MASK OF FU MANCHU
Legends of Horror Collection
DVD Rating is for entire 6-film set
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.
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...
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.
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!"
that's what I call screen presence.
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.
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).