Fans of the classic movie serial will find a great deal to enjoy in The Mysterious Dr Satan. This is a 1940 Republic serial combining science fiction with crime. It has killer robots, it has a mad scientist, it has a mysterious masked crime-fighter. What more could you want?
The villain in this case is Dr Satan, a criminal mastermind and a mad scientist. He’s not really much of a scientist and relies on stealing the scientific work of others rather than on his own genius. He has invented a killer robot but to make the robot really dangerous he needs the remote control cells invented by the kindly Professor Scott. Most of the drama comes from Dr Satan’s many attempts to steal the remote control devices, to kidnap Professor Scott and to obtain certain rare ores needed to make these devices work.
Dr Satan is at heart just a gangster, albeit his ambitions are on a fairly large scale. The remote-controlled robots seem to be a means to gain unlimited wealth rather than power. His lackeys are just ordinary hoodlums inspired purely by greed.
Dr Satan’s nemesis is The Copperhead. We know right from the start that The Copperhead is really Bob Wayne. Wayne’s father was the original Copperhead, a masked Wild West outlaw generally regarded as a bandit. Governor Bronson explains to Bob that his father was actually a crusader for justice and assures him that he need not be ashamed to be his son. When Governor Bronson is murdered by Dr Satan’s stooges Bob Wayne decides to bring The Copperhead back to life.
The Wild West link is important because this serial is a combination of crime thriller, science fiction and western action adventure. There are car chases and there are chases on horseback. Much of the action takes place in settings that belong more to the western genre than the crime genre. It’s an odd mixture but it works rather well.
If this serial has a weakness it’s the fact that The Copperhead’s disguise is a bit too transparent, consisting merely in a kind of chain-mail mask. It’s difficult to believe that any of the characters could actually be taken in by this. This is however an adventure serial so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to be too pedantic about such details. Dr Satan resorts to disguise successfully as well, even though his very distinctive voice should be a dead giveaway.
The love interest is provided by Professor Scott’s daughter Lois although her main function is to get herself captured at regular intervals so that The Copperhead can rescue her. The Copperhead has a side-kick as well, a reporter named Speed Martin.
One of the best things about this serial is that there’s very little comic relief.
Eduardo Cianelli plays Dr Satan with considerable relish as a combination of crazed scientist and Italian gangster. Robert Wilcox is rather bland as Copperhead/Bob Wayne although he’s certainly energetic, leaping through the air to get at the bad guys. C. Montague Shaw is Professor Scott, and very professorial he is too although he is also launches into fights with enthusiasm, specialising in breaking chairs over the heads of bad guys. Ella Neal as Lois Scott is an engaging heroine who manages to get herself captured again and again without becoming irritating.
The robot is very much in the mechanical tin man style. The same robot turns up in several other Republic serials. The robot is too clumsy to be really menacing and seems to rely on squeezing people to death on the rare occasions he can get close enough to them to do so.
The secret of success with the movie serial is of course the episode cliffhanger and this one comes up with an excellent cliffhanger for every one of the fifteen episodes. Directors John English and William Witney were old hands at this sort of thing and they knew what they were doing. They keep the action coming thick and fast. The roller-coaster pacing and the imaginative fight scenes combine with some good stunt work to make this serial one of the best of its breed. The miniatures work is fun as well, as various ships and planes get blown up at regular intervals. The hero gets to leap about on speeding trains and drive through walls of fire - all the things that fans love in a serial are here.
An outfit called ATI has released all fifteen parts on a single DVD. Picture quality is generally pretty good.
Fans of serials will find that this one ticks just about every box. Very enjoyable stuff and highly recommended.