I'm breaking away from my usual method of having the spotlighted serial feature one of the actors or actresses also spotlighted this month. That wasn't my original plan but a few weeks ago I was at my most favorite place in the whole world, the public library (I know, I'm such a geek) when I found a film listed in the catalogue that I hadn't seen before. It was such an unexpected discovery that I immediately ordered it from the branch that had it and after viewing it, decided that for the start of the year I would bring some attention to one of the best fan tributes to the serials ever produced, Captain Celluloid vs. the Film Pirates (1966).
When the film opens a construction crew discovers an uncut copy of Erich Von Stronheim's Greed during an excavation of a demolished building. This colossal find is quickly given to the Association of Film Distributors Museum so that all film lovers can appreciate it. At least that is the plan. Unfortuantely the mysterious criminal known as The Master Duper (Alan G. Barbour) has his own agenda.
His agents waylay the delivery driver and hypnotise him. The Duper, after disposing of a traitorous minion by disentigrating him with his special film camera, gets a visit from Satanya (Jean Barbour) who supplies him with a Gamma Tube in exchange for a copy of D. W. Griffith's Sorrows of Satan. The tube will allow his Instant Transmission Printer to copy over an entire film in seconds.
The Duper and his chief henchman Vance (Al Kilgore) go to where his men are holding the driver. After copying Greed, The Duper has the driver released, wherein he delivers the film, unaware that a copy has been made. The Duper, who is a member of the Associated Film Distributor's board, plans to suggest all the members donate a silent film from their personal library to the museum and then waylay that driver as well.
The next day at the board meeting both Paul Michael (Barney Noto) and Martin Brand (John Cullen) suggest everyone donate a film to the museum. Board chairman Duncan Gregory (Alan G. Barbour) thinks it is an excellent idea and in fact had been about to suggest it himself. At the meeting Larry Steele (Robert Miller) suggests that because of the number of illegal film copies that are turning up around the country, it might be a good idea to have the driver carry a gun. The rest of the board grudgingly agrees. When no one is looking Larry slips a note to secretary Dale Stirling (Doris Burnell) to let Captain Celluloid, the scourge of film piracy, know the time and route of the delivery.
During the delivery, driver Tom (Grant Willis) is hypnotised by the Duper's Hypnoguns and drives to an abandoned mine. The Duper and his men grab the films and plan to copy them when Captain Celluloid (Robert Miller) appears on the scene and a fight breaks out. During the ruckus Tom comes out of his stupor and grabs his gun.
The Duper tries to make off with the films but ends up in a gun battle with Tom. A stray shot hits a power line, which drops onto a generator. The Duper shuts off the power and succeeds in wounding Tom. By this time Captain Celluloind has beaten the snot out of his two opponents and goes after The Duper. But the Duper gets the drop on Cap and forces him stand on the generator. The Duper throws the switch that turns the power back on, bwa ha ha ha.
Luckily Cap sees what is about to happen and makes a just in the nick of time leap to safety before the generator explodes. He is knocked unconscious and the Duper gets away with the movies. Back at the hideout Satanya shows her latest invention to the Duper, the Vanisher, which makes any person wearing it invisible. Her price, an uncut copy of Greed.
At the next AFD meeting Tom tells the board of being attacked and the films stolen. Larry thinks this is serious. Brand skoffs at the idea, asking what anyone would want with a bunch of old movies. Dale tells him that film societies would pay handsomely for copies of rare films, and they are as numorous as theaters use to be back in the thirties. Larry asks the board for permission to investigate these societies and Gregory concurs with him. Larry decides to start with the Classic Film Society as they are the largest in the city.
The Duper uses his Vanisher to visit the head of Classic film Society, D. W. Hart (William K. Everson). He warns him that Larry Steele is coming to question him and that Hart can get a copy of Greed for the agreed on price at their usual drop off spot. Larry pulls up to the building that the CFS has it's office at and is surprised to see Brand exiting the building. Seeing Larry, Brand says he was going to talk to Hart, but the office is closed. Larry starts to leave but then spots Hart getting into his car and decides to follow him.
Hart goes to an abandoned pier where he meets a minion of the Duper. The sale of Greed is interupted by Captain Celluloind dropping on them from above. A fight starts and Hart books it for his car. Another henchman joins the fray and one of the canisters of Greed gets knocked open, where it unspools along the dock and drops into the hidden cache of copied films. A stray bullet ignites the silver nitrate in the film stock and it starts to burn like a lit fuse.
Cap is knocked unconscious and falls into the film cache. The henchmen noticing the burning film heading down into the cache, head for the hills. Luckily Cap comes to his senses in time to climb out of the cache and dive into the river right before the pier explodes.
The henchmen report to the Duper who is angry at the loss of so much valuable merchandise, but considers it well worth the price to be rid of Captain Celluloid. The Duper plans to make a special recording, disguising his voice with another of Satanya's inventions of course, and sneak it onto the AFD's recorder before the next meeting.
