The Bad Movie Report

Land of the Cheapass DVDs


The Phantom Empire

This is the sort of movie experience that seems almost too surreal to contemplate.

This Mascot serial was originally slated to star then-household name Ken Maynard; a last-minute decision to instead cast radio celebrity Gene Autry ensured Autry's stardom and, arguably, Maynard's eventual obscurity. Phantom Empire is often held up as an inspiration for the next year's Flash Gordon serial, and it's easy to see a few parallels; super-scientific trappings, some incredibly embarassing costumes (check out the telescreen operator, whose outfit is envied by several of my gay friends for their upcoming Pride parade), and the fact that sneering villains make terrible jailers.

Autry plays himself, a singing cowboy who broadcasts a daily music show from Radio Ranch, a dude resort he co-owns. Unbeknownst to Autry, Radio Ranch is above Murania, a lost civilization situated some 25,000 feet below the Earth's surface. As ever, Murania is amazingly advanced scientifically, but still dresses as if it were ancient Sumeria. In fact, I swear some of the costumes would crop up later in The Mole People. An oddly thoughtful touch concerns the idea that the air 25,000 feet underground is significantly different than the air on the surface - apparently riding the single elevator up to Ground Level provides a similar experience to stepping out onto the top of Mt. Everest. So whenever Murania's "Thunder Riders" (and where did they get all those surface-level horses?) gallop about they have to wear breathing masks. Which makes it easy for Autry to infiltrate their ranks.

The queen of Murania is concerned that the popularity of Radio Ranch will jeopardize her city's secret location. Some secret! A "vicious group of research scientists" (likely the first and the last time you will see such a description) arrives, positive that Radio Ranch is the location of Murania, and they'll stop at nothing to get their hands on the lost city's radium, so they can... do vicious research science stuff, I guess. (the fact you send the Thunder Riders tearing about the countryside at the slightest provocation isn't helping either, Queenie)

So here's the set-up:

  1. Murania wants everyone to leave Radio Ranch, so they determine to capture Gene Autry, so everyone will get bored and leave;

  2. The vicious scientists want everyone to leave Radio Ranch (so they can look for Murania in peace), and frame Autry for murder, so everyone will get bored and leave;

  3. Despite all this, Gene must somehow find a way to broadcast his show every day at 2:00, or he will lose his contract and the ranch.

If you can't get twelve cliffhanging episodes out of that, you ain't tryin'.

Autry is serviceable - barely, at this early point in his career - as the hero, and for your money you get not one, but two Odious Comic Reliefs (Relieves?), Smiley Burnette and some other goomer. Really, the best hope you have for hero worship are the son and daughter of the Ranch's co-owner, Frankie and Betsy, played by Frankie Darro (who looks like a cross between Jimmy Cagney and Kyle Maclachlan) and "World Champion Trick Rider" Betsy Scott King, who is cute as a button and gets to show off why she's a champion. Frankie's a science whiz with a secret lab in the barn, and the two siblings have formed "The Junior Thunder Riders", a bunch of kids who wear capes and buckets on their heads while galloping about yelling, "To the rescue!"

The cliffhangers play somewhat fair with the audience, the recap of the previous week's peril providing extra footage that, for instance, puts the Thunder Riders in the right place to save our heroes from doom. Extra points to the serial for actually killing Autry once and bringing him back to life with Murania's super-science. I also think this is the first instance of a neat, cheap special effect: when the Muranians uncork their radium disentegrator ray, its effects are shown by taking an ordinary photograph and running hot water over it until the emulsion runs and the image appears to melt. That one's going to crop up in serials over and over again, I can assure you.

Years of neglect have done their dastardly work on Phantom Empire. Contrasts vary wildly, even within shots, and there's some heavy damage that just can't be undone, especially to the soundtrack, which varies between a harsh humming and "motorboating". Still, Alpha's disc is one of the more watchable versions I've seen. If you're an absolute bug for quality, there's an outfit called Serial Squadron who is financing a digital restoration by selling advance copies of a DVD version; Alpha's version is here right now, however, at an attractive enough price point. This deserves to be seen at least once by science fiction, fantasy, serial or cowboy fans. Hell, I haven't even gone into the highly advanced super-scientific clunky robots who wear hats, and the proto-MTV quick cutting on Autry's first song.

