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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Serial Box
Serial Box
Roan Group // Unrated // February 22, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted February 21, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Serials were a staple of the American movie going experience for decades. These short 20 minute stories that ended with a suspenseful cliffhanger were designed to get people to come back to the theater week after week to see how the story turns out. Though they are hardly mentioned today, these long adventure films. mainly aimed at kids, are just as much fun to watch now as they were seventy years ago.

Roan (a division of Troma) has gathered together four of their previously released serials and packaged them together in a limited edition slipcase under the title The Serial Box. These four serials are a great overview of the genre. They cover the serial's highpoint of the 30's to its decilne in the 50's. There are good, bad, and average chapter plays included, making this a nice collection. The serials are:

New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)
Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939)
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)
Radar Men From the Moon (1952)

All of these serials are complete, with opening and closing credits on each chapter and the full cliffhangers at the end. These are not the edited versions that were often released to theaters and TV broadcasters as feature length movies.



The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)

In a nutshell: Tarzan goes to Guatemala looking for a lost friend and a valuable statue.

The Serial:

The first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932,) was a huge success and spawned a long series of sequels. However Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs didn't care for these adaptations of his most famous character. He thought they strayed too far from the books he had written. In the novels, Tarzan was an English gentleman with an Oxford education, but Weissmuller's Tarzan could barely speak. To change this perception, Burroughs helped to produce a serial that would showcase the Tarzan that he envisioned. The result is the 12 chapter action filled serial The New Adventures of Tarzan.

Tazan's (Herman Brix) friend M. D'Arnot, the man who found Tarzan in the African jungle and brought him back to civilization, becomes lost in Guatamala when his plane is forced to make a crash landing. Tarzan books passage to Central America to find D'Arnot and on the way meets Major Martling (Frank Baker) and Ula Vale (Ula Holt) who are heading to Guatemala to find the fabled Green Goddess, a very valuable idol. The idol has more than monetary value though, there is also a formula for a powerful explosive carved into the idol. But Martling and Vale aren't the only ones looking for the Green goddess. The villainous Raglan (Ashton Dearholt) also wants it for the power that it represents, and will stop at nothing to get it before the others.

This is an exciting series. Filmed on location in Guatemala, the production must have been fairly hectic. They even bill the serial as "An Ashton Dearholt Expedition Picture." It was worth the trouble though, because this serial looks a lot better than the Weissmuller films that were filmed on studio sets and supplemented with old stock footage. It has a more real feel to it, and that adds to the excitement. The down side to this location filming is that the audio quality is fairly poor. (More on that in the technical section.)

This Tarzan is more verbose too, which I prefer over the "Me Tarzan. You Jane." speech that Weissmuller's Tarzan sported. On the down side though, there are a few too many scenes of people standing around and talking. This makes the serial drag in places, but once the action starts, that quickly fades away.

Herman Brix looks good as Tarzan. The Olympic decathalon winner certainly fits the part physically, and I liked his Tarzan yell quite a bit. Unfortunately he's only a mediocre actor. He does a passable job, but not an outstanding one.

One of the things I always look out for in serials is the quality of the stunt work. This chapter play has some very good action sequences that really make it fun. Tarzan swimming to catch a crocodile, fighting lions and leopards, and swinging from tree to tree all help to make this a quality serial.

The DVD:


Audio:

The sound is simply atrocious, but that's not really Roan's fault, the original soundtrack is really rough. Filmed in Guatemala, the production company didn't have access to the best sound equipment, and the serial shows it. There is a very loud hiss throughout the serial, and the dynamic range is very weak. Though a few comments are too faint to discern, the dialog is generally at a good level. Just don't expect too much from this two channel mono soundtrack.

Video:

The B&W fill frame video is adequate. Being an old unrestored film, there are a good amount of print defects, scratches, spots and the like. The image is soft, and the contrast isn't anything to write home about either, with details being almost nonexistent in the shadows and white scene being a little too bright. It isn't a horrible transfer though, and there is a fair amount of detail. Well worth watching.

