The Masked Villains of Cinematic Serials

Masked villains have long been a trope within SF but was it the cinematic
serials of shorts from Flash Gordon to The Spider that gave them life?
Adrian James reviews their contribution to film serials of yore.


When the picture rolled and the cliffhanger episode began airing, for many people, it wasn't simply the hero that was the figure of fascination but the serial villain! In fact, within the annals of serialdom, there were far more hoodlum characters that were presented as larger than life than the muscle-bound good guys. This was true even back in the days of the cinematic serial.

But was it the fact that the villain his/herself was the attraction to countless youngsters who used to cram into theatres and picture-houses week after week in the 1920s and 30s?

In the good-old-days, evil always fell foul of good. That was the name of the game. It was a moralistic approach - and who can argue with that when one considers that the majority of viewers were under the age of fifteen? It was great to see Flash rescue Dale, to watch Zorro riding hell-bent-for-leather on his white steed, to guess who lay behind The Lone Ranger's mask, to cheer for Batman as he fought the enemies of America.

But for every recipient of the white hat, there had to be a black one. There had to be the lowdown, bush-whacking, double-dealing, hissable bad guy that was the target for each and every hero that graced the serial screen.

It was satisfying to sit in the auditorium and to know that you'd guessed the villain's true identity since chapter one. So if you knew, how come it took the good guy so long to work it out?

Quite often, the hooded demon was the member of a team or group or cartel or the like, and it took 12 or 15 episodes for that person's secret to be revealed.

The cinematic serial, however, was not content on providing the audience with a suave and sophisticated enemy of the people, as was the norm with many a feature film. No, the serial had to draw its inspiration from the pulps, from the comics, from the newspapers. The villain of a serial had to be evil incarnate, more fearsome and loathsome than any Hitchcock or Ford villain. It had to be a character that the audience would boo and cuss aloud. And once they'd got that type of bad guy, then they had to dress him up, mask him and give him a name that would chill the viewer to the bone!

Enter the masked villain!

The use of masks goes way back in theatrical history to the time of the Greeks. But it was the Italian drama known as Commedia D'ell Arte that really spurred the interest of actors and thespians alike. A mask could cloud a face, disguise the owner, could raise a suspicious interest, and help project a persona of evil itself!

Indeed, the comics and pulps of the early twentieth century made full use of this costuming approach, and it was the serials that brought the dastardly hooded scoundrel to the screen. During the silent era, many a serial portrayed the masked bad guy. It was rare for a hero to adopt such an appearance and it was probably the Lone Ranger and Zorro who broke from tradition and presented the ideal of a masked avenger.

However, the use of a mask was generally associated with the villain and that is where we shall veer with this respective.

Though not officially a masked villain, we'll start with the man that many consider to be the greatest villain to ever grace the serial-screen - Ming the Merciless, portrayed brilliantly by Charles Middleton in all three of the Flash Gordon cliff-hanger serials. With his oriental moustache and bald head, richly-dressed in cloaks with high collars, Ming was the personification of evil itself and has rarely been equalled. Middleton's voice and his slow, almost feline-like motion made him an immediate attraction.

In Republic's The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), The Lightning attacked his victims with electrical bolts. He wore a satin-like costume, complete with a helmet and became a favourite amongst serial fans. He also used an electrical gun to combat the heroes.

One of the most popular of masked villains was, without a doubt, The Crimson Ghost, from the 1946 Republic serial of the same name. His hideous skeletal mask was enough to scare some of the younger viewers, urging them to cheer on hero Charles Quigley as he battled the black-garbed Ghost for twelve episodes. He even wore skeleton-like gloves to add to the character.

Yet the guise of a skeleton had been used before, notably in Columbia's Deadwood Dick (1940) in which newspaperman Don Douglas fought the evil Skull!

The Spider, a pulp hero, fought The Octopus in his first venture in 1938's The Spider's Web. Dressed entirely in white, he resembled a flat-headed member of the Ku Klux Clan! In the sequel, The Spider Returns (1941), the elegantly costumed Gargoyle became the villain of the piece, with bulging eyes and mad fits of temper!

Actor Stanley Price donned a full-length habit and hood to become The Invisible Monster (Republic, 1950). Wearing the outfit enabled him to become invisible and aided him to carry out his crimes undetected.

In Republic's classic The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Tom Tyler, as the Captain, fought The Scorpion complete with cowl and full-costume. He sought to control the world with an atom-smashing device.

Dick Tracy had four outings during Republic's hey-days. In the last of the set, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941) the cartoon-strip detective encountered The Ghost who wore a black mask resembling the human head. He also possessed a device that could render him invisible.

Universal's Ace Drummond (1936) found star John King on the trail of The Dragon, a suitable name for a villain whose operations were set in the Orient.

Though not exactly a masked figure, one of the most popular figures to attract attention as a villain was Captain Mephisto in Republic's Manhunt Of Mystery Island (1945), a favourite amongst serial fans. Ne'er-do-gooder Roy Barcroft is able to transform himself into a bloodthirsty pirate via a cunningly devised machine. Barcroft's brilliant portrayal certainly made hero Richard Bailey pale when the two shared screen-time.

For Columbia's Overland With Kit Carson (1939), guessing the identity of the evil Pegleg was not exactly A-level material considering the audience simply had to pick out a character with a scar and a missing leg! Nevertheless, this is one of that Studio's better outings, especially for western fans.

Probably the best western serials was undoubtedly Republic's Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939). The rogue of the play was Don Del Oro who wore an enormous metal mask and caused our masked avenger many a problem.

The war years also had their fair share of hidden horrors. In Universal's Adventures Of The Flying Cadets (1943), it was the The Black Hangman who stirred trouble. Dressed entirely in black with a vicious full-face mask, he was an impressive looking scoundrel of the time.

Batman and Robin (Columbia 1949) found The Wizard as their enemy, causing chaos for the caped crusader and his assistant and the rest of the USA. Electrical devices and gadgets were again the centre of attraction in this rather tame opus.

And the list goes on...

The Rattler in Mystery Mountain (1934).

The Wasp in Mandrake The Magician (1939).

The Tiger Shark in Fighting Marines (1935).

The Black Ace in Mystery Squadron (1933).

The Wolf Man in The Lightning Warrior (1931).

The list continues but those mentioned above are the most striking of the cowled-creeps who graced the serial-screen.

With today's interest in superheroes, it is satisfying for viewers like myself to see other hooded bad guys crawl out of the screen. Characters such as Doctor Doom and The Green Goblin will continue to please the audience, inspiring the guessing-game of....who's that behind the mask?

Adrian James

Adrian James is a drama teacher who has had a life-long fascination with Fantastic Films. He has recently moved from England to live in Italy but remains a regular attending Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films.

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