Radar Men From The Moon

Why yes, I have been watching an awful lot of serials lately, thank you for asking.

The geneology is a little tortured here: this is the second Republic serial to feature the somewhat famous flying suit on the cover, which made its premiere in the 1949 serial King of the Rocketmen. Then the hero was simply known as Rocketman. In this 1952 outing, the owner of the flying suit is Commando Cody, a name which will stick through the other incarnations, including a TV series, Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe (a heck of a job title to put on your resume!). Therefore, each episode of Radar Men begins with the legend, "Introducing A New Character - Commando Cody" , which leads to some disorientation in the first chapter, when a backstory is alluded to that does not exist...

Ah, well. Commando Cody (yes, Commando is apparently his first name) is a rocket scientist with top-level government clearance and enviable discretionary powers. He is the type of two-fisted scientist who keeps a loaded revolver in his desk drawer at all times. That's exceptionally dangerous, especially since nobody in these pictures can hit the broad side of a barn - there's a lot of bullets just zipping around in this picture (except when Cody aims at a gun in a thug's hand, at which point he becomes freakin' Vash the Stampede).

A Carradine-thin government man comes to Cody's lab to talk to him and his two assistants about the rash of stock-footage building explosions and train wrecks that open the picture. One assistant, Ted (who if you ask me is the real brains of the outfit) immediately deduces that it is the work of bad guys from the Moon using an atomic ray gun.

So Cody and crew journey to the Moon in his new rocketship and discover a pressurized city. The Ruler of the Moon, Retik, is planning an invasion of Earth just as soon as his saboteurs finish softening up the Earth's (by which he means America's) defenses with his ray gun, which is powered by "Lunarium". Why invade Earth? Apparently, the Moon's atmosphere "has grown too cold and thin" to grow food. (This explanation was really welcome, because I had been tormenting myself wondering why Cody was flying through the wispy clouds of the Moon) All well and good, except that Retik's crack group of saboteurs consists of one Moon guy and two inept thugs, one of whom is played by Clayton Moore - and yes, it is odd hearing the Lone Ranger's voice coming from a thug. (Incidentally, am I the only one who notices the Lone Ranger wears tights?)

The thugs are also oddly moral - it's strange, from the standpoint of the 21st century, when brutality is doled out to us daily, to contemplate that these days, movie bad guys would simply walk in and blow people away with no compunction. Not these crooks - they just threaten people and obligingly walk close enough to have the guns knocked out of their hands in preparation for the mandatory fistfight. After Cody manages to capture their truck and atomic ray gun early in the serial, a lot of screen time is devoted to the crooks trying to steal enough money to buy another truck. No wonder Cody leaves his rocketship out in a field, with the door open and no guards about! Why bother? Exactly how much of a threat is Retik, who is planning to paralyze an entire country with only three people, none of whom is exactly up for appearances on Jeopardy? As far as fifth column agents go, better results would be achieved by employing a couple of chimpanzees and a trained chihuahua, who would at least just work for cigarettes.

Earlier, while discussing Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, I held up the Rocketman/Cody serials as the epitome of cheating in the cliffhangers, and viewing Radar Men in its entirety has not changed that opinion one jot, or even a tittle. The worst example of this is the peril that links episodes 2 and 3, where Cody and Ted, having stolen a bigass ray gun from the Moon city, are hiding in a cave from a pursuing and unquestionably stylish Moon tank (the tank drivers are the ones thriftily wearing leftover spacesuits from Destination Moon). The Moon goons turn their heat ray on the cave entrance, resulting in another example of the melting-emulsion effect, supposedly sending a gush of molten lava down on Cody and Ted, who are stuck in a cul-de-sac. In Episode 3, however, as the lava rushes in, on of them says, "Say - maybe we can get out through this side passage." You could have said that a week ago, idiot!

