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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"Zombies of the Stratosphere"; Republic, 1952

With the release of “The Matrix Reloaded” doing boffo at the box office I thought I might highlight a pseudo-sequel to a Republic super serial this month. Okay, I know “Zombies Of The Stratosphere” is not exactly an outstanding serial. Much like “Radar Men From The Moon” that proceeded it, the serial is full of wonky science, laughable plot developments, and an overabundance of stock footage. Taking all of that in to consideration, it is still an enjoyable romp from the last days of the serials.

Marex (Lane Bradford), a Martian, has come to Earth and employed two gangsters named Roth (John Crawford) and Shane (Ray Boyle) to help him with his plan to build an atomic bomb to blow the Earth out into space so that Mars can move into it’s orbit and enjoy the pleasant atmosphere we take for granted. While flying supplies in from his island base by rocket ship, the craft is picked up on the radar of the Interplanetary Patrol. Agent Larry Martin (Judd Holdren) puts on his rocket suit and flies out to investigate.

Marex has his supplies loaded onto a truck and sends his chief lieutenant Narab (Leonard Nimoy) with Shane to their cave hide out, while he and Roth go to visit Roth’s employer Dr. Harding (Stanley Waxman). Larry spots the truck and lands on top of it. Shane does some fancy driving to shake Larry off but to no avail. Larry plants a tracking device on the truck right before his knock off by Shane driving under a tree and hitting Larry with a low hanging branch. Larry’s suit is damaged and he is unable to continue the chase.

Meanwhile Roth introduces Dr. Harding to Marex. The Martian invader wastes little time in revealing his plans to the scientist and demanding Harding’s cooperation. Harding refuses, so Marex plays hardball, telling Harding that if he doesn’t help, the authorities will be informed of his selling supplies illegally to foreign powers. Knowing when he is beaten the scientist reluctantly agrees.

Marex and Roth go to their cave hide out which has a secret chamber that can only be gotten to from under water. This chamber houses all of their equipment, and is where they plan to build the bomb. Harding needs a supply of uranium and knows of a shipment being sent by train and gives Roth a map of where to stop the train and steal the radioactive material. Roth memorizes the map and then burns it.

Larry has repaired his rocket suit and traces the truck to the cave. Searching it he finds the cave deserted. Coming upon the ashes of the burned map, he returns to his lab and uses his scientific knowledge to bring out enough of the map to know that the criminals are planning something to a train. Larry, with his two assistants Bob Wilson (Wilson Wood) and Sue Davis (Aline Towne), split up and search the area specified in the map, planning to meet up at the junction. Arriving at the junction Larry is informed by Sue that Roth hijacked the train. Bob jumped on to try and stop them, then the train pulled out. The revived station manager says that the train is headed for a collision with a passenger train and the telegraph line has been cut.

While the manager works to repair the line so that he can get a manager farther down the line to switch the train to a different track, Larry jumps into an old abandoned jeep that was going to be destroyed and heads across country to intercept the train. Bob is knocked unconscious and handcuffed to the train by his own cuffs. Roth spots Larry’s pursuit and decides to abandon the planed theft. He and Shane jump off the train while Larry climbs aboard. The station manager gets the line repaired and the train is switch to a different track. Unfortunately the new track is broken and the train is heading for a derailment. Larry gets Bob free and the two men jump to safety just before the train crashes.

While trying to figure out a way to get uranium, Marex radios his island base to fly in more electronic supplies. The rocket ship is spotted and Larry flies out to his own rocket ship to try and follow it to it’s hidden base. The Martian ship lands by a lake and Roth unloads the ship. Seeing Larry’s rocket, Roth decides to hide the equipment and come back for it later while the Martian ship tries to get away. Larry tries to follow the Martian rocket but his ship is hit by a ray gun and damaged, forcing Larry to break off his pursuit.

Larry and his assistants head out to the lake front and split up to search and see what Roth was doing there. Larry comes upon Roth and Shane loading crates into a van. He is spotted and gets into a shootout. Seeing he is outgunned, Larry jumps into a nearby speed boat and tries to get away. Roth sends the van driver on ahead while he and Shane pursue Larry in another boat. Getting up along side him, Roth hits Larry in the head with a boat hook, knocking him unconscious. Larry’s boat drifts toward a nearby dam, but he recovers in time to jump into the water and swim to safety before the boat goes over the dam and is destroyed.

Roth and Shane are unable to return and get the rest of their equipment. Since the skies will be patrolled for the Martian ship, Harding makes a deal with some of his foreign contacts to bring new supplies in by submarine. Meanwhile Larry is examining the equipment that was confiscated on the dock. Baffled as to what it could be used for he decides to take it to Dr. Harding, a leading expert on electronics to get his opinion. While driving over to Harding’s lab he spots Shane and Roth on the highway and decides to follow them. The two thugs drive to the harbor and charter a boat for that night.

Larry and Bob patrol the harbor that night and see several buoys bob to the surface. Shane and Roth start to grab the buoys but are interrupted by the arrival of Larry and Bob. Larry manages to grab the last buoy before they head off in pursuit of the bad guys. Roth throws a fishing net overboard which gets tangled in the propeller of Larry’s boat. Larry and Bob work to get the propeller untangled and then return to shore.

