Saturday, January 30, 2010

Saturday Matinee: The Phantom Creeps, Chapter One

(UPDATE: I don't know why the videos seem to be at such a low framerate. They're fine in my original files. I'll try to upload them again and see what happens.)

Welcome to the first installment of the twelve-chapter Universal serial, The Phantom Creeps, starring the one, the only Bela Lugosi.

Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, in their sadly out-of-print book The Great Movie Serials, have (in part) this to say about the serial:

In 1939, Lugosi made his final serial appearance, and appropriately, it seemed a combination, and a culmination, of all his other villain roles. In Universal's The Phantom Creeps, it is, of course, Bela Lugosi who has the title role of the evil Phantom, and top billing.

Even if you couldn't read the title card, it would be abundantly obvious that Lugosi is the top dog in this production. Whereas, for instance, Undersea Kingdom opens with almost ludicrous amounts of activity for hero "Crash" Corrigan before the plot even begins*, the putative protagonist of The Phantom Creeps first shows up nearly fourteen minutes in.

*-Although not in our edited version, which gets the story quickly underway.

Some notes:

2:59: It's just as well I never saw this serial when I was young. I think that robot's face would have scared the snot out of me. And I was born about a generation and a half after the target audience for this thing.

7:30 Acting!

8:30: "And persuade him from his mad course." That's dissuade.

2:28: Bela's accent goes out of control! "The sorest of all my power!"

2:09: And Mystery Science Theater 3000 gains a running joke. MST3K riffed the first three chapters of this serial. Blatant plot conveniences in later movies would provoke a comment, in Lugosi accent, of "How fortunate! That simplifies everything!"

5:31: West is doing an awfully good job standing up in a plane that we just saw was practically upside down.

As I mentioned last week, I have three sources for The Phantom Creeps. It turns out, though, that one may not be very helpful. However, I'm not certain yet which.

You see, one is an MPEG-2 file of the serial version (henceforward Serial MPEG), one is an MPEG-2 file of the 78-minute feature edit (Feature MPEG), and the third is a series of AVI files of the serial version (AVI).

It turns out that Serial MPEG and AVI are the same transfer (same film flaws, tape flaws, image geometry), so there's unlikely to be anything in the one that isn't in the other. (For instance, both have the same film break at 0:33 of Part 2, and that scene isn't in Feature MPEG.)

The question is which to use as the master. Each one has a disadvantage. Serial MPEG is interlaced, so there's some "combing" of the image, especially during movement. AVI has a noticeably softer image. (In fact, this may be robbing Peter to pay Paul. AVI, like Serial MPEG, is 30fpi. AVI just has the fields blended together instead of interlaced. Hence, perhaps, the fuzziness.) As you can probably tell, I used the interlaced Serial MPEG for Chapter One.

(I tried everything I know to de-interlace Serial MPEG, but nothing would do the job cleanly. Maybe I'll just use AVI next week.)

There are four very brief bits of Feature MPEG video, and slightly offset bits of its very scratchy audio, to cover film breaks in Serial MPEG/AVI. All of them are in Part 1.

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