Happy Halloween! For this year at this time of ghouls and goblins, I thought I would pick an interesting title to highlight. Republic's Haunted Harbor (1944) was based on a nautical mystery novel by Dayle Douglas. This was unusual in the mid-forties, where most serials were either original characters or based on popular comic book heroes. Despite its title the serial isn't really a mystery or spooky chiller. It is a straight forward action thriller, the kind Republic excelled at producing like pulling rabbits out of a magician's hat. So if it isn't a spooky mystery serial why am I highlighting it? Good question. With a title like Haunted Harbor, how could I not?
Jim Marsden (Kane Richmond) is captain of the Dolphin out of Amoa. It gets lost at sea with a million dollar gold shipment aboard. Jim is heavily in debt to businessman Vorhees (Edward Keene), and suspected by some of stealing the gold.
Local trader Galbraith (Oscar O'Shea) offers Jim a job to help him repay his debt. He has a plantation and a trading post on the island of Pulamonte. The native workers refuse to work the fields, saying the nearby harbor contains demons, earning the nick name Haunted Harbor. Galbraith wants Jim to take over managing the island trading post and find out what's keeping the natives from working. Jim declines, wanting instead to make a few trips in his other ship to pay back Vorhees. Just then his first mate Yank (Clancy Cooper) finds Jim and tells him that Vorhees has put a stop on Jim sailing his ship. Jim decides to go talk to Vorhees.
At that moment Vorhees is meeting with his secret business partner Carter (Roy Barcroft). Carter pays Vorhees the last of the money he owes him for an illegal business venture they started up. Vorhees decides that instead of stepping aside and letting Carter run the enterprise, he will take over and kick Carter out. Carter has other ideas and stabs Vorhees with a knife from the man's own collection, then leaves out a back window.
Jim arrives and finds Vorhees on the floor. All Vorhees can say before dying is "Haunted Harborů.Carter." Just then a constable arrives, having been called because neighbors had heard a struggle. He arrests Jim for Vorhees' murder. Jim is convicted at trial and sentenced to be hanged.
Yank and second mate Tommy (Marshall Reed) break Jim out of jail right before he is to be taken to the scaffold. They then "steal" Galbraith's fortuitously fully stocked schooner and head for Pulamonte. Unfortunately they run smack into a hurricane.
While struggling to stay afloat Jim spots a sloop run aground against a cliff face, and the cliff is slowly falling away from the top. The sloop will be crushed. Jim swims over with a line and secures a breeches buoy between the two ships. There are only two people aboard, an injured Dr. Harding (Forrest Taylor), a doctor who travels around the islands treating the natives, and his daughter Patricia (Kay Aldridge).
Jim manages to get Dr. Harding over to the schooner, but then the cliff face gives way and tumbles toward the sloop. Jim unhitches the breeches buoy and dives overboard with Patricia right before the sloop is destroyed. Yank and Tommy pull them aboard. Jim explains his past trouble to them and they agree to go to Pulamonte with the fugitives. While Dr. Harding is recovering, Patricia can talk to the natives about why they won't work the plantation and Jim can search for Carter.
Arriving at Pulamonte Jim meets Dranga (George J. Lewis), a native who clerks at the trading post. Dranga also works for Carter, who is now calling himself Kane and running a phony gold mine on the island. Dranga contacts Kane by radio and tells him about Jim. Learning that Jim is going to be taking an inventory at the post that evening, Kane sends a henchman to kill him.
Jim arrives at the post and discovers Dranga "tied up and unconscious". He is attacked by a man with a knife and the two men struggle, destroying most of the furnishings in the process. The man is killed with his own knife.
The next day Patricia goes to the post and tells Jim that she has been to the village. The chief won't send his men to the fields because of the demon in the harbor. He will not let Jim come to speak with him, but has agreed to send his son to meet Jim halfway between the village and the post. It's not much but Jim will take it. He and Patricia decide to have lunch at the post's bungalow before going to the meeting.
Dranga radios this to Kane who sends Gregg (Kenne Duncan) and Snell (Bud Geary) to kill the chief's son so that Jim will be blamed for it and drive him from the island before he can investigate the harbor. Gregg and Snell ambush the tribesman on horseback and wound him. He manages to get away and meet up with Jim. Seeing Gregg and Snell approach, Jim has Patricia get the chief's son away in their car while Jim holds off his attackers.
Jim and the two men exchange gunfire. Seeing Patricia getting away, Gregg has Snell keep Jim busy while he goes after the car. Gregg cuts across country and causes Patricia to run of the road and down a steep downgrade. The car flips over and crashes. Jim chases off Snell and grabs his horse to follow Patricia. He comes upon the crash and chases off Gregg. Patricia and the chief's son are both okay.
Jim takes the native back to the bungalow where Dr. Harding takes care of him. Jim's rescue puts him in good with the natives, though they still refuse to work at the plantation. Jim calls Yank at the post and tells him to grab some ammunition and meet him at Kane's mine. He wants to talk to Kane and then head for Haunted Harbor from there.
Kane sees Jim approaching and sends Snell down to the mine through a hidden door under a table in Kane's office to set a trap for Jim. Jim introduces himself to Kane and asks if he knows anyone on the island named Carter. Kane is surprised by the blunt question but feigns ignorance. He suggest Jim go over to the mine and ask the men working there if they know of anyone by that name. Jim agrees.
Snell tries to kill Jim by opening the ore dump when Jim walks under it. Jim is buried but survives. The other men plan to kill him but the arrival of Yank causes them to rescue Jim instead. Jim accepts Kane's apologies and then heads for the harbor.
Knowing there is only one way to get there by road, Kane sends Snell across country with some men to ambush Jim and Yank. Snell and his men catch Jim and Yank at the point where they have to leave their car and climb a ladder up a tall cliff. A shoot out commences and Snell is shocked to have both of his underlings killed in less time than it takes to write this. He heads up the ladder with Jim in pursuit. Getting to the top he cuts the ropes holding the ladder to the cliff and pushes it off. Jim luckily lands in a tree, none the worse for wear.
Now unable to get to the harbor on foot, the two men return to the bungalow. Jim decides that he will now have to go by water to investigate the harbor and goes to the post's motor boat to get it ready.
Kane goes to the bungalow to find out what Jim is now planning. He finds only Dr. Harding at home. The two men talk and Dr. Harding, getting suspicious of Kane, asks some probing questions. Kane fields them and leaves. Harding checks his old appointment book and discovers Kane is really Carter, he had treated the man when he was a convict in Singapore. Harding calls the post and tells this to Dranga.
Kane walks into the post and Dranga tells him of Harding's call. Kane contacts Gregg. Gregg goes to the bungalow, shoots Harding and steals the appointment book. Just then Patricia walks in the door. Gregg grabs her and takes her with him.
When Jim gets back to the bungalow he finds Harding. Harding tells Jim that Patricia was grabbed by Gregg, who said he was taking her to a cabin at Dark Pass. Unfortunately he dies before he can tell Jim who Carter really is.
Jim heads for the cabin and gets the drop on Greg and Snell. A fight breaks out that demolishes the cabin. Jim and Patricia get away in his car with Gregg and Snell in hot pursuit. Seeing that Jim has too big a head start along the mountainous road, Gregg stops his car and they send it over the edge of a down grade. Jim spots the out of control car heading for them from above and he and Patricia jump for their lives right before the cars collide and explode.
Once back at the bungalow, Jim discusses sending Patricia back to the states on the next ship now that she has no family left on the islands. Patricia refuses, she now has just as much a personal score to settle with Carter as Jim does. Jim agrees. He tells Dranga to go get the automatic rifle (machine gun having not yet become the accepted term at the time) from the post and then meet him at the motor boat with Patricia. Jim is going on ahead to finish up on the boat.
Dranga goes to the post and radios this to Kane. Kane says to put blanks in the gun and then deliver it. Dranga loads the blanks and then picks up Patricia to go to the boat.
Gregg and Snell are sent to stop the boat from going. Jim hears them approach and gets the drop on them. A fight breaks out and Jim is knocked unconscious. They get some dynamite from their saddle backs and put it on the boat. Dranga and Patricia arrive just as the fuse is lit.
Dranga "drives off" Gregg and Snell with the automatic rifle while Patricia grabs the dynamite and throws it into the water where it explodes harmlessly. Dranga tries to talk Jim out of going to the harbor, saying no one who has ever gone there has ever returned, but Jim owes it to Galbraith to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the place. Dranga gives him the gun and wishes him luck.
Jim and Patricia cruise into the harbor and see nothing wrong. Just then the water starts bubbling and a giant sea monster erupts into view next to their boat, belching out smoke and roaring. Emptying the rifle at the monster, Jim finds that "bullets" have no effect on the creature. Dropping the gun, he pulls out a knife and dives overboard as the sea monster goes back under water. A sudden explosion goes off under the water and Jim floats limply to the surface. Patricia pulls him back into the boat, finds he is only stunned and heads out of the harbor to safety.
