charles Band

    SYNOPSIS: After escaping “Sexy Hell”, Rabbit, Ebee and the rest of the gang decide to head to Las Vegas to escape the wrath of Lucy Furr and Beelzebud, but the two are hot on their heels to take their revenge…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISEvil Bong 777 is the seventh and final (to date) instalment of the Evil Bong film series. Continuing from where the previous film left off, we see Rabbit, Ebee, Misty, Batty Boop and the Gingerweed Man escaping from “Sexy Hell” and the clutches of Lucy Furr and Beelzebud. On the run, they decide to flee to Las Vegas. The plot of the film basically revolves around the cats just…doing stuff in Las Vegas: they go and see a show (an excuse to show some nudity), they check into a grubby hotel and…well, that’s about it. The film really has no plot, like most of the other films in the series. Every scene is just a chance for either some crude nudity or extended, inane dialogue that goes nowhere. There’s not even a real plot to the film: Whereas in the previous films had some sort of scheme by the evil bong to take over the world, here she just hangs about in the background interrupting with some dismissive comments every so often. Lucy Furr’s plan to escape Sexy Hell doesn’t have any consequences either, as she never seems to have a plan with what to do when she gets out. The series clearly ran out of ideas several films ago, and spends most of it’s runtime on this inane dialogue I have come to expect from the series, and at a runtime that is less than an hour, the bankruptcy of ideas is very apparent.

    The characters from the previous film return, but the original cast of college roommates are long gone and forgotten. The only characters that have appeared in all the films are Rabbit and the Evil Bong herself. I suppose if I were to find a positive in this film, it is that each of the cast has something to do and their own dedicated scenes. None of these scenes really tie into anything in the grander narrative, because as mentioned there is no grand narrative. The inclusion of other characters from other films made by Full Moon Pictures makes things even more confusing if you haven’t watched them. The gag characters of the rednecks and stoner pairs return for their predictable schtick that adds a little energy to the dialogue. There’s also two new creatures made from the Gingerdead Man’s corpse, but they only re-appear at the end of the film to perhaps set them up as the villains of the next film, which has to date not materialised. Introducing the halfway through the film and having them show up only at the end again feels like another pointless endeavour.

    One common theme throughout these films is the lack of settings. Evil Bong 777 has a few different ones, but they’re either pretty sparse, or they’re obviously greenscreened. You definitely never get the sense that they are actually in Vegas. There’s perhaps some attempt to push the series through more absurd and in-your-face nudity and sex scenes, but they don’t really tie into anything. Whereas the previous films might have gotten one or even two mild chuckles, this one didn’t even get that: Evil Bong 777 is really running on fumes in terms of its story, characters and humour. As such, it is not going to appeal to anyone, but I suppose if you’ve suffered through the rest of the films (as I have), you might as well suffer through just one more…

  • Film reviews

    #438 – Flying G-men (1939)

    Flying G-Men (1939)

    Film review #438

    Directors: Ray Taylor, James W. Horne

    SYNOPSIS: Three government ‘G-men’ are tasked with taking down a spy ring that are targeting military defences. To do so, one of them also takes on the masked identity of “The Black Falcon” to operate beyond their operative limits to bring the spies to justice. Learning that a man known only as “The Professor” is leading the spies, they suspect the owner of the local airport to be involved somehow, and work to unravel the mystery and prevent the spies from getting their hands on a new experimental aircraft…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISFlying G-men is a 1939 film serial comprised of fifteen chapters. The seral starts out with four government G-men being assigned to protect a new military aircraft. When one of them is killed by a group of spies attempting to steal the aircraft, the three remaining G-men attempt to hunt down the spy ring before they can sabotage any military defences. To do so, one of them disguises themselves as “The Black Falcon,” who operates individually from them beyond the confines of their job to stop the spy ring. The story is composed of many familiar serial tropes; with the villain secretly being a close associate of the protagonists, plenty of fistfights and chases in cars and planes, and a masked identity for the heroes so they can operate beyond the bounds of the law (this trope saw a decline in the wartime serials, probably because seeing heroes operating beyond the law was a bit too rebellious and similar to spy activities). The identity of “The Black Falcon” as being one of the three heroes and kept secret is a lesser used trope, but has been done before, and their actual identity doesn’t really have any impact on the story. The serial does have a very high-action feel, with it maintaining its energy throughout the chapters, and quickly moving from one action sequence to another. There’s a little bit of standing around and explaining the plot, but it’s nowhere near as bad as some other serials. If you were to go to the theatre each week to watch every new chapter, you would at least get to see plenty of action and be reasonably entertained for fifteen minutes.

