These low budget “programmers” from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s are often faster-paced, rougher, and more creatively daring than their better-known contemporaries. But many are forgotten today, because they don’t have deep pocketed rightsholders to exploit them.
That’s why I was happy to discover a treasure trove of films from the Republic Pictures library – most never on home video – streaming on the Paramount Vault, a free YouTube channel available on computers, mobile devices and TVs. I’ve watched ten of the 27 Republic rarities on The Vault so far and all are a treat. But the stand-out has got to be THE PHANTOM SPEAKS, an exhilaratingly odd crime/horror hybrid from 1945 that establishes narrative precedents still used in genre movies and TV shows today.
Any film that opens with a trench coat-wearing mobster firing a gun into the camera is pretty jake in my book, and THE PHANTOM SPEAKS only gets better – and stranger –from there. As we meet aging tough guy Harvey Bogardus (Tom Powers) he’s about to rub out Frankie (Ralf Harolde), a small time hood who’s been making big time with his wife. But Harvey mistakenly drops a photo of his showgirl missus (Marion Martin) at the murder scene, which is only slightly less incriminating than a confession.
Bogardus is tried, convicted and sentenced to death, all in an efficient, newspaper headline montage that allows us to skip right to the good stuff. But, on the night of his execution, Harvey is visited by Dr. Paul Renwick (Stanley Ridges), an occult scientist and author of the book Contact with the World Beyond. Considering the two men have never met before, the condemned man is suspicious
“What are you trying to sell me?” Bogardus demands.
“Another life, after tonight,” Renwick promises.
All it takes for a dead man’s spirit to reach back from beyond the grave, Renwick tells him, is a strong will – and the spiritual guidance of the good doctor. Oddly, Renwick has decided that the first person to benefit from his “lifetime of work with the supernatural” should be a vindictive murderer. (I would have gone with the recently deceased Milton Hershey, but that’s my sweet tooth talking.)
“I’m not through yet,” Bogardus promises, as he’s strapped in the electric chair with Renwick looking on. “Not yet.”
And soon, he makes good on his threat. Renwick locks himself in his lab – really just a black curtain with two chairs that look borrowed from Santa Land – and attempts to summon the dead gangster by placing his hands on his head and repeating “Harvey Bogardus” over and over. The first attempt is unsuccessful, probably because Harvey was busy at the afterlife equivalent of Customs. But on the next try, the dead man materializes in the chair.
“I did it!” Renwick proclaims.
“You mean, we did it,” the ghost/spirit/whatever of Bogardus says. “But there are some things I can’t do without you.”
Pretty much all of those things involve killing people, which Harvey – in spiritual possession of the doctor’s body – does for the remainder of the film. Renwick murders Harvey’s lawyer, his wife, and the witness who squealed on him, but all the evidence points to Bogardus. The authorities even dig up his grave, just to make sure he’s actually still in it.
THE PHANTOM SPEAKS is clearly inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the doctor and the mobster’s malevolent spirit battling for dominance of Renwick’s psyche. Stanley Ridges does a nice job with this struggle, alternating between sadistic murder and suicidal depression while evading the reporter (former silent film heartthrob Richard Arlen) who just happens to be dating his daughter (Lynne Roberts).
Like Frankenstein, THE PHANTOM SPEAKS is a parable about the overreach of science and ego. It’s also a batshit crazy genre-bender that packs a lot of weirdness into 69 minutes. If David Lynch had directed a film in 1945, it probably would have looked a lot like THE PHANTOM SPEAKS.
But if you’re thinking the plot sounds vaguely familiar, you’re right.
Universal’s BLACK FRIDAY, a 1940 Karloff/Lugosi team-up written by Curt Siodmak (screenwriter of THE WOLF MAN) features a remarkably similar story, as well as Stanley Ridges (Renwick from THE PHANTOM SPEAKS) as an academic who turns into a murderous monster. In BLACK FRIDAY, he’s assisted by mad scientist Karloff, who transplants the brain of a gangster into the head of the dying professor (again, not the best plan).
Siodmak recycled the brain-gone-amok story into his 1942 sci-fi novel Donovan’s Brain, which was the basis for another Republic film, THE LADY AND THE MONSTER, released just months before THE PHANTOM SPEAKS and also starring Richard Arlen. (LADY is also worth checking out for its noirish cinematography by John Alton and some delightful scenery chewing by Erich von Stroheim as the mad doctor.)
Despite the similarities, Siodmak is not credited on THE PHANTOM SPEAKS (the screenplay is by prolific Republic contractee John K Butler). But Siodmak’s story would be revived again and again, including in Felix Feist’s DONOVAN’S BRAIN (1953) with Lew Ayres and Nancy (future First Lady) Davis, in a CBS-TV production in 1955 with Wendell Corey, and in THE BRAIN (1962), a British/German co-production directed by Freddie Francis. Siodmak even went to the well again in CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955), proof that you can’t keep a good idea (or brain) down.
For my money, THE PHANTOM SPEAKS beats them all because it dispenses with any semblance of logic and dives head-first into the supernatural. It’s efficiently directed by Republic workhorse John English, the cast (led by Arlen, nearly two decades after his co-starring role in WINGS) is surprisingly strong, and the score by Edward H. Plumb is all kinds of creepy. Even on a limited budget, PHANTOM has more than its share of atmospheric style and the B-grade patina I love.
Have a look and tell me if you don’t see influences on subsequent genre classics like The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows and even Twin Peaks and The X-Files. And who knows, if enough of us watch THE PHANTOM SPEAKS on YouTube, maybe Paramount licensee Olive Films will release a Blu-ray.
Just in case, I’ll be in my lab with my hands on my head, repeating “Olive Films” over and over again.