Extras:

There is a bonus episode of the Toxic Crusaders cartoon, This Spud's for You, as well as the Radiation March, something that seems to show up on all Troma DVDs. There is also a filmography listing all of the Tarzan movies that have been filmed.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, a fun and exciting serial. Though there is some 'cheating' when it comes to the cliffhangers, the action scenes are very good. The show drags at times because of the wordy nature of the script, but it isn't a fatal flaw. Recommended.



Zorro's Fighting Legion

In a nutshell: Zorro rides to the rescue in old Mexico in one of the best serials ever made.

The Serial:

This serial is one of the top five chapter plays that were ever made. It has everything; an engaging mystery, a stalwart hero, fair cliff-hangers, and lots and lots of action.

The newly established Mexican state of San Mendolito is having problems. They need their gold from a local mine to help prop up the new Mexican government, but the local Yaqui Indians are starting to revolt. They are being led by a mysterious person dressed in a metal suit who is claiming to be Don Del Oro, one of their gods. This Don Del Oro want to use the gold and the Indians to rule all of Mexico himself.

Enter Zorro, the masked hero who is an expert with both the sword and the whip. He bands together a group of like minded men to combat Don Del Oro and right the misguided Indians. From the beginning, Zorro suspects that someone on San Mendolito's governing council is really Del Oro, but who?

Directed for Republic Pictures by the dynamic duo of serials John English and William Whitney, Zorro's Fighting Legion is a rip-roaring good time. Everything just comes together in this serial to make it very exciting and entertaining. The story is strong for a chapter play, creating a reason for the action, not just serving as padding between cliffhanger as happens in many mediocre serials. The mystery of just who is behind Don Del Oro's mask is quite captivating. All of the council members are suspects, and several of them appear to be strong candidates for the villain as the story progresses. Don Del Oro's revealation in the last chapter brings the series to a satisfying conclusion.

The stunts that are preformed in this series are really top-notch, not just for a serial, but for any film. Yakima Canutt, arguably the best stunt man to ever live, did a lot of the stunt work and he really went all out. This serial has the famous sequence were Zorro (Cannut) jumps onto a team of galloping horses pulling a stage. The villains shoot at him, so he drops down between the horses, lets the coach roll over him, and then grabs the back of the stagecoach as it flies by. This impressive stunt was later lifted for the first Indiana Jones movie.

This serial has some really great breath-taking and original cliffhanger endings too. I'm glad I didn't have to wait a week to see how everything turned out. The cliffhangers don't cheat in this serial either. In many of them they'll remove an important shot, the hero jumping out of a car before it runs over a cliff for example, but they don't do that in this one. If you see Zorro being shot at and falling under a team of horses hooves at the end on one chapter, that'll happen at the beginning of the next one too.

This series also boasts some of the best scenery that is to bee seen in a serial. There are some great tracking shots of Zorro riding full speed through the desert, the fast paced incidental music adding a lot to the wonderful visuals.

Reed Haley is a great Don Diego/Zorro. His deep voice and tall stature creates a wonderful larger-than-life action hero for Zorro, yet he can convincingly play the foppish Diego.

The acting, action, music and script all came together to make this an exciting and fun filled serial. One of the best.

The DVD:


Audio:

The two channel mono track is fairly clean for a film of this age. There isn't any distortion and the hiss is almost unnoticeable. The dialog and the sound effects come through clearly, though there isn't a lot of dynamic range.

Video:

The full frame video image is pretty soft over all. All of the copies I've seen of this serial have had this problem, including VHS editions. While this DVD in no worse than the others, it's still softer than I'd like. The lines are a little blurry and not distinct. The black and white image also looks a little washed out and too light most of the time. Of course, with a series of this age, there is some print damage; scratches, spots and the rare torn frame, but these are minor. Overall, the image was a little disappointing.

This serial has been released several times on DVD, and I also own the VCI release. Both the Roan and VCI DVD use the same print, with the same scratches and tears in the film. The scratch that runs on the right side of the credits during the opening of chapter two is exactly the same. The VCI disc is also very soft, but it is a little darker than the Roan DVD. The VCI doesn't look quite as washed out, but it does have a few more digital artifacts, though these are minor. I'd give the edge to the VCI disc, though not by a lot.