    The three main characters are the usual heroic leads, in that they are the young, athletic men who can throw the punches in fistfights and jump out of cars without any danger to themselves. being three of them, there’s no need for the usual sidekick character that accompanies the hero to help in the action scenes. There’s nothing to really distinguish the three, apart from one of them being The Black Falcon, the identity of which is revealed in the last minute and has no impact on the plot. However, the three do work together well, and co-ordinate together so you get the sense that they do know each other well. Supporting characters include the sole female character and her young brother, who provides the role that younger viewers can relate with. Their characters are nothing special but do have certain chapters that focus on their actions, so that helps give the serial some variety. The villains are altogether rather uninteresting, with “The Professor” being the mastermind of the spy ring, but his motivations are never explored, making him a rather flat character. His identity as one of the G-men’s friends is not fleshed out, and a very typical plot device of the format.

    The car chases and airplane fights, while obviously cheaply produced, work decently enough, and there’s enough explosions and shootouts to keep viewers entertained. There’s also a fair amount of locations used in the serial, as the heroes fight their way though multiple enemy bases. There’s enough variety and action that would have kept the viewers going to the theatre to see Flying G-men to be fairly satisfied, even if it doesn’t do anything too special to set itself apart. 

  • Film reviews

    #437 – The Invisible Monster (1950)

    The Invisible Monster (1950)

    Film review #437

    Director: Fred C. Brannon

    SYNOPSIS: A criminal known only as the “phantom Ruler” has devised a way to turn invisible by covering his clothing in a special chemical and remaining under a specific light source. He coaxes some men who have illegally entered the country to be his underlings, setting them up in various jobs to sabotage security and such in order to commit crimes. Insurance agent Lane Carson is tasked with investigating the incidents, alongside his new assistant Carol Richards, and stopping the Phantom Ruler from getting the necessary materials for creating an invisible army…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISThe Invisible Monster is a 1950 serial by Republic Pictures comprised of twelve chapters. The story is a familiar one to serial-watchers, as insurance investigator Chase Lane is assigned to stop a series of crimes committed by “The Phantom Ruler” before he can build an invisible army. The structure is pretty similar to every other serial of the time, but the specifics of the plot are fairly ridiculous and without logic. The trope of invisibility has been overused in serials (particularly by 1950 when this serial was released), but this serial invents such an incomprehensible and overly complicated logic for the trope that it renders the whole setup unconvincing: The Phantom Ruler has discovered a chemical that can turn whatever is covered in it invisible, but only when a specific type of light is shined upon it. This means that in order to turn invisible, The Phantom Ruler has to cover his robe in it, and have a spotlight shined on him whenever he wants to be invisible. This leads to some ridiculous scenes where he goes out to do things while invisible, but one of his underlings is hanging out the back of a van with a huge spotlight shining on him to keep him invisible. Luckily there’s no one about when he does these things, otherwise the presence of a man moving a spotlight around in the middle of the day might be a little suspicious. We see the spotlight move across the scenes to signify where the Phantom Ruler is, so if anyone can see the spotlight, they will surely be suspicious about anything happening within it. I’m also not sure if the visible spotlight is for the viewers benefit, or if the characters themselves can actually see it. Either way, the overly-complicated mechanisms are pretty ridiculous, and really stifle any possibilities that could arise from the use of invisibility. Aside from this, there’s the usual car chases, fist fights and shoot-outs you would expect, although they are rather predictable.

