“The Phantom of Crestwood” (1932)
by A.J. Hakari
Before Marvel introduced a shared continuity amongst its various films, and before Southland Tales tried…whatever that was supposed to be, there was The Phantom of Crestwood. It was quite the multi-media event in its time, beginning as a suspenseful radio serial that ended on a cliffhanger — one that would only be answered in a conveniently-timed RKO feature. Listeners who submitted the best potential ideas on how the mystery could unfold were even offered cash prizes. But eighty years later and stripped of all traces of hype, does The Phantom of Crestwood hold up as its own tale? The answer, my fellow vintage chiller buffs, is a dark and stormy “yes.”
Don’t be fooled by Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) and her innocent looks. Beneath those big eyes lies the soul of a stone-cold seductress, a gal who, as our story begins, has gathered some previous lovers at an Old Dark House for one last bombshell. Jenny plans on retiring into a life of luxury, and to fund her ride into the sunset, she’s demanded that her one-time paramours fork over $100 grand. But someone would rather not be parted from their riches, as Jenny doesn’t make it through the night before she gets a dart to the noggin. Luckily, an unlikely detective shows up in Gary Curtis (Ricardo Cortez), a crook who was hired to tail Jenny and takes charge of finding her killer before the finger gets put on him.
My greatest worry going into The Phantom of Crestwood was how lost I might feel. Forget all the media hoopla covering up a potential stinker, what about someone like me watching it decades removed from relevance and without a radio show to prep me? Fortunately, The Phantom of Crestwood assured me that what background I missed either wasn’t much or was condensed into the script. It’s your atypical drawing room mystery, getting us quickly acquainted with the requisite suspects who all have a motive and foreboding mansion that does spooky stuff at all the right times. There’s a familiar feel to the picture, though not so much so as to make Jenny’s murder a breeze to solve or hunting for the culprit any less fraught with peril and thrills.
True, The Phantom of Crestwood has probably shed much of its pulse-pounding luster over the years. It’s hard for modern viewers to get into the “guy patiently interrogates six people for ninety minutes” murder mystery formula, unless it was part of their cinematic diet whilst growing up. But it just so happens that I’m among the latter ranks, and while I’ll forgive some folks for yawning through sections of The Phantom of Crestwood, I was hooked from the first crash of thunder. The pacing was solid, Morley played bad girl Jenny to great effect, and I enjoyed Cortez’ turn as the film’s morally-ambiguous amateur sleuth. But you could almost say that the mansion is the real star, what with its secret passageways, crumbling cliffs, and an eerie, glowing death mask that’s ripe for the creeping.
Overshadowed throughout the years by famous genre icons like Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes, The Phantom of Crestwood has been dusted off by the Warner Archive gang for a new generation’s enjoyment. Stiff as some portions may be, the movie is anything but hokey, maintaining a low-key but tense tempo from the first shot to the final reveal. If you like yourself a good old-fashioned whodunit, then The Phantom of Crestwood is just the riddle to crack.