Image has also released a version of this serial that is supposed to be printed from the camera negative, but I have not seen that version unfortunately.

Extras:

As with other Troma DVDs, the Radiation March is included, as well as the first chapter of Radar Men from the Moon and a short text piece on Zorro.

Final Thoughts:

This is one of the greatest serials ever put to film. A lot of action, a good story, and some great suspenseful endings put this in the top ten. Unfortunately the image is a little disappointing, mainly because it is so soft. That knocks the overall grade down a notch, but this is so much fun, it is still recommended.



Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe

In a nutshell: Flash and company return to Mongo yet again in the third, and weakest, Flash Gordon serial.

The Serial:

Buster Crabbe stared as Flash Gordon in three serials for Universal. The first, Flash Gordon (1936), was one of the most expensive and lavish serials ever produced. Boasting lavishly large sets and high quality special effects, the serial was a hit with viewers. The second serial, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) had a smaller budget, but it more than made up for that handicap with a good story that flowed well, better dialog, and more exciting action scenes.

Then there is the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In addition to being saddled with a horrid title the budget was even smaller, and this time the producers didn't have a good script to rely on.

In this series the Earth is suffering from a mysterious plague, the Purple Death. While doing research in his rocket, Dr. Zarkov, discovers a space ship from Mongo dumping dust carrying the disease into Earth's atmosphere. Once again it is up to Flash, Zarkov, and the plucky Dale Arden to travel to Mongo and foil Ming the Merciless' plans to conquer earth.

When they arrive they meet up with their old friend Prince Barin of Arboria, and with his help they travel to the cold region of Frigia to obtain a supply of Polorite, the cure for the Purple Death. Ming, however, won't let them spoil his plans so easily, and he throws many traps and distractions in their way.

While this isn't a bad serial, it simply doesn't stand up to its two predecessors. This series has a generic feel too it. The situations are things that we've seen in the previous serials. Just how many times can Flash sneak into Ming's castle via a secret underground passage before Ming decides to post more guards anyway?

There is a lot of recycled footage too. The first serial is mined pretty thoroughly for film which gives this serial a padded feeling. Not only that, but the first couple of chapters are filled with grainy mountain scenes culled from the 1930 Leni Riefenstahl film The White Hell of Pitz Palu.

While Buster Crabbe continues in his role as Flash, and Ming is played once again by the deliciously wicked Charles Middleton, the other supporting roles (Barin, Dale, and Aura,) are not played by the same actors that were featured in the first two serials. These new actors don't bring the same feel to the roles and are generally more wooden.

The script to this series is very tired. Gone is the flare of the dialog from the second series and production values from the first. In its place is a fairly standard story for a serial, with some really atrocious dialog at times. There isn't any imagination or creativity in this serial, it is just recycling many of the scenarios from the earlier FG serials.

While this serial does have its moments, the sets generally look very good, it just doesn't compare with the two that came before.

The DVD:


Audio:

The mono soundtrack sounds good overall, with minimal hiss. There isn't any distortion and the dialog is easy to understand. A solid, if average, sounding disc.

Video:

The full frame black and white image looks very good. There is some print damage, the occasional speck or scratch, but it looks rather clean for a film of this age. The contrast is good, though the picture is a little too bright, washing out some details especially in the snow scenes at the beginning. There are some compression artifacts, mainly aliasing, that are fairly minor. A very good looking disc.

VCI has put out a version of this serial as a two disc set. The VCI print has more spots and general print damage, but isn't as bright as the Roan disc, making some details easier to see. There are fewer compression artifacts on the VCI disc, but some more digital noise reduction after effects. Overall the VCI disc is slightly superior.

There is also an Image release, but I have not seen that.

Extras:

The only extras are text bios on Buster Crabbe and director Ford Beebe, and a short text page about the serial.

Final Thoughts:

Unfortunately the script in this serial wasn't as strong as its predecessors. While this is the weakest Flash Gordon serial, it is about average when compared to chapter plays in general. Fans of the genre should have fun watching this in any case. Recommended.