    The cast is fairly small, and rather unremarkable. Chase Lane is the typical serial lead (despite the untypical name) and Carol Richards pays the token female, although as an “assistant” she does actually have things to do, and gets involved in the car chases, and shootouts etc. which would typically be done by another young male “sidekick” character. The villain gets a surprising amount of screentime too, as his invisibility trick is the only stand-out part of this serial, so we get a fair amount of focus on seeing him carry out his crimes…or not carry them out, since he’s invisible and all. We’re never given his name or any information about him other than he wants to make an invisible army to take over the city/country…which also seems a bit of an issue; where is he going to find a spotlight big enough to conceal an entire army? Nothing about this scheme makes sense. Anyway, seeing the villain do most of the criminal work is a bit different than the usual types who stay hidden and get their henchmen to do their dirty work. The Phantom Ruler’s henchmen are given a bit of motive, in that they are immigrants who have illegally entered the country, and The Phantom blackmails them to do his bidding lest he turn the over to the authorities. A small detail, but one more than is usually given in these serials.

    Serials such as this usually have a very quick turn-around, with the whole thing being filmed in less than a month. The Invisible Monster feels like it was hastily put together even by serial standards. It is only twelve chapters long (which is the standard minimum number), but the chapters each run at just over thirteen minutes, and when you take out the title sequence and the re-used footage from the previous chapter to resolve the cliffhanger, that goes down to about eleven minutes, which if you had to go to the theatre every week to see each new chapter just for eleven minutes, it wouldn’t really be worth the effort. Also chapter ten is a “recap” chapter which just recaps the story using mostly previous footage, cutting down even further the material produced. The cliffhangers themselves are nothing special, and are very predictable, and the use of model cars going over cliffs is blatantly obvious. The acting is alright, but the scripting and dialogue is bad in the sense that there’s a lot of people explaining what the current situation is instead of showing it (this was typically used for the benefit of viewers who had not watched previous chapters), and also the traps and schemes the characters fall into are so blatant it makes everyone seem naïve and without any thought processes whatsoever, rendering them as mindless cut-outs explaining what they are doing instead of actually doing it. Overall, The Invisible Monster is a dull serial released past the peak of the format, and offering little to viewers. It’s hasty production skips out on making anything interesting, and the whole invisibility plot device is completely non-sensical and fails to stand up to any sort of logic. Even if you’re a serial fan, it’s not worth your time.

  • Uncategorised

    #436 – Don Winslow of the Navy (1942)

    Don Winslow of the Navy (1942)

    Film review #436

    Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor

    SYNOPSIS: Commander Don Winslow of the U.S. Navy is assigned to stop a foreign spy ring that is intent on sabotaging the construction of a new naval base on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Winslow and his friends battle against the head of the spy ring, known only as “The Scorpion” and seek to foil his evil schemes across land, sea and air…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISDon Winslow of the Navy is a 1942 film serial comprised of twelve chapters, and is based on the U.S. navy approved comic strip character of the same name. The story concerns Commander Winslow being assigned to stop a spy ring from sabotaging the construction of a new naval base in the Pacific Ocean. There’s not really anything special to say about the plot; it is a fairly standard setup that is found in nearly every wartime serial. While it is to be expected that these serials served as propaganda at the time for the war effort, Don Winslow was a character that was sanctioned and approved by the U.S. navy, so while this means that the uniforms and representation of the navy are fairly accurate, it probably means that there was a lot of oversight regarding what he should and shouldn’t do. I think this is probably the reason why he rarely gets into fistfights or other messy situations (although he does more so than in the sequel, where he never gets rough with anyone). Whereas the pre-wartime serials had plenty of lead characters that would don masks to conduct vigilante missions against the enemy, pre and post-war serials typically reserved such costumes and roles for the villains, while making leads that were victorious American soldiers.

    The characters are about what you’d expect from a serial, with Winslow being the face of the navy in the serial, and being expectedly heroic and patriotic. His fellow navy officer “Red” serves as his friend and backup in the action scenes, and Mercedes Colby fills the single female role. The villains are also pretty standard, with a bunch of henchmen being led by a man who is only known as “The Scorpion,” who as usual is a white man in make-up to “look” Japanese. We only ever see him, however, on a screen in the spy’s secret base, and there is no final showdown with him (he is however, confronted in the sequel). One very distracting thing about The Scorpion is that with the close-ups of his face on the screen, you can clearly tell the actor is reading his lines as his eyes move left to right, which is quite distracting. 

