THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection
U.S.A. | 1932
Directed by Charles Brabin
Starring
Boris Karloff
Lewis Stone
Myrna Loy
B&W
| 68 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC | 3-disc set)
Warner Home Video
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Review by
Brian Lindsey


Film:7
DVD:10
NOTE: DVD Rating is for entire 6-film set
Renowned archeologist Prof. Barton (Lawrence Grant) is certain he has deduced the location of Genghis Khan's fabled, long-lost tomb. Prior to forming an expedition Barton is called to the London office of old friend Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), high commissioner in British intelligence, who is already aware of the professor's theories. Smith warns Barton that there is much more at stake than academic prestige. The notorious Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) — crime boss, warlord, mad scientist — also seeks the tomb, but for a very different reason. Were Fu to recover the legendary sword and golden burial mask of the Great Khan, he could use the relics as tools of global conquest. As Smith colorfully puts it, "...Should Fu Manchu put that mask across his wicked eyes and take that scimitar in his bony, cruel hands, all Asia rises. He'll declare himself Genghis Khan come to life again, and lead hundreds of millions of men to sweep the world!" The trek will thus be quite dangerous. Success is imperative.
    The expedition to Mongolia hasn't even been organized when Barton is kidnapped from the British Museum by Fu's minions (dressed as mummies). His colleagues vow to press ahead, joined by Barton's headstrong daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and her strapping fiancι Terry (Charles Starret). Smith plans to rendezvous with them in Mongolia, hoping that Barton can hold out long enough against torture for them to reach the tomb. If this proves to be the case then it's likely Fu will attempt to bargain — the professor's life for the mask and sword. Yet whatever the cost, the Scourge of the East must not be allowed to gain possession of those relics...
    The Mask of Fu Manchu offers oodles of old-fashioned pulp goodness. It's a deliciously lurid potboiler, replete with opium smoking, a severed hand, eroticized whipping and slow death by snakebite; Fu's slinky daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) — as irredeemably evil as her dad — is clearly depicted as a sexual sadist, titillated by torture and practically salivating at the prospect of turning All-American he-man Terry into her personal love slave. None of this would've been permissible just two years later, when the Hays Code was implemented (in 1934) to foster "decency" in motion pictures. (The mind boggles when contemplating how much better many of the Golden Age horror films could have been had they not been straitjacketed by such arbitrary censorship.) The fact that Mask is more shocking and sensational than most of its contemporaries adds considerably to its appeal. It offers a welcome dash of Indiana Jones-style adventure, too, as our heroes face an elaborate crocodile pit and moving walls of steel spikes. The spectacular climax — involving a temple full of barbarous Mongol chieftains, human sacrifice and Fu's sci-fi death ray — plays exactly like something out of a Doc Savage novel. Doubtless many-a pulp writer of the '30s (such as Lester Dent) saw this film and were inspired accordingly.
    Moving at a swift pace, blessed with eye-catching production design and moody cinematography, Mask easily overcomes its most evident flaws (Morley's horribly overwrought performance being the chief offender). Towering over all is Boris Karloff's portrayal of Fu Manchu. Fresh from his triumphant star-making — but non-speaking — role in 1931's Frankenstein, Karloff clearly relished the opportunity to headline a picture in which he gets plenty of juicy dialogue, and he makes the most of it. In thick "Oriental" makeup accentuated with pointy Mr. Spock ears he looks positively Satanic, an Asian "devil" taking impish delight in inflicting pain on his enemies — the Yellow Peril incarnate. Karloff knows how to convey "larger than life" without going over the top or degenerating into camp, which is exactly how a comic book villain of this nature should be played. He can even make you forget he's wearing an incredibly silly Carmen Miranda hat (so tall it barely fits in the frame!) while roaring, "Kill the white man and take his women!"
    Now that's what I call screen presence.

The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of six 1930s genre films contained in Warner's Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection, a marvelous multi-disc set released in October 2006 and thankfully still in print as of this writing. Mask is paired on Disc 1 with Tod Browning's Mark of the Vampire (1935), featuring Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore. The other films in the set are Doctor X and The Return of Doctor X (sharing Disc 2), Mad Love and The Devil-Doll (Disc 3). Mask of Fu Manchu and Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre in an amazing role (rivaling his pitiable child-murderer of Fritz Lang's M), are easily the best films in the entire collection.
    Considering their vintage all six movies are in terrific shape. Mask of Fu Manchu contains scenes cut from the original negative (during the 1970s) of racist, politically incorrect dialog; even with the volume turned down it'd be readily apparent where these occur since they're softer and much grainier-looking than the bulk of the film. Still, kudos to Warner for restoring these scenes — the Hollywood Legends set marks the film's debut on home video in completely uncensored form.
    For extras the set has five trailers (Mask is the only film lacking one) and audio commentaries (for each of the features except Devil-Doll.) The commentary for Mask is by film historian Gregory Mank, who covers a good deal of ground in a relatively short time — the movie itself is not much over an hour long. This is well worth a listen. Mank discusses the main players in front of/behind the camera, the film's somewhat chaotic production, the literary character of Fu Manchu as created by Sax Rohmer, and goes into some detail about exactly which scenes/lines of dialog were cut (to include edits made in various countries). 7/06/10
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