15 October, 2006

FU MANCHU: From Karloff to Franco

The Mask of Fu Manchu

Having just seen Boris Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu in the new, must-have Warner Brothers 6 movie HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION's DVD presentation of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, I finally have found MY Fu Manchu. Maybe not yours, but mine.

I never really liked Christopher Lee's take on the character, expecially in the two Jess Franco versions. I know he's going for iconic aloofness but after seeing Karloff I just don't really care if I ever see him or anyone else in the role. But let's leave aside the ridiculous and consider the sublime. I had never seen Charles Brabin's 1932 film and it was a  treat to have it served up in a new transfer from original camera negatives. Now that all the controversial racial material, along with the sexual-sadistic elements, has been fully restored, I'll let others argue about that. Yes, it's dated and policitally incorrect but it seems to me that this Fu Manchu gives as good as he gets. Consider his outrageously camp exhortation: "Kill the white man and take his women!" Brabin (THE RAVEN-1915) may be too dull to be considered any kind of auteur but Tony Gaudio frames Cedric Gibbon's deliciously detailed sets with style. Consider the introduction of the bad doctor in a distorting mirror or the many secret chambers, trapdoors, reptile filled grottos, torture implements, which are all filmed with the intensity of a fetishist (Luis Bunuel, anyone?). The coup de grace for me was Kenneth Strickfaden's Death Ray, which does get a work out at the climax. If Karloff and the sets weren't enough, Myra Loy's very naughty daughter of Fu Manchu is a show within the show. Her delight at the various tortures ("Harder...faster") is the central erotic attraction within the delirious mise en scene. There have been several "Daughter of Fu Manchu" films including Jess Franco's 1987 ESCLAVA DEL CRIMEN.
Karloff is the polar opposite of his previous role, the silent, hulking monster in FRANKENSTEIN. As the often avuncular Dr. of Philosphy, Law and Medicine he elegantly beholds the tortures and seems to want to pet his agonized victims. It's a sensuous, hypnotic transformation for an English gentleman.

I did watch Jess Franco's final Fu Manchu, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU directly after MASK and it really could be considered the death knell of the legend, leaving aside the Peter Seller's parody, etc... . Franco inserts miles of stock footage, from previous Fu Manchu films, other films, explosions, etc, and himself into the action as the Turkish police inspector, but he's only present as an ironic observer, a witty tour guide who has fun with his color gel lighting, his only remaining signature from a project which he knew would be edited by others and thrown to the dogs. But even Jess Franco probably cannot kill Fu Manchu and he has revisited the oriental-villain ethos with his more recent DR WONG'S VIRTUAL HELL.

The above image depicts an earlier video presentation, not the DVD from the Warner Brothers boxset.

I have the feeling the world will hear from Dr. Fu Manchu again, until then this lavishly appointed new DVD presentation (which comes with an expert commentary and 5 other 1930s horror rarities) is highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea THE MASK OF FU MANCHU was available on DVD. Great news.
It's my favorite Fu Manchu film. I was quite surprised by the films violent content and air of eroticism. Not at all like the cheese fest I was expecting.

Franco's take on Fu Manchu appealed to me more when I was a child but I still enjoy them. The films look like cheap comic books come to life.

Damian P.

Robert Monell said...

Thanks for your comment, Damian. Yes, the new boxset HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION contains restored transfers of MASK, DEVIL DOLL, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, MAD LOVE, DR X and THE RETURN OF DR X, with commentaries and original trailers as supplements. It's a strong candidate for the best DVD release of the year.
Yes Franco's Fu Manchu's are indeed like hastily drawn comics come to life, garishly colored and one dimensional fun. They're amusements, always good for a few laughs. MASK, though, really was jaw dropping on a first viewing.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

The Karloff film is perhaps the best use and presentation of the Fu Manchu character outside the Marvel Comics series "Master of Kung Fu" and Rohmer's original tales. Karloff is great in the role, even if the make-up is a bit over done. (And Myrna Loy is also great as Fa Loh, her final bad femme fatale role.)