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Rob On Stuff

The Vanishing Shadow

Just finished a watch of this 12 part old Universal serial over on Prime (though it’s also on YouTube if that’s your bag) and will you look at this robot?

THE STEEL GIANT! Totally not fabric, definitely not.

The robot isn’t really all that large a part of the story, mostly it’s the usual serial affair of running back and forth through a handful of the same locations, the odd high speed fight and plenty of people being tied up only to escape again a few minutes later. When it does appear though, it’s so wonderfully cumbersome and clunky – so much so that whilst watching it, I almost felt sorry for whoever had to try and walk in a straight line without falling over whilst wearing the costume. A clear 10/10 in the robot stakes.

Ostensibly, the story the viewer is supposed to be engaged in is the wrestling between good guy Stanley Stanfield and bad guy and gangster capitalist Wade Barnett as they both try and assume control of a major newspaper but I cannot tell a lie, I was there for the robot and the death rays.

All these devices are the creation of electrical expert Van Dorn who provides extra drama throughout by being absolutely desperate to kill someone with one of his devices. Van Dorn, btw, is a good guy. He just really wants to hurt someone for some reason and a large part of the action involves our heroes trying to stop him from zapping or crushing the bad guys with one of his inventions.

Dude has invented a vanishing ray, a death ray, a giant robot that crushes people to death, some sort of blowtorch ray and, just in case anyone should try to get one over on him, booby trapped his entire office. Bluntly, he needs someone to sit him and down and say no, please Mr Van Dorn, use your skills to benefit humanity, not to give yet another person a serious electrical shock because why not.

And it’s primarily because of Van Dorn’s inexplicable bloodlust that I enjoyed it so much. It’s just so needless! Though it does serve a vague plot beat later on after he gets shot and decides murderfest 2000 is go or something and unleashes the duck faced robot on the baddies.

It’s also because the inventions are built to appear plausible. Nothing here feels like it’s plucking from an impossible space future! The vanishing ray straps over the body and requires some button pressing and nob twizzling to work, the ray guns are chunky and awkward and the duckbot is controlled via the most absurdly long panel that slides over a person’s arm. It does a great job of making all this silliness work within the fiction and everyone treating it as just this thing helps sell it further.

It’s all crackingly entertaining stuff, chock full of cliffhangers, fights, chases and explosions. Probably best not huffing it all at once (aside from being many hours long, these serials are best with breaks between episodes else the familiarity of the same three or four locations begins to grate) but I enjoyed it all a great deal and found myself in love with the duck faced steel giant, especially the “uh oh it’s closing in!” shots which give the first approach of the Daleks in The Dead Planet a run for its money.

By RobF

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