Radar Men From the Moon

In a nutshell: Commando Cody with the aid of his flying suit stops an invasion of two guys from the moon.

The Serial:

The hey-day of the movie serial during the 30's into the early 40's. Some quality chapter plays were released during that time, getting children and their parents into the theater week after week. By the 1950's however, thanks to changing tastes and the inroads that television was making, serials were all but dead. The last independent serial was released in 1937 (Victory's Blake of Scotland Yard) and of the four bigger studios that produced chapter play, only two (Republic and Columbia) still made them in 1950. As sales dwindled, budgets and production staff for serials were cut to the bone, and it certainly showed. Cheap sets, scant casts and rushed scripts all worked together to make the serials of the fifties a pale imitation of the exciting installment movies that had been a theater staple for decades.

A typical serial from this time is Radar Men From the Moon, which Roan has released on DVD.

A series of strange explosions causes the US Government to contact Commando Cody (George Wallace,) the inventor of a jet pack that allows a man to fly. (Easy to use too; the only controls are up, down, on, and off.) They want the scientist to see if he can figure out what is causing these disasters. With his two plucky assistants Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne) and Ted Richards (William Bakewell) the flying Commander Cody uncovers a sinister plot. He discovers a ray gun that is powered by an unknown element. Quickly, the three take off in Cody's home made rocket and head for the moon. (Where else could an unknown element come from?) There he finds that Retik (serial regular Roy Barcroft,) the ruler on the moon, wants to conquer the Earth with his supply of 'lunarium.' Making a quick escape, the trio head back to Earth, where they are the only defense against Retik's agent Krog and his two incompetent henchmen Graber (played wonderfully by the once and future Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore) and Daly (Bob Stevenson.)

The plot sounds promising with a trip to the moon and an invasion from space, but Republic decided to forego any sense of wonder or grandeur and instead filled each episode with fist fights and shoot-out, typical of the poorest western serial. This serial quickly becomes repetitive, with one fight scene blending in with another.

This is just a poor serial on many levels. There is hardly any cast. Only two moon-men ever invading, and they had to hire local henchmen. I've seen cub scout packs that look more intimidating. Added to that is the fact that their convoluted and nonsensical plan for conquest is about as realistic as a Wile E. Coyote plan for capturing the Roadrunner.

The cliffhangers and really lame too. They often involve an unconscious Cody waking up at the last moment so he can roll out of the way of danger or turn on his flying backpack. The

If that wasn't bad enough, this serial uses a lot of footage from two other serials, King of the Rocketmen and The Purple Monster Strikes. The first featured a man in a flying suit exactly like Cody's, and the latter stared Roy Barcroft as another villain who just happened to wear the same costume. Scenes from these two previous serials were liberally used to save money, and the result is a pathetic mess.

The serial's main, and only, claim to fame is that it introduced the character of Commando Cody. Cody would return (played by Judd Holdren) in the TV series Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe. Like this serial, it would only last twelve episodes. (With one episode repeated at the end.)

The DVD:


Audio:

The mono soundtrack fit the serial very well. There was little noise or hiss, and distortion was also at a minimum.

Video:

The full frame black and white picture was very good. The image was very clear and there was a good amount of contrast. The picture was bright and there were a wide range of grey levels. The print that they used was of high quality, with only very occasional spots or dirt.

The only complaint I have is that there is a fair amount of aliasing in parts and some mosquito noise due to the digital noise reduction. Other than that, this is a nice looking disc.

Extras:

There are some text bios and a couple of text pages about the serial itself, as well as a trailer.

Final Thoughts:

Though the sound and video are very good on this release, the serial itself is a major disappointment. Made in the last days of the serials, the budget for this one was very small, even for a chapter play, and the lack of quality shows. A repetitive and uninteresting serial, this one is best kept as a rental.


Final Thoughts on the boxed set:

This is a fun set. Though Radar Men isn't the best serial, the other three are very fun and Zorro's Fighting Legion is one of the best serials ever made. For a retail price of less than $30, this is an extraordinarily good value. I've paid more than that for a single serial in the past. This set, though it's not perfect, gets a very high recommendation.

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