The Purple Monster and Other Movie Serial Villains!

Guest blogger JSD writes:

Whenever I think of movie serial villains, an image burned into my brain during my youthful years watching 1950s television pops into my consciousness.  It is the image of Ming, the Merciless, the cruel yet cool villain played straight-faced and menacingly by Charles Middleton. As the unchallenged ruler of the planet Mongo, Ming made the very act of survival exceedingly difficult for Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and his pals, Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), in Universal’s fabulous Flash Gordon movie serial series of the 1930s. (In fact, Flash Gordon is the only movie serial to be included in the National Film Registry.) Yes, Ming was quite a villain! Pompous and aloof, and with great flowing costumes and a really nice throne in a really nice throne room, he rarely lowered himself into the fray of routine fighting and bloodshed (except when lusting after the golden-haired beauty, Dale Arden).  No one dared to mess with this guy, for he had a seemingly unlimited number of exotic and deadly tortures awaiting his enemies! And he didn’t hesitate to use them in each chapter of the serial!

But, enough of Ming. He’s already a villainous rock star. I thought it would be more interesting to look at some lesser-known movie serial villains, particularly the villains from these Republic serials: The Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), The Purple Monster Strikes (1945),  and The Invisible Monster (1950) All of these serials shared the same common formula: the bad guy wants something, the good guy tries to stop him, the bad guy gets his justice in the final chapter. The fun is in seeing how many different ways the good guys and the bad guys can outmaneuver each other and how many nail-biting, cliffhanging chapter endings they can conjure up to keep the audience returning week after week! And so, here are my thoughts on the movie villains of the titles mentioned.

In 1940, Republic Pictures brought The Mysterious Doctor Satan (Eduardo Cannelli) to the screen.  In this serial, the villain is nothing more than a power-hungry gangster – a thug – who uses his penchant for being an inventive genius to devise gadgets in order to gain wealth and power. One of those gadgets is his so-called control disk, an electrical contraption which attaches to the torso of each of his gang members as well as some of his enemies. Through this device he can monitor what the person is doing and speak through them to others. He can also kill that person instantly with the press of a button! The control disk helps Doctor Satan keep his troops in line and assists him in coaxing needed information from others. But his biggest and best invention is a larger-than-life size robot – you know, the kind with many bolts and metal parts (which do nothing to conceal the fact that a real human being is inside the robot manipulating its arms and legs) – which is seemingly unstoppable. The mechanical man is a prototype for an army of such robots the doctor is planning to help him achieve his wealth and power goals. One chapter at a time, Doctor Satan thwarts the good guys with a variety of devious  and evil schemes, resulting in almost non-stop and action-packed cliffhangers. There are lots of fist fights, gun fights and automobile chases. In the end, of course, Doctor Satan meets his demise in a truly just manner and the good guys win!

The only true monster – if he can be called such – is the antagonist in Republic’s 1945 serial, The Purple Monster Strikes.  This movie features a somewhat incredulous – maybe even ridiculous -  premise which the Purple Monster himself (Roy Barcroft), a being from Mars, sums up thusly:  “My people have planned for a long time to invade the Earth and enslave its inhabitants – destroying all of those who resists us. I am a forerunner of that invasion – the advance guard … You see, I have the ability to kill you, enter your body and use it for my own purposes!” And what is his purpose? To steal a rocket launching system and anti-gravity device from a famous inventor so as to enable his impending invasion to conquer Earth and then return to Mars!  In a somewhat grisly manner, the Purple Monster kills the inventor by exposing him to vapors contained in a capsule of Martian atmosphere, then placing his corpse upon a chair, whereupon the Purple Monster inhales some of the Martian atmosphere and manages to infuse himself into the corpse, thus bringing it back to life. The corpse looks like the inventor, talks like the inventor and acts like the inventor. But, of course, the corpse isn’t the inventor at all but rather the disguised Purple Monster.  It’s not surprising, therefore, to find out that, only after 14 chapters have been consumed, the good guys finally begin to figure things out. The less-than-razor-sharp reasoning abilities of the good guys is really a good thing, though, because it gives plenty of time for fight after fight, chase after chase and cliffhanger after cliffhanger, making for a rather entertaining and amusing 209 minutes! Now that’s entertainment!

