This Poverty Row production is often wrongly branded as haunted house-styled whodunnit perhaps because many haven’t bothered to watch this exercise in weird mediocrity, or it’s the easiest branding for a messy mish-mash that espouses to echo the mystery-comedy elements in The Cat and the Canary [M] (1927) and The Old Dark House [M] (1932).
A patchwork of psychotically spliced-in stock footage of a prison break covers ‘The Phantom’ escaping by train and plane from prison - a daring action which alerts the police and the District Attorney (Wilfred Lucas) involved in said Phantom’s conviction. Bodyguards are sent to the lawyer’s house after The Phantom declares revenge on his family, with one protecting daughter Ruth (Allene Ray), a nosey reporter whose editor Sam (Niles Welch) is in love with her.
At the D.A.’s home, everyone awaits The Phantom’s arrival, including investigative reporter Dick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams), who eventually takes Ruth and the D.A.’s spooked butler and moronic maid to a lunatic asylum where the film’s story concludes.
Hack writer-director Alan James, more experienced in westerns, goes through basic storytelling motions, but any interesting shots seem to come from experienced cinematographer Jack Draper, who later spent a lengthy period shooting films in Mexico. A crazy doctor with a lobotomy fixation takes over the film’s final third, and the eponymous Phantom is a red herring in both the film’s marketing, and the mad doctor’s secret plan to experiment on select victims within the walls of the asylum.
It’s all a mush of ideas folded into a crazy-quilt of scenes, and amateurish actors literally stomping around the wooden floorboards of cheap sets in this primordial sound film. A few post-synced scenes indicate extra cost-cutting measures by the studio, and the lack of any score really grinds down the film’s pacing, making its 62 mins. interminable.
And yet there is something intriguing about the film’s weird amalgam of an escaped caped madman, a crazy doctor, nosey reporters, and ‘Swedish’ contortionist William Jackie who plays an asylum resident like a Jackie Oakie clone, albeit one who walks around like a chicken. There’s also the doctor’s basement laboratory where the skulls of his unsuccessful patients adorn a mantle – details that oddly recall the skull collection discovered by Baron von Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974).
Director James later directed several Dick Tracy serials, whereas co-star Allene Ray, a star of silent western serials, retired from acting, save for an appearance in Gun Cargo (1949). Only Guinn Williams had better luck, drifting between supporting roles in B and the odd A-level films, including a villainous turn in Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water [M] (1941).
Neither a whodunnit (no one is killed) nor haunted house thriller, The Phantom is available from Archive.org as a free download.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan