• 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.

  • Film reviews

    #398 – Flying Disc Man from Mars (1950)

    Flying Disc Man from Mars (1950)

    Film review #398

    Director: Fred C. Brannon

    SYNOPSIS: Scientist Dr. Bryant goes to investigate a strange aircraft that has has crashed to Earth. There, he finds that a Man named Mato who has come from Mars with the aim of placing the Earth under Mars’ absolute dictatorship. He blackmails Dr. Bryant in this scheme, knowing about his secret past as a Nazi scientist during the war, into using his scientific knowledge and resources to construct weapons to achieve this task. Meanwhile, Kent Fowler, who owns a security company that uses planes, and who was also hired by Bryant to act as security around his factory before the ship crashed, must find a way to the criminal’s plans to steal the components necessary to build atomic weaponry.

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Flying Disc Man from Mars is a 1950 movie serial composed of twelve chapters. The first chapter opens up strongly (as they all do in order to get viewers into the theatre and subsequently back for the remaining chapters), as Dr. Bryant, a scientist and owner of a manufacturing company, hires Kent Fowler, the owner of security company that patrols in a fleet of aeroplanes, to patrol the grounds of his factory, as there have been sightings of strange ships in the sky recently. Bryant sees a ship fall out of the sky and crash nearby, prompting him to go and investigate. When he arrives, he finds a man emerge from the plane called Mato, who claims to be from Mars and has been sent on a mission to conquer Earth to be ruled by the Mars dictatorship, as the Earth’s experimentation with atomic weapons has been found too dangerous to continue, and would have severe repercussions on the solar system. Mato knows about Dr. Bryant’s past of being a  Nazi scientist during the war (having intercepted radio communications from Mars), and blackmails him into helping him conquer the earth (and appealing to his inner Nazi by explaining how reasonable it would be to have the use of atomic weapons controlled by an absolute dictatorship I guess).  

  • Film reviews

    #389 – Radar Men from the Moon (1952)

    Radar Men from the Moon (1952)

    Film review #389

    Director: Fred C. Brannon

    SYNOPSIS: After a series of devastating attacks across the planet, Commando Cody is assigned to travel to the moon in a rocket ship to investigate the theory that the attacks are being launched from there. While there, he finds that the ruler of the moon Retick has been ordering the attacks in order to pave the way for a full scale invasion of Earth, and only Commando Cody and his friends can stop it…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISRadar Men from the Moon is a 1952 movie serial comprised of twelve chapters. The first chapter opens showing aerial attacks across the globe, destroying vital infrastructure. Commando Cody and his friends are visited by a government official who believes that the attacks are originating from the moon. Cody has also come to the same conclusion and coincidentally his friend ted has just finished building a rocketship that can fly to the moon. Cody and his friends travel to the moon to investigate, where they find the leader of the moon, Retik, has ordered the attacks to prepare for a full-scale invasion as the moon’s atmosphere is evaporating and making it uninhabitable. Cody manages to steal one of their ray guns and take it back to Earth, while one of the Moon’s inhabitants, Korg, who is stationed on Earth, tries to get the ray gun back and stop Cody along with his hired goons. The fundamentals of the story have been done in many serials before (Flash GordonBrick Bradford etc.) so it’s nothing really original, and it’s got all the usual action scenes, chases, cliffhangers and the like. I’ve reviewed so many of these serials now they all somewhat blend into one, and it takes something special to draw my attention. As I have mentioned before, this is the sort of thing you could get away with at the time, as there was no home media or way to rewatch them, and as these are mostly aimed at a younger audience, they may not have seen the older ones, so it was easy to get away with it. With the onset of television at this time though, people could start watching this serial format at home rather than going to the theatre every week, so serials would become less and less popular, although not too many people would have televisions, so the serial format had a few years of life yet. By this time though, the tropes of the format had been well and truely done to death.