The final villain, from Republic’s 1950 serial The Invisible Monster, is but another power-crazed genius criminal known as the Phantom Ruler (Stanley Price). Despite his avuncular appearance, the Phantom Ruler really is ruthless! His mad quest is to dominate the world by deploying an “invisible” army! Yes! An invisible army!  He has devised a method of impregnating cloth with a unique chemical concoction which, when subject to the light from a special lamp he also devised, renders the wearer of the cloth invisible to the human eye.  And so, the driving force behind his mission throughout the twelve chapters of this serial, is to acquire the men, the chemicals and other components to get his plan off the ground. Unlike other villains, however, who tend to cower in their safe houses, the Phantom Ruler actually ventures out into the real world with his invisibility cloak and special lamp nearby to commit thefts of various materials which seem to elude his gang members. The fact that this special lamp is so large that it must be hauled off to every location via a large truck makes it seem obvious to everyone except the good guys that he’s skulking somewhere nearby with thievery foremost in his mind. But, of course, the good guys don’t figure this out until the 12 chapters have played most of their hand. And in-between there are guns ablazing, fights abounding and car chases  ad nauseum. In the end, however – as always – justice is meted out for this villain, too. The best part of watching these movie serials on DVD is not only the surprisingly good quality of the picture and sound, but also the fact that you don’t have to wait a week to see what happens next!

Who was your favorite movie serial villain?

JSD’s film-loving days began when, as a kid, he attended the theatrical re-re-release of King Kong in the early 1950s.  Since then he became a teacher, author, artist and filmmaker while maintaining his ongoing enthusiasm for the movies.

  • Lenny

    My favorite serial of all time is Captain Marvel with Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1313918551 Enrique Bird-Picó

    Favorite movie serial villains:

    The Lightning in “The Fighting Devil Dogs”
    Don-del-Oro in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion”
    Retik in “Radar Men from the Moon”.

  • Luigi From NYC

    My Favorite Is MING from Flash Gordon with Buster Crabbe

    Next Favorite THE QUEEN from THE PHANTOM EMPIRE with Gene Autry

  • Jack West

    Bela Lugosi as the mad doctor in THE PHANTOM CREEPS.

  • Anonymous.

    Lyle Talbot as Luthor in the second Superman serial starring Kirk Allyn.

  • JOHN A. SOUTHARD

    My favorite villain is Captain Mephisto in Manhunt on Mystery Island. Roy Barcroft is Mephisto. This is also my favorite serial.

  • tom morris

    The Lightning wins easily. He is evil incarnate with his deadly lightning flying torpedoes. Also, there has never been a better costume.

  • Rick

    The Scorpion from Captain Marvel, The Lightning from Fighting Devil Dogs and Charles Middleton’s villan from Daredevils of The Red Circle are three of the best.

  • Marty

    Great choices so far! One hilarious element of serials is how many of these villains are tottering old guys who when unmasked put up a terrific fight against the almost-superhuman hero. Ie the Lightening in Fighting Devil Dogs and the villains in Captain America and the second Batman serial.

  • Bob VanDerClock

    Middleton as Ming; Middleton in Daredevils Of The Red Circle ( I believe he gets killed in a car bomb while the vehicle’s in motion ); the bad guy in 1946′s The Crimson Ghost; and one of the Steven Seagal movievillians who is big, tall, so frighteningly and incredibly bad-ass and, in a drug filled wrath, tries to kill just about anyone he can get his hands on (darn..I can’t remember his name and I just MET him last October at one of the Chiller conventions!)

  • Bob

    ” Killer Kane ” from Buck Rogers. Who else would turn a five gallon bucket into a mind control device.

  • http://davesclassicfilms.blogspot.com/ Dave the Movie Guy

    Don’t forget Lionel Atwill as “The Scarab” in the “Captain America” serial from 1944. Atwill was great in every performance he gave, whether it was in a serial or feature film …

  • Neil Hirsch

    Spoiler Alert: My favorite movie villain is Quong Lee (Frank Lacteen) who morphs into the equally villainous C.E. Mannix (William Ruhl) in “Red Barry” in which Buster Crabbe played the title role. The revelation that the two characters are the same person (although played by two different actors) in disguise comes somewhere in the middle chapters, but it doesn’t ruin this fast paced gem of serial that too many of us have forgotten about in favor of Crabbe’s starring roles it the three Flash Gordon serials and “Buck Rogers.”

  • John T

    Roy Barcroft was the greatest villain in serials as well as Westerns. Evil oozes out of every pore of his body. According to Roy Rogers, he was also a talented musician.

