Panther Girl of the Kongo Blu-ray Review: The Claw Monsters Strike Back

After wowing Saturday Matinee Serial lovers everywhere in 2015 with a casual release of the 1950 guilty pleasure The Invisible Monster, Olive Films sent an indirect message to classic cliffhanger fanatics that there was indeed hope for these nearly-forgotten relics from yesteryear. Indeed, said hope is still springing up from out of the Paramount vaults Olive Films has access to, and now ‒ following subsequent digital serial debuts of Flying Disc Man from Mars and quasi-serial Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe ‒ another kiddie-friendly offering from Republic Pictures has been made available in High-Definition.

The serial in question, 1955’s Panther Girl of the Kongo with Phyllis Coates and Myron Healey, hails from the Republic moviemaking machine’s latter-day output, which ‒ as any good serial fan knows ‒ means there will be a great deal of stock footage. Providing you don’t count re-releases of older serials ‒ Panther Girl of the Kongo was the second-to-last serial ever produced by Republic. After Universal dropped out of the running in 1947, Republic and Columbia were left to compete with one another until 1955, when Republic dropped the curtain on the extinct theatrical format for good (Columbia released two more serials the following year, before calling it quits themselves).

Here, Phyllis Coates, better known to diehard Superman fans as one of the first actresses to portray Lois Lane on both film and television, stars as Jean Evans: the eponymous heroine of a heavily foliated African jungle (which sometimes bears a striking resemblance to Southern California, naturally), who ‒ despite her title ‒ rides an elephant everywhere. (At least her stock footage male stunt double knows how to tame a big cat.) Working with the local, superstitious “natives,” Jean’s initial goal is to capture the wide array of wildlife on film, but gets way more than she bargained for after she encounters a giant “claw monster” on the rear-projection screen.

Said creatures are actually regular ol’ crayfish which have been turned into huge, mindless, and presumably confused critters courtesy the resident mad scientist, Dr. Morgan (Arthur Space). Naturally, the purpose behind Morgan’s odd scheme ‒ which is executed by the proverbial pair of devoted henchmen, as played by character heavies John Day (Daheim) and Mike Ragan ‒ is to infiltrate and deplenish the shiny goods of a diamond mine nearby (which no one else knows about, of course). And though Morgan & Co. may be able to trick the simple-minded locals, warding away a woman who willingly wears a skirt through the jungle isn’t the easiest of tasks.

But it’s still 1955, just the same, so ‒ top-billed female or not ‒ Jean enlists the assistance of big game hunter Larry Sanders (one wonders if Garry Shandling would have approved). Behind the guise of Larry is none other than B-movie baddie Myron Healey, in one of his last “good guy” roles, though the lecherous looks he gives Ms. Coates may provide you with something of a clue as to why the late actor so frequently found himself cast as sleazy villains! Together, the pair run in circles around the Republic jungle set and shoot infinite blanks at nemeses amid a great deal of recycled footage courtesy other Republic serials, most notably 1941’s Jungle Girl.

Previously released under the Republic Pictures Home Video banner on both VHS and LaserDisc in the ’90s (unless you care to count several unofficial/bootleg DVDs, one of which was the rarely-seen 1966 condensed 100-minute TV cut, The Claw Monsters), Panther Girl of the Kongo finally swings into modern times via separate DVD and Blu-ray releases from Olive Films. Seeing as how the whole silly adventure/sci-fi serial was written around existing stock footage, the picture quality varies throughout the entire 12-chapter yarn. That said, the overall presentation of this Olive Films release is the best the title will probably ever look.

Panther Girl of the Kongo sports a crisp DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack. The single-disc release also includes an optional English subtitle track, with nice big yellow letters that are easily distinguished against the title’s monochromatic spectrum. There are no extras to be found here, which is a little odd since even the official LaserDisc issue from 1992 included the original theatrical trailer, but that should hardly be an issue to any devoted serial fan: the fact this very minor offering from the waning epoch of a lost cinematic artform is something quite special unto itself, and this Blu-ray comes recommended to both habitual and novice serial enthusiasts alike.

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Luigi Bastardo

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