Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, once said of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 silent crime serial, “I am convinced that surrealism preexisted in cinema. Feuillade’s Les vampires was already an expression of the 20th century and of the universal subconscious.” The ten-part, subversive serial runs a whopping eight hours, but it’s easy to lose track of the time when you’re following the exploits of a vampy Parisian gang — including proto-goth starlet Musidora as the infamous Irma Vep.
It’s great to see companies like Kino International bringing old-timey serials like Les vampires to Blu-ray, keeping the low-budget, action-packed chapter plays alive. These early movies are where many film tropes and characters evolved — including several of the superheroes audiences go crazy for, today — and where moviegoers grew to love (and sometimes hate) them. Click through to watch several entertaining serials that are online right now (follow the video links for other parts in the series), and school yourself on an essential chapter in cinema history.
Before Mike Patton adopted the name Fantômas for his experimental music side project, Louis Feuillade crafted a five-episode French crime serial of the same name in 1913. The film kicked off his trio of dark cliffhangers, followed by the aforementioned Les vampires and then 1916’s Judex. René Navarre starred as the villainous master of disguise and ruthless criminal genius. Feuillade spins an outlandish mystery tale, while imbuing his pulp storyline with surreal, fantastical elements. Look for the bleeding wall.
Frank Merrill was a national gymnastics titleholder, police officer, and actor who took on the role of Tarzan for a 1929 Universal serial. He did all his own stunts and invented the now famous Tarzan yell, which was heard for the first time in the partial sound series. The Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle tale is faithful to the books and heavy on the cheese, but it’s good fun.
This is where earthman hero Flash Gordon got his start in the movies. The 1936 serial paved the way for bigger sci-fi plot lines in the chapter format, introducing audiences to a variety of bizarre humanoid characters, incredible sets and costumes, and thrilling adventures on the planet Mongo. Channing Tatum will portray Flash for an upcoming remake, but the magic of the early serial’s rudimentary special effects and more make it one of the best from the era.
Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr’s Superman is another classic piece of serial cinema. The 1948, 15-part favorite introduces angular comic book hero Superman who arrives on Earth and is forced to contend with the Spider Lady, Queen of the Underworld. Can we stick her in 2013’s Man of Steel, please? The opening animation sequence was a feat for the day.
This 15-chapter, 1937 serial based on the comic strip of the same name by Chester Gould finds the hard-boiled police detective battling a terror organization known as the Spider Ring, led by the hilariously named Lame One. There’s mystery, action, drama, and some great miniatures and effects work from Republic Pictures. They really bring the crime chaser and his colorful, grotesque adversaries to life. Dick Tracy was one of the most effectively produced serials of its time and is definitely worth revisiting.
This 1943 Columbia Pictures serial marks the first time the Caped Crusader ever appeared on film. Christopher Nolan has director Lambert Hillyer to thank for introducing parts of the Bat mythos that stuck with the character, including Bruce Wayne’s secret Bat Cave. The comic series was also influenced by several changes the serial made to various characters, and the 15-chapter superhero tale’s popularity spawned the campy TV series with a straight-faced Adam West.
By 1939, Bela Lugosi was a most-wanted man for villain roles, and the actor sometimes found himself making up to five movies a year. Mad scientist serial The Phantom Creeps found the Hungarian actor playing the evil Doctor Zorka, set on destroying the world. You may recognize the serial from Mystery Science Theater 3000, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving it a go. Lugosi is wonderfully over the top and a lot of fun to watch. Plus: robots, sci-fi nonsense, and ridiculous weapons and gadgets — including deadly spiders (they seem to be everywhere in serials). Chapter two started the trend of a scrolling text synopsis, as seen in Star Wars. We’re onto you Lucas!
We’ve mentioned the exciting stunt work of the legendary Yakima Canutt before, and if there’s one reason you should watch this 1937 serial, it’s because of him. The famed stuntman performs a memorable, death-defying act that involves a speeding train and horse. John Carroll stars as a modern-day descendant of the original Zorro in a western setting. Westerns were some of the cheapest serials to produce, but the action makes this one a thrilling watch despite its budget.
Republic Studios made their most expensive serial in 1944 with Captain America. It was also their final superhero storyline, which was a shame because they were one of the best in the business. Fans of comic book Cap may be surprised to learn that this hero trades his shield for a gun. Also, um, he’s not Steve Rogers. Instead, he’s District Attorney Grant Gardner rather than a soldier. The good news is that this Cap is a trigger-happy vigilante, so he’s still worth your time. Also, two words: Dynamic Vibrator. Just watch.
Spy Smasher is a great war serial based on the DC Comics series about detective Alan Armstrong. He battles The Mask in this 1942 tale, which features impressive stunts and effects work, Nazis, a rousing musical opening borrowing from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the usual cliffhangers galore. Kane Richmond played a dual role as the titular hero and his identical brother. They battle The Mask’s team of saboteurs intent on taking over America. It’s an exciting twist on an obscure superhero.