    This serial is the first to feature Commando Cody, who would have another serial a year later. The flying rocket suit he uses however, was featured in the 1949 serial King of the Rocket Men. There’s no continuity between the two, but as mentioned the younger audience would probably not have watched the previous serial, but may recognise the imagery, as it was quite a unique suit, and the flying mechanics and effects were something new. Radar Men from the Moon re-uses a lot of the rocket suit footage from that film of him flying through the air and such, which again it could be gotten away with at the time. The rest of the characters are the usual cast for the format: one female, a sidekick, the villainous henchman and the alien leaders dressed in bizarre clothing so you know they are alien. There’s some interesting props and sets when the cast are on the moon, with vehicles and underground bases, but that’s the only thing that really stands out. Overall, Radar Men from the Moon is just another standard sci-fi serial. Nothing horrifically bad about it, but nothing to set it apart from all the others that do the exact same thing. Just another one for the pile I guess.

  • Film reviews

    #388 – King of the Rocket Men (1949)

    King of the Rocket Men (1949)

    Film review #388

    Director: Fred C. Brannon

    SYNOPSIS: A man calling himself Dr. Vulcan is killing off prominent scientists. After one such scientist, Dr. Millard manages to escape an attempt on his life, he goes into hiding and develops a rocket suit that allows the wearer to fly through the skies. He enlists fellow scientist Jeff King to wear the rocket suit and thwart Dr. Vulcan’s schemes.

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISKing of the Rocket Men is a 1949 sci-fi serial. The story opens up with the mysterious Dr. Vulcan killing off members of the Science Associates, a group of top scientists. One such member, Dr. Millard, manages to escape one of Vulcan’s traps and goes into hiding, leading Vulcan to believe he is dead. While in hiding, Millard completes his invention of a rocket suit that allows the wearer to fly thanks to a jet pack. Millard enlists the help of Jeff King, another member of Science Associates to wear the suit and track down Dr. Vulcan. The story involves the usual serial tropes, with Dr. Vulcan’s true identity being hidden throughout the serial until the end, and with King figuring out the Vulcan is actually one of the members of Science Associates, he has to work out which one it is, which again is a familiar set-up for these serials. Some of the chapters provide a bit of variety, such as the one where King’s ally Ted suspecting King to be Vulcan and vice versa, which leads to an interesting confrontation, and one which I have not seen before in the serial format, but other than that its the usual back-and-forth between heroes and villains chasing each other down with various plans and traps.

    The highlight of this serial has got to be the rocket suit, which allows King (and sometimes Millard) to fly through the air. This is the first serial of three to use the rocket suit, but the only to refer to the hero as “rocket man”. The other two, Radar Men from the Moon and Zombies of the Stratosphere, are all unconnected from one another, and do not give the masked hero a name. Since this serial like most is aimed at getting young viewers into the theatre each week for the next chapter, the rocket suit would definitely have been a hit with them, as there really wasn’t anything like it when it came out. Older viewers would perhaps have been less than engaged with all the usual tropes being wheeled out, but the serial isn’t really for them. There’s plenty of other inventions shown throughout the serial which are interesting enough to change up the pacing, but ultimately it does rely on the tried and tested serial elements.

    The end of the film also deserves note, as in some sense the villain wins. Dr. Vulcan steals a device known as the Decimator, and uses it on a tectonic fault-line, causing a huge tidal wave that essentially destroys Manhattan. The footage of the tidal wave is taken from the 1931 film Deluge, in which a rising of sea levels causes most of the world’s population to be wiped out. The destruction looks good and devastating, and it still holds up despite being made nearly twenty years earlier, but obviously if you’ve seen it before it lessens its impact being used a second time here. Nevertheless, it’s very unlikely viewers of this serial would have seen it being used in Deluge due to the time elapsed and there being no re-runs or home releases back then. King manages to eventually stop Dr. Vulcan, but after New York City has been destroyed, and the serial ends with the ambiguous promise to rebuild New York ‘better than ever’. Not exactly a solid resolution, but these serial never are after investing nearly three hours watching them. King of the Rocket Men was released in 1949, after the serial format had peaked, but there were still some good ones being released (most notably the Superman serials, which were quite popular, and some of the best examples of the format). “Rocket man” is somewhat a superhero, with his flying ability and masked persona, and this no doubt would have made the serial stand out, but a lot of the other elements of the serial are pretty standard for the format. Overall it’s a little more interesting than the average serial, but not outstanding.