Though it opens out of doors with a daring jailbreak, as a master crook known as ‘the Phantom’ escapes the Death House by dangling from a plane, this poverty row picture from 1931 then gets cooped up in two different old dark houses. The Phantom cops most of his tricks from Fantomas, the Bat, the Gorilla and several other like-named fiends, though it’s odd that he’s supposed to have retained his secret identity after being arrested, tried and convicted of a string of crimes.
DA John Hampton (Wilfred Lucas) has received a mysterious note suggesting a meeting at dead of night – but the interloper who arrives via an unsuspected secret passage in the Hampton mansion turns out not to be the crook but blundering reporter Dick Mallory (Guinn Williams) who needs to land a big story so his editor Sam Crandall (Niles Welch) will give him a promotion which will enable him to marry Ruth (Allene Ray), the DA’s daughter, whom Sam also has his eye on. Eventually, a slouch-hatted, nimble-fingered, staring-eyed, cloak-raising fiend billed as ‘the Thing’ (Sheldon Lewis) creeps through the secret passage to put the wind up Lucy the comedy maid. Comedy maids are a fixture in these pictures, and Knights does exactly the fainting, shrieking, falling-over act perfected by Louise Fazenda in the silent version of The Bat. We don’t hear the maniac babbling, but Lucy reports that he has mentioned a certain Dr Weldon, who maintains a nearby sanitarium. Dick, Ruth, Lucy and her chauffeur boyfriend Shorty (Bobby Dunn) leave the Hampton house, which is full of cops ready to protect them from the Phantom, and head over to the near-abandoned asylum, which means a change of set from the well-appointed theatrical-style drawing room to a darker, dilapidated space which is also complete with secret doorways. A skinny Swedish dialect comedian (William Jackie) looms out and does non sequitur gags about ‘Yack and Yill’, and the initially plausible, actually insane Weldon (William Gould) spirits Ruth off to the secret room, where he proposes an unprecedented brain transplant with her as donor but no apparent recipient in mind.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth with fainting, creeping, skulking and ranting, and one almost-funny routine with Williams frustrated as Jackie takes his long-winded time about explaining how a secret doorway works (‘you see that knob there … that’s not the one’). The wind-up feels like a last-minute rewrite, with the plausible suspect who ought to have turned out to be the Phantom breezily innocent (being a nice guy who the heroine isn’t in love with is usually a dead giveaway) and accusing someone who is already established an obvious maniac without any evidence – leaving the faint option that the real fiend has got away with it and will plot again (what kind of master villain has a secret identity as a mad murderer?). Lewis, an overlooked early horror star, wears the signature outfit of his famous silent serial villain the Clutching Hand (he must have owned the outfit, since he wore it as Mr Hyde too) and does old-fashioned spindle-finger gestures as – yes! – his hand clutches. Everyone else is obnoxious to some degree – the would-be comic relief servants scarcely less than the thick-headed hero, who even has to have his editor write up the hot story for him at the end, and the feeble-minded heroine, who is forever swooning on couches where she can be menaced. It’s little more than a melange of elements from dozens of similar efforts and fairly mild stuff (no one even dies), but I find these quickies irresitable and the cliches (secret passageways, lunatics taking over the asylum, threatening notes, criminals with ominous nicknames, grotesque henchmen, cordons of baffled cops, even the silly servants) feel like old friends. Directed by Alvin J. Neitz — the same person as writer Alan James – who hired his sister (Violet Knights) to play Lucy the maid.