The Phantom – USA, 1931

The Phantom is a 1931 American thriller film written and directed by Alan James (as Alvin Neitz). It stars Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Allene Ray, and Niles Welch.

Review:

An ‘Old Dark House’ thriller haphazardly bordering on parody, The Phantom (1931), is a rare venture into both mild horror and comedy for producer Louis Weiss, best known for cranking out serials and ‘B’ westerns from the silent days up through the 1940s.

Allene Ray, usually seen in western serials, here stars as Ruth Hampton, the delicate socialite and fluttery ingénue-in-peril whose father, District Attorney John Hampton (Wilfred Lucas), is being threatened by The Phantom, an escaped death row inmate who blames the DA for his conviction; breaking out of prison just prior to his scheduled execution, The Phantom sends a note to the District Attorney stating that he wishes to meet with the D.A. at his home at midnight.

From this point on, things become tortuous, with a gaggle of characters dizzily weaving their way through an increasingly convoluted and hole-riddled plot involving the ubiquitous Old Dark House. There is a skulking figure hammed-up by Sheldon Lewis; a maid played to particularly egregious jittery lengths by Violet Knights; Tom O’Brien as Police Sgt. Pat Collins, a cop with a dully pugnacious temperament and the face of a well-used punching bag; an etiolated newspaper editor named Sam Crandall, played by Niles Welch, who pines nauseously for Ruth’s affections; a mad scientist, played by William Gould, who has an inexplicable penchant for brain transplants; and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, another member of the early ‘B’ western serial club, as Dick Mallory, the thick but energetic lead with a smooth, aw-shucks congeniality; hoping to win Ruth’s hand, Dick tries to track down The Phantom before the police catch him, prevent any brains from being transplanted, and write the sordid lede for Sam Crandall’s tabloid.

Written and directed by Alan James (as Alvin Neitz), yet one more associate from the second-string oater round-ups, The Phantom is a hothouse flower that readily wilts under the most casual of examinations. It’s an embarrassing entry to a category of film that dates back to at least D.W. Griffith’s One Exciting Night in 1922, and which contains such eminently superior works as Roland West’s The Bat (1926), Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927), and James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

One of the few things that may hint at this being a parody, other than the preposterous attempts at overplayed comedy, is the casting of Sheldon Lewis as the spidery prowler, dressed in ebony slouch hat and black cape, creeping his way through cobwebbed corridors; Lewis had achieved notoriety eleven years earlier, appearing in Pioneer Film Corporation’s short adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which he played the title roles, his Hyde adaptation being remarkably similar to his performance in The Phantom; although it was well known at the time, and was meant to be in direct competition with the contemporaneous John Barrymore film, Lewis’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is now seldom referenced, so the call-back will be lost on modern viewers and, hence, the possible deeper aspect of parody as well.

Whether satire or not, the viewer is still left to contend with the dubious technical end results: editing that makes the coarsest concrete seem smooth as butterscotch pudding; universally awkward and self-conscious acting; numerous lines which are both stiffly delayed and clumsily flubbed; energetic pacing made narcoleptic by scads of incongruous characters and plot points; a gratuitous and dull-as-dishwater love triangle between Ruth, Sam, and Dick; and clunky, hyperbolic attempts at humor.

Fundamentally, The Phantom succeeds at being totally devoid of any intensity, leaving the viewer feeling numb, cheated, and confused. Its histrionic bunk and magnified absurdity only accentuate a mish-mash of badly executed tropes boiled into a thin soup based on a stock derived from depleted work boots. Strictly for the completest or film history buffs that have scraped clean the bottom of most other barrels.

Ben Spurling, HORRORPEDIA

Cast and characters:

  • Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as Dick Mallory
  • Allene Ray as Ruth Hampton
  • Niles Welch as Sam Crandall
  • Tom O’Brien as Police Sgt. Pat Collins
  • Sheldon Lewis as The Thing
  • Wilfred Lucas as District Attorney John Hampton
  • Violet Knights as Lucy, the maid
  • William Gould as Dr. Weldon
  • Bobby Dunn as Shorty, the chauffeur
  • William Jackie as Oscar, the lunatic

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