Putting on his rocket suit, Larry starts to search for Roth and Shane. He spots the van they were using before and flies down to it. Climbing in the back he attempts to make the men stop the van at gunpoint but Shane and Roth simply jump out of the van and let it run wild with Larry in the back. Larry manages to rocket out of the van before it crashes.

Marex has enough equipment to continue work for the moment and decides to return his attention to getting some uranium. Bribing a mine foreman, some uranium is stolen and shipped across the desert on pack horse to meet a plane. The theft is discovered. Larry and Bob race out to the desert and engage the smugglers in a gun fight. The men give up when Larry hits their plane with a hand grenade.

Learning that Roth and Shane are to be at the mine to pay off the foreman, Larry rushes over and sets a trap. Roth and Shane arrive and Larry gets the drop on them. Larry’s gun is knocked out of his hand and a fight starts. Larry is knocked unconscious with a shovel handle. He falls into a mine cart which is pushed down the track. The track ends in a drop at the end of the mine and it looks like Larry is doomed. He manages to regain consciousness in time to make another of his patented leaps to safety.

Marex is getting a little ticked off by all of these failures. He decides to simply buy some uranium from the black market. Since they are low on funds, he comes up with an incredibly complicated plan for a bank robbery that involves building a robot. He is positive that this time things can’t go wrong.

Just a quick look at the cliffhangers shows an annoying repetition of peril and escape. The hero is constantly knocked unconscious and left in a vehicle that is headed for certain doom, only to have him wake up in the nick of time and get away. Mix this with an overabundance of stock footage for both cliffhangers and action in the middle makes one wonder if there is any original footage outside of the dialogue scenes, there is and it is peppered throughout the serial. One of the oddest bits of footage comes in Chapter Four. All of the shots of the uranium smugglers on horse back meeting the plane are from a color Roy Rogers feature. But that’s not what is odd, for some reason the head cowboy’s dialogue has been dubbed in by Roy Barcroft. As the dialogue doesn’t mention a guy in a rocket suit, and I have not seen the film from which it was taken, I don’t know if this is how the dialogue originally played, so I have no idea why the actor is dubbed.

Despite these incongruities, there is still plenty of action in the film. Though most of the flying footage is from “King Of The Rocketmen” (1949), there are a few new shots of take offs and landings that are pretty cool, such as when he flies up to the back of a van, opens the door, and then lands inside. There are also two really good battles between the hero and the robot from “Mysterious Doctor Satan” (1940), plus a harrowing underwater knife fight in the cave headquarters.

Though most of the special effects are earlier footage, the new rocket ship for the Martians, which includes a bubble on top with a ray gun, does some nice skidding landings on rocky desert ground. The new ship also gets into a couple of dogfights with the rocket from “Radar Men From The Moon” (1952). Though it is mainly shots of the two models, with sparks and smoke flying out the back, swinging around on wires while rarely being in the same shot together, the editing makes the scenes exciting.

The serial is well cast with some good actors on the villain side. Western regular Lane Bradford, wearing a sparkly leotard outfit that would make Iron Maiden fans jealous, does a good job of delivering his scientifically inaccurate and outright silly lines with both a straight face and an air of menace. The man was an untapped talent. Serial regular John Crawford, in his last villain role, is probably the best actor in the film and carries himself with a certain amount of dignity, mainly because he doesn’t have to mouth any techno-heavy dialogue. Stanley Waxman, though colorless, actually has a character with some depth as he plays a reluctant assistant who constantly waffles back and forth between regret and a growing desire to stop the Martians. Of course the most famous cast member in the serial is Leonard Nimoy, almost fifteen years before wowing fans as Mr. Spock, plays a small part as a Martian invader, with few scenes and even fewer lines. Though he does get to battle the hero in the underwater knife fight.

The heroes are another story altogether. The best member on this side of the cast, serial queen Aline Towne, is given absolutely nothing to do. Most of her scenes consist of wishing the hero good luck as he heads out on a mission, monitoring the radio for messages from the hero, or helping with a minor search, involving her leaving the office and conducting it completely off screen. It comes as quite a shock in the middle of the serial when she is actually involved in a cliffhanger. This has to be the worst part she has ever played. Wilson Wood, stepping up in the cast list from his small part as a pilot in “Radar Men From the Moon” is okay. He is nothing special. Hero Judd Holdren, who was a mainstay in early fifties sci-fi serials, has a great look of determination on his face, as he does in all of his serials. That is probably his greatest attribute as an actor, that one look. It works perfectly for serials, as a hero needs a lot of determination to get through all of the stuff villains throw at him. He was not a great actor, but he is likeable in a nondescript way and handles himself well throughout the proceedings.

So while “Zombies Of The Stratosphere” is not a great serial, or even really a good one for that matter, it is like a Roger Corman or Bert I. Gordon film, enjoyable for it’s sillines. The serial does leave a viewer with one question though. If the Martians have the ability to move planets, why do they have to build a bomb to blow the Earth out of the way instead of just knocking it out of the way with a stray asteroid or something? Oh right I forgot, it’s just a movie, I should either watch and enjoy or not watch at all.

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