Release Date: January 7th, 1939 (first chapter)
Directed by: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind
Written by: Willis Cooper, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Mildred Barish
Music by: Charles Previn
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Arnold, Robert Kent
Universal Pictures, 265 Minutes total (12 chapters)
The Phantom Creeps is the last serial Bela Lugosi did in his career. Unfortunately, even for a serial, it isn’t very good. It was, however, made by Universal Studios, a place where he found stardom in their 1931 adaptation of Dracula, as well as several other horror films that they produced.
Lugosi plays a scientist that goes mad. Initially, he was creating wacky inventions that could be used for evil but instead of selling them to the highest bidder, he decided to take over the world himself.
One of the inventions was an eight foot tall robot. Another invention is an invisibility belt. He was also able to overcome his enemies with mechanical spiders that would hold them in a sort of suspended animation. The secret to the power of Lugosi’s Dr. Zorka is that it comes from a mysterious meteorite.
Rightfully, the serial was lampooned in a few episodes of the second season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The Phantom Creeps is a serial that is beyond cheesy. It feels dated, even for 1939. The special effects are awful and the plot is mostly a nonsensical mess. Also, it uses a lot of stock footage that just doesn’t flow with the scenes that are shot. At least the giant robot was kind of cool.
George Lucas may have been inspired by this serial though, as it is not only called The Phantom Creeps but its first episode is called The Menacing Power. The Phantom Menace, anyone? Additionally, Universal wanted to get rid of the recap segments that started their serials, so this one features a text crawl introduction that is very similar to what George Lucas used to start all of his Star Wars films.
The Phantom Creeps also had some influence on musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie, whose song “Meet the Creeper” is based on the film. Also, he has used several different robots and props, designed as homages to this film, in multiple music videos and live shows. In his animated film, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, the character of Murray the Robot is also based on Lugosi’s robot.
While The Phantom Creeps is far from great, it has left a lasting legacy throughout pop culture.