Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"The Purple Monster Strikes"; Republic, 1945

Another ghoulish Halloween is upon us and what better serial to highlight than Republic's most ghoulish release, one of the first Martian invasion films made, "The Purple Monster Strikes" (1945). The title alone makes the blood tingle doesn't it?

Dr. Cyrus Layton, noted astronomer and rocket scientist, sees a strange purple meteor heading for the hills on his telescope. He rushes out to the nearby area to see it land and is surprised when it turns out to really be a torpedo shaped object that crashes into the ground. A panel shoots off and a man dressed in tights jumps out before the capsule incinerates.

The man introduces himself as an emissary from Mars. Layton is thrilled and takes the man back to his lab. He shows the alien his own plans for a rocket ship which will be able to make travel back and forth between Earth and Mars relatively easy. The alien tells Dr. Layton he knows all about that thanks to a device called the Distance Eliminator. Since Mars has only developed a ship that can only make a one way trip, the man from Mars has been sent to steal Dr. Layton's ship and take it to Mars for study, which will allow Mars to build a fleet of rocket ships so that they can invade Earth and take it over.

Taking out a capsule containing Carbo Oxite, which is what Martians breathe, he uses the gas to kill Dr. Layton. Planning to make his body translucent, the alien will then occupy the body and masquerade as Dr. Layton. Before he can do this he is interrupted by the arrival of Craig Foster (Dennis Moore), attorney for the Science Foundation who is funding the building of the rocket. Craig battles the alien and is knocked out. The alien then enters Layton's body, animating it.

Layton's niece Sheila (Linda Stirling) comes in and is shocked to see Craig lying on the floor. He revives and tells of being attacked by a man in tights. Layton says that it is someone calling himself the Purple Monster and that he has stolen the plans for the rocket ship. This is a major setback to the Foundation. Sheila wants to call the police but Layton disagrees, saying that the adverse publicity could be detrimental to the project. Craig and Sheila reluctantly agree, but Craig says he going to get himself deputized and hunts for the Purple Monster.

After Craig and Sheila leave, Layton is visited by gangster Hodge Garrett, who demands fifty thousand dollars from Layton, or else. Layton says he can happily oblige Garrett and then the Purple Monster exits Layton's body, frightening the gangster. The Purple Monster convinces Garrett to help him in his plans of world conquest in exchange for fabulous wealth after the invasion. Garrett readily agrees.

Their first order of business is to steal the new launching rocket that Mitchell (Kenne Duncan) has just finished building and is planning to demonstrate the next day. Garrett and his alien boss show up first and force Mitchell to call Craig to postpone the demonstration, giving them time to load the rocket motor onto a truck and get away. While making the call Mitchell taps out a message on the mouth piece with his finger which Craig hears.

Craig and Sheila rush over to Michell's lab and confront the Purple Monster and Garrett. A fight breaks out. Sheila is knocked out and falls onto the rocket motor, triggering the launch switch. Luckily Craig manages to get Sheila off the motor before it launches, crashes through the roof, and explodes. The alien and his henchman use the resulting confusion to escape.

Later Craig tells Layton that he should get some money from the foundation so that Mitchell can start work again; they have a hundred thousand dollars in their main vault. The Purple Monster plans to steal that money and use it to finance the building of the rocket. Since the vault has a time lock on it, the Purple Monster puts together a devise that will speed up the lock's clock so that Garrett can open the safe at midnight. He puts the devise in the vault while visiting the office as Dr. Layton.

When Craig stops by the office later in the day he notices the vault's clock is running much too fast and concludes that someone has tampered with the vault. He plans to be on hand when the time clock shuts off. Craig waits outside the office in the hall, but the canny alien enters through the window by using a ladder as a bridge from a nearby building.

He and Garrett open the vault, get the money, and start to leave when a chair is bumped, which alerts Craig. He busts in and starts a fight. The Purple Monster and Garrett try to leave over the ladder and Craig follows. Garrett and the alien get to the next building and push the ladder off the ledge. Craig starts to fall to the street below until the ladder hooks onto a phone line, saving Craig and allowing him to climb up to a window.

Now that the Purple Monster has the money, he can buy what he needs to build the rocket. But there are special items that are being made specifically for the rocket that can't be bought. Craig plans to be on hand when the villain tries to steal those items. Like the rocket fuel that has been developed by Saunders (Emmett Vogan). Since the rocket project is delayed, Saunders calls Layton and wants to either be paid by the Foundation, or allowed to sell the fuel to someone else. Craig is notified and allows the fuel to be sold in the belief that the only buyer will be the Purple Monster.

Garrett shows up at Saunders' and wants to buy the fuel. Saunders notifies the Foundation, and Craig is called at Dr. Layton's lab. Craig tells Layton that it is obviously the Purple Monster buying the fuel and he plans to call Saunders to tell him to stall the buyer until he can get there. Layton wishes him luck, goes into his study, and the Purple Monster materializes. He rushes out and attacks Craig with a knife, but the arrival of Sheila causes the alien to flee back into Layton's body.

This convinces Craig that the buyer is indeed the Purple Monster and he and Sheila race to Saunders'. Layton calls Saunders' office and pretends to be a member of the firm buying the fuel. He gets Garrett on the phone and tells him Craig is on his way. Garrett knocks out Saunders and starts loading the drums of fuel onto a truck.

Craig and Sheila pull up and a shoot out commences that turns into a car chase. Several of the drums are punctured, spewing the fuel out everywhere. Garrett stops the truck at the top of a steep hill, sets fire to the drums and then rolls the truck back down toward Craig's car. Craig and Sheila jump from the car just before the truck hits it, the impact causing both vehicles to explode.

