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.