Directed By: Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley
Tag line: "The Frankenstein of the Orient!"
Trivia: Charles Vidor started directing this movie but was fired after a few days of shooting and replaced by Charles Brabin
At the beginning of his DVD commentary track, movie historian Greg Mank calls 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu “The most gleefully sadistic, sexually delirious, high-camp horror film of pre-code Hollywood”. With its torture devices, serums that turn ordinary people into slaves, and racial rants against the “white man”, The Mask of Fu Manchu certainly raised a few eyebrows back in the day, but damn if it isn’t fun to watch!
Shortly after agreeing to lead an expedition to Asia, which will attempt to locate the tomb of Genghis Khan and retrieve his fabled sword and mask, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is kidnapped by agents working for Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff). A Chinese super-criminal, Fu Manchu intends to be the first to find Genghis Khan’s final resting place, and will use the late Emperor’s sword to inspire his people to declare war against the west. Hoping to make a deal with Fu Manchu to bring her father back alive, Sir Lionel’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and Sheila’s fiance Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett) head to China, and along with British secret agent Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) discover the tomb and take possession of the sword. But Fu Manchu has no intention of reaching a compromise, and with the help of his daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy), the ruthless leader sets a plan in motion that, if all goes well, will land him the sword and a few new prisoners for his “collection”.
The Mask of Fu Manchu boasts some wild and crazy scenes that, even in the pre-code era, pushed the envelope as far as they possibly could. While Fu Manchu’s various torture devices were, indeed, shocking (my favorite of the bunch featured a teeter-totter and a pit filled with hungry crocodiles), it’s the serum he develops that takes the story in a unique, and altogether warped new direction (in essence, the serum allows Fu Manchu to control the mind of whomever he chooses, and he uses it to turn a member of the Barton party into his daughter’s sex toy). In addition to all the zaniness, The Mask of Fun Manchu marked the first horror film in which Boris Karloff spoke (he played mutes in both Frankenstein and The Old Dark House), and the actor is deliciously evil in the role (while torturing Sir Lionel, Fu Manchu taunts him with food, then offers him a drink of water. To Sir Lionel’s dismay, it’s actually salt water).
The Mask of Fu Manchu did spark its share of controversy. State censors cut lines of dialogue and, in some cases, entire scenes from the torture sequences; and protests made by the Japanese American Citizens Group in the ‘70s, who had issues with the way the film portrayed Asians, resulted in further edits when the movie premiered on home video. And while the racism does occasionally cross the line into poor taste (aside from the fact white actors played Asians, Karloff’s infamous “Conquer and Breed” speech, where he tells his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women”, had its detractors), The Mask of Fu Manchu remains one of early horror’s most fascinatingly entertaining films.