Though it is a setback, it is a minor one as the Purple Monster plans to simply steal the formula for the fuel from Saunders. Craig realizes this as well and has Saunders add the chemical Octolene to his formula. It is only manufactured by one company, so that when the Purple Monster goes to get it, Craig will be waiting.

Dr. Layton visits Saunders on the pretext of seeing the man's new gyrocompass. While Saunders is out getting it, Layton starts to look through the office safe for the formula. Saunders comes back and catches him. Layton pulls out a gun and forces Saunders to hand over the formula. After he has the formula, Layton brags to the other man about who he really is, then kills him with a vial of Carbo Oxite.

Garrett and a henchman go to the Octolene plant and discover that the chemical isn't kept on the premises, but at a warehouse. When the worker won't give out the address he is first beaten, then threatened with acid before he will talk. Meanwhile Craig has learned of the discovery of Saunders' body and tells Layton that he is rushing over to the Octolene plant. The Purple Monster emerges after Craig has left, and takes off after him.

Craig gets to the plant and engages Garrett in a shoot out. Craig looks to be winning until the Purple Monster arrives and pins the man down. Caught in a cross fire, Craig jumps into an empty mixing vat for cover. Garrett turns on the valve that controls the acid tank and acid starts to drip into the vat, creating fumes that will suffocate Craig. The forgotten plant worker gets hold of a gun and drives off the villains, then helps Craig out of the vat.

Garrett is furious over their failures due to Craig, but the Purple Monster is a little more philosophical. He knows there are many more things the rocket ship will need, and he has several plans to take care of Craig along the way.

This serial has to have one of the most gruesome opening gambits ever used. A man is killed and his body inhabited by an alien invader, so that in essence, James Craven is nothing more than a reanimated corpse throughout the fifteen chapters. A startling idea from the studio that specialized in B-westerns and serials, genres not known for the use of horror, though Republic has often included horror elements in their serials, like "SOS Coastguard" (1937) with Bela Lugosi and their adaptation of "Drums of Fu Manchu" (1940). Republic had even started making a handful of horror features at this time; "The Phantom Speaks" (1945), "The Vampire's Ghost" (1945), "The Catman of Paris" (1946), and "Valley of the Zombies" (1946).

As a horror serial, the scares aren't too plentiful beyond the macabre premise. It is almost as if the studio wanted to put in just enough content to make the film creepy without being truly scary. The murder of James Craven in the first chapter is frightening, with the moody dark lighting of a gothic horror film permeating the scene. Roy Barcroft's makeup is also effective but not over the top. His eyes are stretched tight toward the back of his head which gives him an unnatural appearance without looking grotesque. Barcroft supposedly came up with the rubber bands to achieve the effect himself.

This is one of Barcroft's best performances. The odd outfit and make up seemed to have inspired the actor, who gives his most menacing performance. His way of talking is different from the rest of the cast. Pronouncing all of his words precisely, with an odd inflection here and there, as if he is really speaking an unfamiliar language. His best scene is in Chapter One as he almost gleefully tells Craven about his plans for conquest right before offing the doomed scientist.

The rest of the cast is competent, but no one else really stands out except Craven. He gets to appear sympathetic in the beginning before reverting to his old devious ways. He also makes sure that when he is the Purple Monster masquerading as Dr. Layton that there is just something a little off about the character.

Dennis Moore is his usual stoic self, and Bud Geary could play a character like Garrett in his sleep. Linda Stirling, while giving a good performance, is defeated by whoever talked her into the awful make up and hair style she sports throughout the film. Both are unappealing and make the attractive actress look quite a bit less than her best. When my wife first saw this serial her reaction to seeing Stirling was "Man is she ugly". She didn't even recognize the actress as being the same one in "Manhunt of Mystery Island" (1945), which I had gotten at the same time.

The stunt work is some of the best Republic ever put out, with the fight scenes a showcase of glorious set destruction. Director Bennett has said that the bills for balsa wood props during this time were astronomical. They must have been because the point of every fight seems to be why break a chair when you can break three chairs, two small tables and countless vases and beakers?

The cliffhangers are another matter. Some, like the one in Chapter four are nerve wracking, but most are more pedestrian. This serial contains more cliffhangers concerning cars than just about any other. Cars are exploded, rammed off cliffs, rammed and exploded, or dropped on the hero. We all know how a hero gets out of those kinds of situations; he just jumps out of the car. Which makes the proliferation of repetitive cliffhanger and resolution a bit boring. Though I have to admit seeing the hero roll out of the way of a falling car just before it lands in Chapter Nine was impressive and exciting.

The special effects are tops, with the best being Barcroft's becoming transparent to enter Craven's body. But since this is shown every episode it quickly gets old. The finished rocket ship is also impressive, it's eventual take off is wild as it spits out smoke and flame before lifting off into the sky. The only problem is one of logic, as when the ship takes off the hero is almost directly behind it and should have been burnt to a cinder, but doesn't even get his clothes smudged.

"The Purple Monster Strikes" is a good choice to watch for Halloween, it has some scares and is full of fast and furious action. Unfortunately it also leaves a lot of logical questions unanswered. Such as how can a society be so advanced that they can monitor our broadcasts but not build a ship that can travel back and forth between planets? And what happens to Craven's body when it isn't possessed? Is it in suspended animation or just sitting there rotting?

For anyone else who tends to take these things too seriously I offer the advice my wife gives me on numerous occasions; it's just a movie, watch and enjoy.

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