The next morning, Gregory is surprised to see Michael already in the board room. Michael says he was just finishing up some paperwork before the meeting. During the meeting, Dale plays what she thinks is a message from their West Coast branch office. The Duper's recording requests that their copy of The Big Parade be sent to the West Coast office. Dale signs the release forms and gives them to Tom.
Tom goes to the AFD vaults. While signing out the film, he inadvertantly knocks over some film cannisters. When the guard goes to pick them up, Tom knocks him out with a gun, then strips off a mask revealling himself to really be Vance in disguise. Vance lets the Duper and his other men into the vault, but before they can grab the film, everyone is surprised to see an alive Captain Celluloid come somersaulting out of a film crate with gun drawn.
A running fist fight and shoot out commences. During the confusion, the Duper makes off with box of film. Cap manages to shoot all of the henchmen except Vance, who also skeedaddles. Running outside, Cap sees the Duper getting away in a car. Jumping into his own car, he heads out in pursuit.
The Duper, seeing Cap behind him, heads out of town where he has a trap set up for just such an emergency. Passing down the right fork in a road, he radios a minion to change the road out sign on the left fork. When Cap comes to the fork he sees that the right fork is closed and turns down the left fork, heading right for a cliff. Seeing the danger in time, he leaps out of his car right before it goes over the edge and explodes at the bottom.
Hearing someone on a radio, Cap investigates and comes upon a henchman. The henchman pulls out his gun, but Cap is quicker and shoots the murderous thug. He questions the dying man about the Duper, but the underling doesn't know his boss's identity, only that he is a member of the AFD. This information gives Cap an idea on how to trick the Duper into revealing his identity.
First off let me just say that I LOVE this film. Filmed independantly in the outskirts of New Jersey, it is to the serial fan what Night of the Living Dead (1968) is to the horror fan, a low budget, professionally made film produced by people who care about the genre and the product they are making. What is most surprising is that the film is an affectionate tribute to the genre and not a campy spoof like the Batman TV show was.
While the plot, concerning a costumed hero trying to prevent illegal film copies from being made, would on the surface appear to be just as silly as anything Adam West and Burt Ward pontificated about, the difference is in the manner it's presented. Everything is played straight here. No little winks at the audience to let you know it's all a big joke. No sir, these people take serials seriously and are presenting a film in that style.
There is humor in the film, but it is humor you can laugh with the film on, not at the film. When Satanya demonstrates her Vanisher, she pulls Vance's hat off unseen and tells him he should always remove his hat in the presence of a lady. Sure it's a corny gag, but it makes you give a little chuckle anyway due to Kilgore's reaction of first surprise, and then glowering embarassment.
There are so many things this film does right. After all of the suspects are first shown, they spend the rest of the serial glancing suspiciously at each other. Each suspect is given a chapter to himself, where he gets to appear as if he is obviously the guilty one.
Each chapter has a fight scene and they are all done with real stunt men. Though not as great as the fights done during Republic's heyday, where Dave Sharpe would perform amazingly acrobatic flips and leaps, or where whole rooms would be reduced to splinters, they are as good as anything Republic did in the late forties and early fifties. People get knocked down stairs, combatants are flipped over each other's shoulders, you even have a bad guy accidently hit one of his own gang by mistake when the hero ducks. The choreography is top notch.
The special effects are all well done as well. The effect of people being disintegrated is eerie as the whole picture goes all wavy and the person fades out in a flash of light. The invisibilty is well handled with people completeing movements as they either fade in or fade out, with no overlapping of images as can happen in low budget films. All of the explosions are kept simple and are effective because of it. They even go the extra mile by having a model made of the hero's car for when it goes over the cliff.
There are also a lot of things for the serial connoseaur to savor. Each of the recaps for the chapters look dead on Republic. Almost all of the music, with the exception of the opening credits, comes from Republic serials. Half the fun of watching this film is identifying where the music came from. Song cues from Undersea Kingdom (1936), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), and Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945), just to name a few, pop up throughout. The gadgets the villain uses look like they came from the Lydeckers.
I only have two minor complaints about this film. One, it is silent. I'm not a big fan of silent film. I have always had trouble getting over the exagerated emoting that was standard acting for silent films. Happily no one goes over the top here, clutching their chest to express heartache, or doing double takes of nec k snapping force. Here all the acting is at the level of a sound film, you just can't hear the dialogue.
My other complaint is that it's too short. With only four chapters at fifteen minutes each, the film is barely feature length. If they could have gotten the money to include two more chapters and had sound, it might have gotten a real release through a a small company such Arch Hall, Sr.'s Filmways or maybe even AIP. As it is it didn't see the light of day until the mid-seventies when it started turning up at conventions. Luckily it did come out on video through Grapevine.
As Jerry Springer would say, here's my final thought. Who would have ever imagined that a little fan film from the sixties would suddenly have relevancy for today. With film studios falling all over themselves to arrest thirteen year olds for downloading Revenge of the Sith (2005) off the internet, I'm surprised that this film hasn't gotten released on DVD to cash in on the controversy. It could be embraced by the studios as showing the evils of film piracy, and also be touted by the opposition as showing just how overzealous the film studios have become about protecting their product. It's a serial that has something for everyone.