The Mask of Fu Manchu

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1932 / Dir. Charles Brabin

68 min. / B&W / 1.37:1 / SDH
Blu-ray: Warner Archive Collection $21.99
Available from Movie Zyng

In the initial year following the release of Frankenstein, Karloff had been busy, with no less than seven films in circulation before his second big horror role, in The Old Dark House. He also followed the footsteps of his predecessor, Lon Chaney, from Universal over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Boris must’ve realized that after all the years of bit part toil, he was a Star. He throws himself into The Mask of Fu Manchu, an adaptation of the Sax Rohmer novel, with so much relish that it’s pure camp to view these days while still recognizing that it must have been strong stuff indeed back in 1932. Indeed, both Karloff and Myrna Loy, who plays the daughter of Fu Manchu, later stated that they thought the show was cartoony and ridiculous and were shocked that anybody took it seriously enough to find it racist.

A British expedition led by Nayland Smith is after the fabled sword of Genghis Khan, and they’d better hurry, because the vicious Dr. Fu Manchu (a Harvard man!) wants it too, and kidnap and torture are but two of his methods for obtaining his ultimate goal: the complete destruction of the Occidental race. Well, not the ENTIRE race; as Dr. Manchu puts it, the plan is to “Kill the white man and take his women!” On his way to procuring that sword, he pauses to torture a few people, ostensibly for information but if you want my opinion, he enjoys that sort of thing, and his daughter pants orgasmically as the victims are strapped down in the punishment patio, including some poor schmuck under a giant ringing bell and some other shmoe onto a teeter-totter over an alligator pit. With all this going on, one wishes MGM had made an actual 12-chapter serial, it would've been marvelous.

The cast is one of the best Karloff would ever work with, including Myrna Loy as his “ugly and insignificant” daughter, Lewis “Andy Hardy’s dad” as Nayland Smith, Jean Hersholt as Smith’s consultant, and future cowboy star Charles Starrett as our handsome hero, alternately tortured and seduced by Ms. Loy.

The film is not great; apparently, original director Charles Vidor was sacked after principle photography was well underway, with a resulting change in direction to beef up the fantasy elements, and new script pages were handed to the cast just prior to each day’s shooting. Boris and Myrna are sorely missed during the stretches they’re off-screen. That said, it’s rip-roaring good fun, moves briskly, is lavish by 1930s horror standards, and presents Boris at his evil best. The famed Strickfadden laboratory equipment from the Frankenstein pictures (including the much later Young Frankenstein) is on display, and the art deco and Chinese costumes and set designs are a wonder, particularly in the gorgeous new restoration. Greg Mank provides useful commentary, and there are a pair of early B&W Merrie Melodies, also in HD: The Queen was in the Parlor is rather pedestrian, but Freddy the Freshman is a gem and makes us long for a full set of B&W Warners cartoons someday.

As for Boris, The Old Dark House was released in October 1932, followed quickly by Fu Manchu in November and The Mummy in December. That three-month period cemented his reputation as Hollywood's #1 horror star, and this beautiful new Blu-ray presentation shows him off in good stead.

Difficult to see for many years, The Mask of Fu Manchu deserves a special place in horror history and the new restoration receives our highest recommendation.

Boris Karloff is a legendary name in the annals of cinematic terror, but if you want to find truly villainous Karloff roles, you typically have to look in his gangster films. Whether it’s the Frankenstein monster or a litany of mad scientists (Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, et al), most of his so-called horror films feature Boris as a sympathetic character who goes astray (or is constructed that way). This sympathy goes a long way to explaining his popularity, but if you want to see him in good ol’ fashioned boogeyman mode of unredeemable evil, The Mask of Fu Manchu is a great place to look.