  • sally stark

    CHARLES MIDDLETON AS MING!!!
    Anthony Warde as “Killer Kane”, in BUCK ROGERS.

  • Bill C.

    Well, Charles Middleton as Ming pretty handily takes this one, but props to Lionel Atwill.

  • Salvatore R LaRosa

    What about Dr Vulcan or Radar Men from the Moon and Zombies from the Stratosphere? Rocket Man (Commander Cody). By the way there’s a great book called “Saturday Afternoon at the Movies” with all the great serials we love.

  • louis n

    the evil doctor daka from the 1943 serial of THE BATMAN was my favorite with CAPTAIN MEPHISTO second from manhunt of mystery island. great stuff.

  • John Stanaway

    The greatest villains were portrayed by the most capable actors. Of course, Charles Middleton (reportedly a very gentle and kindly person in real life) made a satanic Ming and shared honors with Miles Mander in the almost perfect DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE. The comment about Frank Lackteen as Quong Lee was right on target, and Harry Woods was an extremely effective western villain versus Dick Foran in WINNERS OF THE WEST. Roy Barcroft was Republic’s workhorse, and modelled his craft after Woods. I sometimes think of the typical if non-existent quote from Barcroft as, “You boys take care of the sheriff; I’ll take care of the girl, Heh, heh.”

  • Al Hooper

    Charles Middleton was great as Ming the Merciless but thanks also for mentioning Lionel Atwill, one of the most underrated villains (and best actors) of any era.

  • Susan Johnston

    I vote for MING with Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon. Ming is a great, flowing and sinister villan.

  • Michelle Malkin

    My vote is for Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. Of course, I always loved hearing
    Clayton Moore’s voice as he portrayed several villains in serials and B Westerns. That voice
    was unmistakable. And he was very good-looking, too.

  • Michelle Malkin

    Forgot to mention, I just saw a few days ago a
    movie starring Lucille Ball in which Lionel
    Atwill played a police officer. This was the
    first time I’d ever seen him play one of the
    good guys. Boris Karloff was also in this movie
    playing a lunatic dress designer.

  • SONNY LACHNER

    I LOVE THE SERIALS THAT I GREW UP WITH WHEN I WAS A KID BACK IN MY HOME STATE OF NEW JERSEY JUS TO NAME A FEW OF MY FAVORITES : PRINCE DAKA AS PLAYED BY ONE OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTER ACTORS, HE BEING J. CARROL NAISH GREAT ACTOR…ALSO I.STANDFORD JOLLEY THE VOICE OF THE CRIMSON GHOST ALSO DR. VULCAN OF KING OF THE ROCKETMEN….THEN THERE IS HARUUCHI IN THE GREAT G MEN VS, THE BLACK DRAGON STARRING ROD CAMERON AND LET US NOT FORGET ROD AGAINST BARON VON ROMMLER IN SECRET SERVICE IN DARKEST AFRICA OR AS IT WAS LATER KNOWN MANHUNT IN THE AFRICAN JUNGLE ….THE MASK IN SPY SMASHER….THE INVISABLE RULER IN THE INVISABLE MONSTER STANLEY PRICE AS THE LEAD VILLAN….THE WASP IN MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN…..JOHH MERTON AS BARODA THE MASTER SPY IN RADAR PATROL VS THE SPY KING AND NOT FORGETTING HIS REAL LIFE SON LANE BRADFORD AS THE EVIL MARTIAN LEADER MAREK…AND AN UP AND COMING VULCAN LEONARD NIMOY AS ONE OF HIS HENCHMEN….ALL IN ALL THESE GREAT VILLANS HELPED US THRU THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON MATINES DURING TROUBLED TIMES IN OUR LIVES ETC…MANY THANKS TO ALL OF THE GREAT STARS OF THE GREAT SERIALS OF YESTERDAY AS WELL AS THE GREAT STUNT MEN AND WOMEN SUCH AS TOM STEELE…DALE VAN SICKLE…DAVE SHARPE EVEN JOHN WAYNE WHEN HE STARTED IN THE MOVIES AND THE GREATEST STUNT MAN OF THEM ALL…YAKIMA CANUTT….MANY THANKS TO ALL OF THOSE GREAT PEOPLE WHO MADE A LITTLE DIFFERENCE EVERY SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT YOUR LOCAL THEATERS..-30-

  • version

    Prof Moriarty comes to mind. Darth Vadar has some screen cred too I think. These are less ‘serial’ as the above – but they repeat in a series of films.