This serial reminds me of The Fantastic Four (2005), there is a lot of build up to the mystery of the harbor and when it is finally revealed it is a big let down, much like the build up of the FF to clash with Dr. Doom and when it finally happens, it's over in ten minutes. You just sit there and say incredulously, "That's it?"
The problem here is that the build up is great. Everyone keeps talking about how something mysterious is going on at the harbor, henchmen go to extremes to keep the heroes away, and natives are talking about people never returning from the harbor because of monsters. And this is Republic, the studio where the Lydecker brothers made the best props and special effects of any studio, major or minor. So it is quite a shock when the monster is finally revealed and we see an obviously fake frog like rubber puppet with a ludicrously long tongue flopping out of its mouth.
If this had been a Columbia serial by James Horne, you could have accepted it, all of the actors would have over reacted and done exaggerated pop eyed triple takes to emphasize the absurdity. But here everyone is totally serious and take the monster at face value which stretches the suspension of disbelief too far. Thankfully the monster only makes a second, very brief appearance towards the final chapters and is then done away with.
The mystery is also not much to talk about. Though nothing is spelled out it is too easy to connect the dots before Chapter One is half over and know exactly what's going on. Which makes you wonder why everything has to be explained in the final chapter, it is obvious what's going on, yet we have to have a wrap up where everything is explained in great detail to an audience that already knows it.
But enough of the bad, let's move on to the good. This is a great action serial with a lot intermixing of genres. Though it contains a badly muffed up mystery/horror angle, it also contains an interesting composite of nautical, jungle and western themes. When the hero isn't fighting tropical storms, he's having to escape angry natives (Kane frames him for the chief's murder in Chapter Nine), or engage in shootouts and chases on horseback with the henchmen. A lot of running around happens in this serial, but it follows a very straight forward structure, there isn't that annoying tendency to simply flip flop back and forth with the heroes getting something, losing it to the villains and then get it back again as in a lot of jungle based serials.
Haunted Harbor also contains one of the most shocking moments I have ever seen in any serial. I'm not going to say which, but one of the good guys dies in Chapter Thirteen. When it happens you think, oh they're just wounded and will be alright come the next episode, but no they are really dead. That just doesn't happen in a serial. Major good guys only die if the hero is unknown and you're weeding through the suspects. Not here. It adds a certain amount of tension to the proceedings. Much like Wash's death in Serenity (2004) you realize anything goes in this universe, and no one has plot immunity.
The acting here is all great. Roy Barcroft makes his serial villain debut with this film. He had had small roles for years in serials, but now he was strutting his stuff in the first of what would be an impressive series of villainous turns for the next eight years. Here he shows that he has studied the great double talkers of serials, Noah Berry, Sr. and Harry Woods. Barcroft effortlessly slips from ruthless criminal in front of his men to a jovial good natured lug when he is with the good guys. He is cock of the walk in this production and shows he knows it, amused with how easily he continually fools the heroes with his honest businessman act.
Kenne Duncan and Bud Geary are standout henchmen. Duncan comes across as cool and efficient in his dealings with the heroes, flippantly taunting them on more than one occasion when he gets an upper hand, while Geary is the sadistic muscle for the team, taking a little bit too much pleasure when it seems like one of the heroes is about to buy it.
Kane Richmond is probably the best actor to work continually in serials as a leading man. He shows here why you need a trained actor in a serial, rather than someone who's main attribute is that he resembles the stuntman doubling for him, which would become the practice at Republic during the late forties (with the exception of the awesome Clayton Moore). As written, the character of Jim Marsden isn't that interesting, he simply goes about his business in a steady but determined manner, looking for a murderer and clearing up an island mystery as if it is an everyday chore. Richmond adds some much needed personality to the colorless character, giving simple lines a touch of irony or jovial humor in the face of danger.
Kay Aldridge gives a good performance here. Though her character isn't fleshed out much in the beginning, after the death of her father she takes on a steely determination worthy of being a former Nyoka. Plus she gets in on the action more than most heroines, even saving the hero a few times rather than always being the damsel in distress.
Clancy Cooper and Marshall Reed don't really have much of a chance to shine. Pushed into the background for the first half of the serial, they finally start getting some screen time in Chapter Eight, though most of it is crouching next to Richmond during shootouts. Reed does have a short comedy bit in Chapter Nine with a monkey that steals his dinner and Cooper thankfully tones down the Irish brogue he used in The Secret Code (1942), never once referring to anyone as "Me Bucko".