Anyway, that's pretty much the level of ingenuity exhibited in getting out of each week's jackpot, leading to a sort of leaden predictability. Why should we worry when Cody is knocked off a cliff when he's wearing a jetpack, for pete's sake??!! This was produced in the waning days of Republic, and it shows. Not only are the flying scenes and models of Moon City recycled, but the story itself is made up of barely refurbished parts. Episode Ten is basically a series of flashbacks, and getting stuck in a doomed aircraft is deemed so good it's used twice. As is the tactic of sticking a gas tank into a building's air system and gassing the inhabitants - which makes its second appearance in Episode Ten, which is so heavy on the recycled materials it should be trotted out every Earth Day. Makes you nostalgic for the weird perils and jackass escape plans of The Phantom Empire, it does.

Speaking of Phantom Empire, Radar Men's transfer was a thing of wonder after watching the former's damaged film elements and occasional moires in the background. Though it's a little grainy, the image on Radar Men is wonderfully clear and sharp, with very little damage evident. That's really not enough to justify recommending it to any but serial or Rocketman buffs however. The entire thing just does not produce much in the way of excitement, the kiss of death for a cliffhanger.

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy

Robot vs. Aztec Mummy!  Film at 11!Just for old time's sake - a Beverly Wilshire disc. Not just any Beverly Wilshire disc, but the Beverly Wilshire disc I cannot claim. No, I cannot enter Robot vs Aztec Mummy (sic) in DVD Profiler because it shares a UPC code with Vampire's Coffin. Weird.

In any case, this is yet another K. Gordon Murray-imported Mexican horror gem that has a much more bizarre history than one might suppose. It's the last in a trilogy of movies shot in 1957, the other two being The Aztec Mummy and Curse of the Aztec Mummy. Shot almost concurrently, the movies all have the same characters and have an actual through-line in the stories. Though when you're watching Robot, you shouldn't worry if you haven't seen the first two movies - the first half-hour of the movie is taken up by flashbacks - and the whole movie is only an hour long!

Dr. Almada (whom we are told is a doctor, though of what I could not tell you) apparently read The Search for Bridey Murphy and is convinced he can regress people through their previous lives by hypnosis. When this theory is poo-pooed by the usual gathering of doctors saying "Poo-poo" in unison, Almada hypnotizes his fiancee, Flora, and discovers that she was, at one time, the Aztec princess Xochitl, who had a forbidden love affair with a warrior named Popoca. As anyone who's seen The Mummy knows, this is bad news; Xochitl is sacrificed (and we are shown the entire Bob Fosse-choreographed ritual, complete with a soprano who will have neighborhood dogs queuing in your front yard), and Popoca is mummified alive, his corpse set to watching over Xochitl's body. Especially the golden breastplate and bracelet.

Following Flora's hyp-mo-tized directions, Almada and pals find Xochitl's resting place, and the doctor takes the breastplate to vindicate his theory. Later -still having not informed the authorities or maybe an archeologist or two - Almada returns for the bracelet, which along with the breastplate points the way to a cache of Aztec gold. It's at this point that one of Almada's friends notices that the mummy of Popoca is missing... and they hear a shuffling sound in the darkness.

Oh, yeah, Van Helsing - that ALWAYS works!This is a superb horror movie moment, building incredible tension as Popoca slowly shambles into the light. After that, it's a fairly typical monster movie, as Popoca realizes Flora is the reincarnated Xochitl and dutifully prepares to sacrifice her all over again. Unfortunately, the movie loses any horror movie good vibes it had gained by using a crucifix to keep Popoca at bay while Flora is rescued. The dynamite that brings down the temple makes much more sense. I mean, even if Popoca had been around for the Spanish invasion, his regarding the cross as an object to fear is rather suspect, even in a largely Catholic country*.

