Wednesday, July 26, 2006

It Came from Netflix! The Phantom (Forgotten Terrors)

Warning Again! Continue to ignore highly deceptive DVD box art!!

The second movie found on Retromedia’s “Forgotten Terrrors” DVD is another Old Dark House thriller called The Phantom. The film opens with a criminal mastermind called the Phantom escaping from prison just before he was due to be executed.* As with the collection’s first film, Tangled Destinies (see below), things then move pretty much solely onto obvious sets, although this movie sports more of them than that one did.

[*How does he escape? He jumps from a position atop the prison wall—what the hell was he doing there?—onto the roof of a train passing right next to the prison (!), whereupon he is then picked up by a airplane. This is clearly stuff taken from another movie, probably an older, silent one.]

The Phantom threatens the District Attorney*, whose daughter is Ruth, a society page reporter who unknown to everyone else is in a relationship with wannabe newshawk Dick, while Ruth is in turn loved by her boss at the newspaper, Crandall. Will Crandall bow to her wishes and give Dick a job, so that they can marry, or will he attempt to sabotage the couple. Will he prove to be the Phantom, or working for him, or merely a red herring?

[*For no reason, they bother to establish that the current DA is not even the one that sent The Phantom away, but still the Phantom is out to get him. Huh?]

The police send some cops to watch over the DA’s house, but a man breaks in anyway. After way too much rigmarole, this proves not the Phantom, but Dick, who is a typical quipping, callow smartass like many of the heroes in these things. Ruth, however, is atypically a bit of a shrinking violet. Surprisingly, the heroines in a lot of these skid row cheapies were surprisingly feisty.

Not Ruth, though. It’s hard to take her seriously when she at one point has the killer at pointblank gun range and fails to shoot him purely because he’s putatively so terrifying. (He being a cackling hunchback dressed in a black cape and wide brimmed fedora, like the Shadow, thus obscuring his face. He, needless to say, maneuvers through a series of hidden passages, giving a variety of characters the willies when they see a wall panel swinging slooooowly open.) The killer actually escapes being shot this way by yet another character, and later the heroine faints completely upon being again confronted by him.

The trail somehow leads—tight scripting isn’t the hallmark of these things—to a mysterious sanitarium run by a mysterious doctor. The latter provides the sole note of actual ‘horror’ here, since he proves to be, if not a fully mad scientist, then certainly a quite irritated one. Naturally, he thinks Ruth the perfect subject for his next experiment. Eventually, of course, the Phantom is unmasked, Dick ends up with his job, and he and Ruth end up in each others’ arms.

There’s a lot more going on here than in Tangled Destinies, but the film is crippled by the most painful Odious Comic Relief character I’ve seen in some time. (And I just saw Bobby Van in The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.) This is Lucy, Ruth’s maid, who is of the ‘Comically’ Cowardly Servant school, and who basically spends the entire movie sniveling and starting and shrieking and shying at the smallest thing. Worse, she has a high-pitched, quivering voice that positively drove me up the wall, acting and sounding like a Betty Boop who had spent the last ten years being tortured by that guy from Saw in a basement somewhere.

Lucy gets a horrendously large amount of screentime, and adding insult to injury, proves the girlfriend of Shorty the chauffer, who is similarly given to the vapors. He’s the other character, by the way, who at one point has a gun stuck right in the mystery killer’s face and yet is too terrified to pull the trigger. Still, as annoying as Shorty is, he lacks that hideous voice that Lucy has, and so one wishes him merely killed, instead of horribly and painfully killed. Add to that list a ‘comic’ craaazy patient at the Sanitarium, who ‘hilariously’ sports a comic opera Swedish accent.

As you’d expect from an obscurity of this vintage, the image and sound are both soft and scratchy. Still, the fact that it still survives at all is a bit of an wonder.


At 12:14 PM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

Every now and again when I see one of these films, I'm amazed at how easy it was to entertain an audience in those days. Then I see a trailer for "Little Man" - so never mind.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Well, as you know, we're talking an era in which a) movies were still a novelty, b) radio was the only other mass medium, and c) films were cheap and plentiful enough that your town theater often flipped bookings three times a week, and people would go that often.

Hell, people often went to the movies because it was the only place in town with air conditioning.

I still find these programmers kind of amusing, but if I had to sit through dozens and dozens of them, I'd probably tear out what little hair I have remaining.

And you're right, if I had the choice of seeing any two of the four films on this DVD in a theater, or seeing instead Little Man, I'd go with the old stuff in a heartbeat.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

to a mysterious sanitarium run by a mysterious doctor

Shouldn't that be, "to a mysterious sanitarium mysteriously run by a mysterious doctor"?


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