Dr Alex Zorka (Bela Lugosi) is a scientist with big ideas and a grand ambition: nothing short of ruling the entire universe! To that end he has invented an array of gadgets that will give him incredible powers so that no one will stand in his way, from his towering "iron man" robot to his exploding mechanical spiders to his invisibility device which makes him vanish from view to, most importantly of all, the meteorite he keeps in his safe. Harnessing the power of that could well see him realise his goals, but first there is the problem that everyone seems to know what he is up to; if only there was a method of throwing the authorities off, and allowing him to pursue his megalomania unchecked...
Lugosi made five serials in all, and The Phantom Creeps was the last of them, produced for Universal which had of course awarded the star everlasting fame as one of their horror icons, Count Dracula. Here he was essaying the role as a garden variety mad scientist, albeit one with an impressive arsenal at his command, most memorably that huge robot - inside the snarling visage and bulky costume was Ed Wolff, a professional giant whose work had taken him from circus freak shows to the giddy heights of Hollywood where he largely (large being the operative word) played monsters and heavies in various science fiction and horror pictures. Lugosi, meanwhile, was an old hand at this.
Even at this stage in his career, where he was more or less taking any role offered to him, and because they were not expensive productions to make he was seeing his funds dwindling, but he was recognisable thanks to his distinctive, Eastern European features and accent, and that was all that mattered to those who hired him, having become his own "type" that could be emulated, but never bettered. For that extra special Lugosi element, you really needed to hire the man himself, and he certainly gave his villain in this as much energy as he could muster so that the casting directors around Hollywood would see him and realise he was exactly what they needed for their new movie.
Though that new movie was becoming one that needed a sinister butler rather than a leading man, no matter the character's demeanour or morals, which rendered The Phantom Creeps a lot of fun when it was essentially a vehicle for Lugosi. Oh, and stock footage. Lots and lots of stock footage, where at one moment the editors were splicing in a car crash and the next were raiding the newsreels for ship disasters and even destruction of The Hindenburg in an example of dubious taste. That was for the climax of the crazed doctor's crime spree, when he was dropping explosive test tubes out of a biplane in an absurdly low rent reign of terror, but before that there was an abundance of bits and pieces from other movies and real life events, so much so that the actual cast hardly got a look in.
As with many of these serials - this was a twelve-parter - the results were edited into a shorter feature, also called The Phantom Creeps, and that was released around ten years after its debut as a chapter play to delight the matinee crowds all over again. The film version was a condensing of the serial, which as the source had a reputation as one of the most ludicrously event-packed of its kind, you can imagine what this looked like as hours were cut down ruthlessly to a speedy eighty minutes. At least most of what made this interesting was preserved, yes, that robot which became a minor emblem of serial pop culture, but also Lugosi reunited with Edward Van Sloan, his old rival Dr Van Helsing, who was one of the alternative baddies out to get his hands on that meteorite. Otherwise, it was simply entertaining to hear the star give his everything to his lines about world domination, and as ostensible hero Robert Kent was often sidelined, this came across as a proto-Despicable Me in its dedicated concentration on the evildoer. So very silly, so very easy to watch.