    There’s plenty of stock footage used of navy vessels and submarines that makes the action a bit more exciting, which again is probably owed to the fact that the serial had the involvement of the U.S. navy (although I’m led to believe that the submarine that shows up in the stock footage is a British submarine). The models used for the airplanes and such, are far less convincing. The cliffhangers usually end up with Winslow getting caught in an explosion or a collapsing building, and usually walking away with nothing more than a limp. Again, fairly standard resolution to the chapter cliffhangers, and obviously they’re not going to show a navy officer getting seriously hurt if they’re being portrayed as strong invincible heroes of the war. Overall, Don Winslow of the Navy is what you would expect from a wartime serial. It’s not particularly interesting and neither does it offer anything new or original. The use of stock footage of ships and navy vessels gives it a larger sense of scale, but it’s a product of wartime propaganda that serves almost exclusively that purpose, and not worth seeking out.

  • Film reviews

    #435 – Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943)

    Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943)

    Film review #435

    Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor

    SYNOPSIS: Following his success at Pearl Harbour, navy officer Don Winslow is assigned to the U.S. coast guard to stop Japanese saboteurs led by the mysterious “Scorpion.” Winslow’s new mission is to stop the saboteurs from disrupting the Coast Guard’s operations and to find their secret island base from where they are conducting their nefarious schemes.

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Don Winslow of the Coast Guard is a 1943 Universal Pictures serial comprised of thirteen chapters. It is based on the comic strip Don Winslow of the Navy, approved by the U.S. Navy. The story of the serial opens with Commander Don Winslow, along with his buddy “Red,” being assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard to defend against foreign spies and saboteurs, in particular, a Japanese spy ring led by a man known only as “The Scorpion” (in ties of war the Coast Guard becomes under the direct command of the navy, which explains why Winslow is so easily transferred and keeps his rank and uniform etc.). Each chapter brings a new scheme for Winslow to foil as the spies try and sabotage facilities to prepare for a ground invasion. It’s all the sort of thing you would expect from a wartime serial such as this. Being a character that was approved by the U.S. navy, it should also be no surprise that this is a big propaganda film for the service, and as such the serial is full of ships and submarines engaged in warfare through the use of stock footage. Furthermore, the anti-Japanese rhetoric is pretty severe, again, probably to reinforce the idea of them as enemies of the U.S. at a time of war. Overall, the story isn’t anything special, as a lot of the wartime serials urge viewers to remain vigilant of spies to help their country.

    The characters are all a pretty standard bunch. Don Winslow is obviously the heroic and ideal Navy officer who will defeat the enemy and claim victory for his country, as well as inspire people to support and join the navy as well. His friend “Red” serves as his sidekick to join in on the action scenes, and not much else. Mercedes Colby plays the typical token female role, and takes on a similar typical role as a nurse (although this is a little different than the job of journalist or secretary that female characters usually get in these serials). The villains are also nothing special, comprising of American actors in make-up to “look” Japanese, and The Scorpion himself having little presence. On the other hand, there are a fair amount of actual Asian actors to play some background Japanese soldiers, and actually speak some Japanese (even though the pronunciation is a little off from what I can tell).

    The production values are fairly decent for the format, which perhaps reflects the use as wartime propaganda. I am left wondering just how much involvement the Navy had with the serial’s production, as there is a lot of stock footage of Navy battles and cannon fire, particularly in the first chapter, where this footage is used so overwhelmingly it is nearly impossible to follow the plot. Another curious thing to note is that there are practically no fistfights anywhere in the serial, which is basically unheard of in the format. Perhaps getting involved in such brawls would have looked unsightly for a Navy officer? Either way, that doesn’t stop Winslow shooting or pistol-whipping his enemies. Overall, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard follows many wartime serials, but is rather less than subtle about its use as military propaganda. The over reliance on stock footage makes the plot difficult to follow at times, although it makes a change to see action scenes that don’t revolve around poorly-choreographed fistfights. The inherently racist and nasty anti-Japanese rhetoric in particular means that the serial has not aged well, but you can see why it invests so much in it, given that the attack on Pearl Harbour would still have been raw in America’s consciousness, and the serial knows to play on that. I would not recommend this serial, as overall it is a bit too much of a story-related mess and a product of its time.