The Mask of Fu Manchu Blu-ray Review: Pre-Code Lunacy with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), directed by Charles Brabin, is a melodramatic pre-Code horror movie that stars Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy as a father/daughter terror team looking to conquer the world and rid the Earth of the white race. After many years with just as many cuts and edits, Warner Archive released a full version of the film, which now makes its Blu-ray debut, with all the sadistic torture and racist remarks added back in. 

Buy The Mask of Fu Manchu Blu-ray

The race is on to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, which holds his legendary sword and golden death mask. Out front are British Secret Service agent Sir Dennis Neyland Smith (Lewis Stone) and Egyptologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lewis Grant). Along for the ride is Barton’s daughter, Sheila (Karen Morley), and her rugged, good-looking fiance, Terrence Granville (Charles Starrette). Hot on their heels is the nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu (Karloff) and his sadistic nymphomaniac daughter Fah Lo See (Loy), who seek the treasure in order to wield its powers to rule the world and rid it of Englishmen. Who will get there first and who will hold it by the end of the picture is quite the roller coaster of madness. 

Sir Barton knows where the treasure lies but is captured by the “Fu Minions” and tortured to reveal the location of the loot, which he will never do. Barton’s crew knows things are bad when his signet ring is dropped from a tree still on his severed hand. When Fu hands back Sir Bart’s mutilated body, Sheila knows she needs to step up and lead the team onward so they can dig up the treasure, keeping it from the evil Fu Manchu. Dr. Fu is a clever man though and the sword and mask wind up in his possession anyway. Just before he can sally forth with his grand army, Sir Smith smites the dreaded Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter (possibly, as her fate isn’t shown) and takes back the goods. While sailing home for England, Smith drops the sword in the deep sea and all’s right with the world once more. 

The Mask of Fu Manchu is a wacky one to watch as its plot is all over the place but it does have fun moments. It’s also loaded with pre-Code sexual allusions and outdated stereotypes as well as sexist and racist remarks. What’s amusing is that the racist bits go both ways. Karloff’s Fu spouts many naughty negative remarks about the British and the white faces. To fire up his grand army, he angrily emotes that his men should go forth and snatch up all the fair-skinned women and make them their own. While on the other end, Morley bellows out to Fu that he’s a “hideous yellow monster.” It’s all very cartoony and as Karloff himself would later reflect, rather “stupid” that any one takes this stuff seriously. Karloff, a Brit decked out in slanted eye make-up, long finger nails, and another pair of platform shoes, playing a racist, mad, highly educated Chinese intellectual looking to rule the world is a hoot and a sight to behold. Dr. Fu Manchu would also not be Karloff’s sole role as an Asian man; he would go on to play a general in West of Shanghai (1937) before taking the titular role of Mr. Wong for five of the films in that series.  

The Mask of Fu Manchu does have some elaborate sets and great cinematic moments throughout. There’s also the “big parade of torture devices” that appear and mark the movie as a horror picture and not an action/adventure outing. The mentally depraved Fu and Fah delight in the mental abuse, whippings, and other sins of the flesh alluded to. We are treated to alligator pits, a constantly ringing bell, mutilations (off screen except the hand dropped from a tree), and a near human sacrifice. There’s also lots of crackling, zipping, electric coils strewn about for Fu’s amusement. Standard sciency, bad guy, evil-doer stuff for the time. 

Special Features include the classic cartoons Freddy the Freshman, The Queen Was in the Parlor, and an audio commentary by film historian Greg Mank. His commentary track is a delight and adds layers of facts and behind the scenes magic. Mank’s knowledge of the movies and The Mask of Fu Manchu brings some depth to the story and plot while providing many cool anecdotes about the cast and crew. It’s great to hear what Karloff and Loy thought about the movie and this time period in their careers. Mank points out the scenes and lines of dialogue that were previously cut after the movie’s initial release that have now been fully restored. We also learn that director Charles Vidor (Gilda [1946]) was originally at the helm but was axed after Warner execs viewed the early dailies and feared another box-office flop à la Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). So Vidor, along with most of the footage he shot, was canned. 

The Mask of Fu Manchu is 68 minutes of pre-Code Hollywood lunacy. There’s a ton of torture devices that involve bells, whips, alligators, and crackling, buzzing electric conductors as well as women in sheer outfits and men wearing nothing but their BVDs. While out dated and harsh stereotypes abound, it’s also filled with elaborate sets used to great cinematic effect and highlighted by a great cast making the best of what script they had.  

Posted in , ,

Joe Garcia III

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Search & Filter