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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Flying Serpent

The success or failure of B movies produced by Poverty Row studios was not all that closely tracked. One sure sign of a B movie’s success was that it was copied. Producers Releasing Corporation’s 1940 Devil Bat, starring Bela Lugosi, must have been a hit (so far as B movies ever were “hits”) because PRC put out a copy of it in 1946 entitled The Flying Serpent (TFS). This was not a sequel, but a remake. Instead of Bela Lugosi, George Zucco plays the vengeful scientist. Instead of a ‘scientifically’ enlarged bat, there’s a mythical beast — the titular flying serpent. The remake had really no sci- to its -fi, but is included in this study as a follow-up to Devil Bat, a reader request, and a tangental connection to a later sci-fi B movie classic.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Professor Andrew Forbes (Zucco) was an archeologist studying some ancient Aztec ruins near San Juan, New Mexico. The ruins are handily named Azteca. He discovered a vast treasure, hidden there by the wily Montezuma, so the conquistadors would not find it. The treasure is guarded by a winged serpent beast (about the size of a large dog) which was said to be guarding the treasure. The beast is often referred to is Quetzalcoatl (Q, for short). Q is very jealous of it’s fine plumage and will kill anyone who has one of its feathers. Through back story, leaked out in dribs and drabs, viewers learn that Forbes discovered that fact when he gave his wife a feather he found, and the beast killed her. Forbes is angry that a local ornithologist published a story about Forbes’ work because it might bring treasure hunters. He leaves a feather, then opens the roof of the caged cave, releasing the beast. Q kills the man. A big city radio personality, with a fame for solving mysteries, decides to solve the case of the murdered ornithologist. Richard Thorpe and team arrive in San Juan. Forbes conspires to plant a feather on Thorpe, but the local Sheriff gets the feather and is killed. At a coroner’s inquest over the two deaths, the ornithologist Thorpe brought in is killed because he held the feather. Thorpe suspects Forbes and sets up a trap with a fake treasure hunter. Thorpe follows Forbes into the treasure chamber with Q and learns all. When Forbes’ lovely blonde step-daughter, Mary begins to suspect him of being behind the murders, Forbes takes Mary to the cave. Thorpe intervenes just in time to save Mary. Forbes runs outside holding a feather, so naturally, Q swoops down and kills Forbes. Thorpe shoots Q with his pocket .38, so the danger is gone. Thorpe and Mary profess marriage plans. Thorpe’s boss punches a coworker because he did not get a cut of the treasure. Fade to black, The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Seeing a remake of Devil Bat’s story line has some amusement. George Zucco delivers an excellently evil villain role. The matte art for Azteca is actually pretty well done for a Poverty Row film. The foreshadowing of some sci-fi yet-to-come is fun too.

Cultural Connection
TFS lies more in the “lite” horror genre than sci-fi, but in some ways, it foreshadows a couple of Golden Era sci-fi B movies. The “special effect” scenes of Q flying are prescient visuals for the flying rocket man (model) in 1949’s King of the Rocketmen and all the subsequent rocket man serials. The Q model and puppet themselves seem like a foretaste of the much-maligned, yet also much-loved space vulture in 1957’s The Giant Claw. TFS was the inspiration for 1980’s Q which borrowed the notion of a quezalcoatl who took up residence in the Chrysler building and went about killing people.

Compare and Contrast — John T. Neville was the screenwriter for Devil Bat, which was based on “an original story by” George Bricker. For TFS, Neville was both writer and screenwriter. He clearly took the first script and reworked it to make a “new” story. Neville kept many elements, but tweaked others. The most obvious is swapping electronically enlarged bats for a fanciful legendary beast. Handily, though, the new beast was about the same size as the enlarged bats. In TFS, the ‘scientist’ (now an archeologist) does not have to resort to sparky equipment to create a monster. Q simply exists. The villain scientist still plants markers on his victims, which the beast then kills. The hero is still a journalist, but in TFS he’s a radio personality instead of a newspaper reporter. Said journalist still has a comic-relief sidekick. “Jonesy” instead of “One Shot”. The evil scientist still has a beautiful blonde adult daughter, who for some bizarre reason is still not married yet. How handy. Of course, the journalist (also handily unattached) and the daughter find romance at the fade-to-black. In TDB, Lugosi parted ways with his victims uttering a solemn “Goodbye”. Neville kept one of of these lines in TFS when Forbes drops off Thorpe to look around the crime scene (with a feather), he says gravely, “Goodbye, Mr. Thorpe.” As in TDB, the villain is killed by his own creature. In TFS, it is a bit more contrived in that Forbes runs out of the cavern, always hanging onto the feather he plucked. Even when Q is swooping down to attack, he keeps holding the feather. At least in TDB, the sprayed-on aftershave was not so easily cast aside.

Automotive Anachronism — A slightly curious feature to TFS is that the cars used in the film were rather old for a 1946 film. Forbes drove a big ’39 Lincoln Zephyr. The Sheriff drove a ’39 Plymouth coupe. Even with the dormancy of war era automotive ‘advancement’, styles looked quite different by 1945 and ’46, such that the pre-war cars look noticeably older. Since they’re older, but in very good shape, one might wonder if TFS was actually filmed much sooner, but released later in 1946.

Pocket .38 — Like the hero journalist in TDB, the hero journalist in TFS apparently had a .38 snub nose revolver in his suit jacket pocket as standard male journalist fashion equipment. As in TDB, there is no foreshadowing like “I’d better take this along, just in case.” When the hero journalist sees the killer beast, he simply pulls out his gun and starts shooting — as if guns in pockets were quite routine. The hero is still a remarkably good shot with such a low-accuracy weapon. He can fire several stabbing shots from the hip and bring down a flying beast dozens of yards away.

Not Much Hope — The actress who plays Mary was Hope Kramer. Aside from her role in TFS, she played in one other film, a lesser role in I Was a Communist for the FBI (’51). Unquestionably pretty enough for films, Hope may not have had a wide enough range as an actress. The script in TFS did not give her a chance to do much beside look pretty, a bit naive and vulnerable. As such, viewers did not see much of Hope.

Bottom line? TFS is far from cinematic high art. There really is no science in the fiction. As a ‘horror’ film, there is little horror. It is a low-budget B film by a low-budget B studio. Watch it with that in mind and TFS can be entertaining — just not go-out-of-your-way entertaining.


Randall Landers said...

It's a rather enjoyable remake of The Devil Bat. Loved George Zucco, but agreed: Why on Earth does he not just drop the feather?

Darci said...

Thanks for the follow-up. It's an interesting question who did the wire work for TFS. Howard and Theodore Lydecker had pioneered the technique in Republic's 1936 serial Darkest Africa. It's possible some of their crew carried it over to PRC.

I get a kick out of the cast describing this beautiful but terrifying creature with its striking plumage, whereas we just get to see a gray log zooming about.

Unknown said...

Can it be considered as a sci-fic movie?????????

Nightowl said...

Hi Unknown,
As I wrote in the review, no, Flying Serpent, by itself, is not sci-fi. It's low-grade monster stuff. But, I included it in the collection because it was a remake of Devil Bat which was (nominally) sci-fi. FS is here to 'compare and contrast'