A killer awaiting execution breaks jail and seemingly targets the local District Attorney. The lawman’s daughter writes a society page for the local newspaper, and soon her reporter boyfriend and the editor get involved…
Painfully thin and laboured early talkie that regurgitates almost every ‘old dark house’ cliché you can imagine and throws in a half-baked horror subplot to justify its title. It’s this apparently infamous villain who kicks the story into gear, escaping the chair by jumping from the prison wall onto a passing train and getting picked up from there by a circling bi-plane! Soon afterwards D.A. Willford Lucas gets a sinister telegram, asking for a late night meeting at his house and signed by the killer. When fast-talking Guinn Williams turns up at the appointed time, Lucas assumes that he’s the Phantom, as do the police. From there, it’s a complex and very ingenious…only, hang on for a dang minute! No, it’s not! Let’s get this straight. Lucas and the police both think Williams is the Phantom? Don’t they know what the Phantom looks like?! Wasn’t he on death row five minutes ago at the start of the film? I know they didn’t have the internet back then, but they did have newspapers – after all, several of the main characters apparently work for one!
Yes, Williams isn’t the Phantom at all; he’s actually a reporter looking for a story while he secretly romances the D.A.’s pretty daughter (Arlene Ray). She’s also the target of the amorous intentions of the tabloid’s smarmy editor Niles Welch (ooh, suspicious!) Other possible suspects (because no one knows what the Phantom looks like, remember!) include the sinister butler (yawn) and the head of a nearby lunatic asylum (that only seems to have one patient). Unfortunately, the ‘comedy’ servants are also in attendance; housemaid Violet Knights (actually the director’s real-life sister) and chauffeur Bobby Dunn. What we don’t get is any kind of musical soundtrack, the action (if you can call it that!) being accompanied by the endless thumping of the cast’s feet on the hollow floor of the set.
Such limitations could be forgiven if the mystery was remotely engaging or if it made any sense! Motivations of key characters remain vague throughout and logic takes a back seat early on. There’s also the usual array of secret passages, clutching hands, revolving bookcases, a stupid flat-foot (Tom O’Brien) and a killer who walks around with a cloak held over the lower part of his face cackling manically. Why does he do that? Search me. I have no idea.
The credit (or blame!) for all this rests firmly on the shoulders of writer Alan James, who also directed under his regular pseudonym of Alvin J. Neitz. His career mostly comprised dozens of Westerns but he was also involved with a couple of notable serials: ‘Dick Tracy’ (1937) with Ralph Byrd and ‘S.O.S. Coastguard’ (1937) with horror icon Bela Lugosi. Arlene Ray grew up busting broncos on a ranch outside San Antonio and starred in several silent serials, often doing her own stunts. Unfortunately, her career couldn’t survive the transition to talkies. Further down the cast list (and billed as ‘The Thing’!) is Sheldon Lewis, an actor who took both title roles in cheap quickie ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1920), a film made entirely to cash in one the far more lavish production of the same year that starred screen legend John Barrymore.
But the big success story here was Williams. Beginning as a rodeo rider and pro-baseball player, his started out in silent comedies with Will Rogers, who dubbed him ‘Big Boy’. ln the 1940’s he adopted that moniker as part of his official ‘stage’ name, and embarked on a series of Westerns, mostly playing grizzled old sidekicks to major stars like Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Robert Mitchum.
A highly stilted and tiresome mystery that will try the patience of all but the most hard core enthusiast of the genre.