In the next flashback - um, movie - things take a turn for the delirious as one of the doctors who wasn't poo-pooing Almada very loudly turns out to be a masked super-villain called The Bat, who steals the breastplate and bracelet, and then kidnaps the entire Almada clan to force the doctor to translate the inscriptions, so The Bat can steal all the gold. The wily Almada, however, delays the translation long enough for Popoca to show up and reclaim the jewelry, coincidentally enough hurting all the right people in the process before shuffling off into the night.

When I say delirious, I mean it - there also a typical masked wrestler-type superhero opposing The Bat in Curse of the Aztec Mummy. He's called The Angel, and since he is unmasked and does not appear in Robot (he's really Almada's supposed cowardly assistant Pique), all reference to the hero is excised from this third movie. Don't wanna confuse you folks, or nothin'. Besides, we only have a half-hour left to explore this movie's story.

So all that was five years ago, Almada explains to his rapt audience, but he's convinced The Bat survived his last encounter with Popoca, and skullduggery is afoot. By an astounding coincidence, that night Flora responds to a post-hypnotic suggestion and sleepwalks out of their house and into a nearby car, where she is awaited by none other than - The Bat! And his scarred and vengeful associate Bruno, whom the Mummy tossed into a handy collection of bottles containing acid in the last picture.

This is the best Christmas EVER!The Bat, playing on Flora/Xochitl's psychic connection with Popoca, uses her to track the Mummy down to his new hiding place (since his original digs were blown up at the end of the first movie). This proves to be an abandoned mausoleum in an old cemetery. Popoca still clutches the breastplate and bracelet, but The Bat knows better than to attempt to take them.... no, he has a better plan, mwoo hah ha. He returns Flora to her house and proceeds to get busy, while Almada wonders why his wife has such dirty feet in the morning.

Being the Indiana Jones of.... whatever-the-hell-he's-a-doctor-of .... Almada figures out where The Bat is hiding out, and he and Pique obligingly visit this locale so they can be captured. The Bat reveals his greatest invention yet, a robot with a cadaver inside it. Yes, for some reason, The Bat has to build his robot around a human body, and then add another brain into the contraption, to boot. That could have been pretty creepy - stupid, but creepy - and for all I know, in the original version, it was. In the K. Gordon Murray translation, though, it just seems... well, dumb. And probably smelly.

The Bat's brilliant plan is to use the robot to snatch the jewelry from Popoca, then to destroy the mummy when it rises from its slumber. Needless to say, Almada will arrive in the nick of time and shoot The Bat's radio control out of his hands, so the enraged Popoca can take the robot apart like the collection of sheet metal parts it is, and Flora can hand the mummy his goods and implore it to go take a nice nap. The end.

An awful lot happens in an hour in this movie, which is probably why I liked it (many don't - for instance, Braineater or Oh The Humanity!). Hey, it's three movies in one! Talk about added value! This is also one of the nicest Beverly Wilshire discs, with a very clean, sharp image. In some of their other K. Gordon Murray movies, I had noticed a second of video snow at about the halfway mark (as if someone hit pause to flip a laserdisc, hmmmm)..... that doesn't occur here. Then, it's barely an hour long. Beverly Wilshire discs continue to crop up in the oddest places, usually for dirt cheap, and this is definitely one worth owning.

Ugly!FUGLY!If I can be allowed a final digression: look at the scan of the cover of Robot, then scroll up and check out the covers of Phantom Empire, or even Radar Men. This is yet another reason Alpha Video has garnered my respect, and a generally better feeling about their longevity: their packaging is often gorgeous, giving the impression they really care about their product, and therefore, the consumer. Whereas Beverly Wilshire's designs hit new lows in fugly. Looking at the BW boxes make me pine for the cluttered ugliness of the Wade Williams Collection, or even that hastily-Photoshopped abomination which is the recently-released Columbia Curse/Night of the Demon.

You know, I always like to end these things on sort of an up-note, but I confess myself at a loss, having brought up so much that is ugly and dreadful. So I'm just going to harken back to my newspaper days, and resort to a picture of a dog wearing a cowboy hat. Enjoy.


- April 30, 2003