Mask of Fu Manchu, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: May 16, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Mask of Fu Manchu, The (Blu-ray Review)


Charles Brabin

Release Date(s)

1932 (May 7, 2024)


MGM/Cosmopolitan Productions (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

The Mask of Fu Manchu (Blu-ray)

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After Universal’s success with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, MGM wanted in on the horror craze and produced Freaks the following year. Now considered a classic, Freaks failed at the box office, but MGM tried again with The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff in the title role. Filmed a few years before strict enforcement of the Production Code, The Mask of Fu Manchu is filled with torture, racist dialogue, sexual lust, and sadism all wrapped up in an exotic adventure yarn.

Evil master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu (Karloff, The Old Dark House) is the tyrannical ruler of an unspecified Oriental nation who wants to rule the world and wipe out the white race. Only the supernatural powers of the golden sword and mask of Mongolian war lord Genghis Khan, buried with him in his tomb hidden somewhere in the Gobi desert, can Fu Manchu attain such unchallengeable power.

The head of the British Secret Service, Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone, Grand Hotel), has gotten wind that Fu Manchu has dispatched spies to discover the tomb. Nayland is aware that his friend, museum director Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant, Son of Frankenstein), knows the tomb’s location, and enlists him to assemble a group of archaeologists and get to the tomb first. Fu’s spies kidnap Sir Lionel and spirit him away to Fu’s lair, where he’s tortured mercilessly but steadfastly refuses to reveal the location of the tomb.

Sir Lionel’s daughter, Sheila (Karen Morley, Scarface) and her fiancé, Terry Granville (Charles Starrett, Murder on the Campus), insist on joining the archaeologists to find her father. They succeed in unearthing the tomb and Nayland joins them to secret the valuable relics out of the country the next day. But spies keep Fu one step ahead of the Brits and he sends assassins to retrieve the treasure. Meanwhile, Terry goes to Fu with the sword and mask, hoping to exchange them for Sir Lionel’s release. Fu seizes the relics and turns Terry over to his sadistic daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy, The Thin Man), who drugs and seduces him. When Fu discovers that the relics are fakes, he orders Terry whipped and Fah supervises the torture avidly. Fu then injects Terry with a serum to make him mindlessly obedient.

Director Charles Brabin packs lots of action into a mere 68 minutes. The film is wonderfully over-the-top, with Karloff enjoying his role immensely as he revels in projecting Fu’s wretched soul. Myna Loy, who would become one of MGM’s major leading ladies, is wildly entertaining as the ruthless daughter who derives sexual satisfaction from torturing and seeing others suffer. Making the best of the narrow parameters of the role, she devours the scenery, often eliciting laughs when other reactions may have been intended. Lewis Stone, known best for playing Judge Hardy in a series of Andy Hardy movies, looks out of his element in this action/adventure/horror flick. Starrett is serviceable as the nominal hero, though he comes off rather bland, and Karen Morley as his fiancee serves, late in the picture, as the damsel in distress and moral opposite of Myrna Loy’s depraved Fah.

Cedric Gibbons’ art direction, as might be expected, is lavish in keeping with the studio’s signature style. A corridor of mummy cases and Fu’s court complete with extravagant costumes and headdresses, hundreds of attendants, impressive electrical equipment, and elaborate torture devices elevate the film from programmer to glossy production.

Karloff is the main reason to see the film. He proved his acting ability in his previous role, infusing naïveté, bewilderment, and pathos into the mute Frankenstein monster. In The Mask of Fu Manchu, delivering actual dialogue for the first time in a film, he brings real menace to the title character and acts circles around the rest of the cast. Knowing that Karloff in real life was a kind and gentle man adds to the enjoyment. That he can summon up such venom and hatred in the role is testament to his acting ability, which was shown in his pantomime performance as the Frankenstein monster. His Oriental make-up, lurid dialogue, sadistic joy in inflicting pain and suffering, and hatred of the white race are almost too much for one man, but that’s what makes Fu Manchu such a memorable character. Karloff embraces the broadness of the character and doesn’t hold back.

The pre-Code screenplay is filled with what today is unacceptable content. During its initial release, the film was subjected to censorship from various states and even countries. A re-release in 1972 also was strategically cut. The Blu-ray presentation from Warner Archive is sourced from the original camera negative and is an unadulterated version. This is the way the film was meant to be shown before censors got their hands on it.

Director of photography Tony Gaudio shot The Mask of Fu Manchu on 35 mm black & white film with spherical lenses. The Blu-ray is presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. In keeping with Warner Archive’s high standards, clarity and contrast are excellent, especially for a film more than 90 years old. Details are particularly prominent and well delineated in the sparkly, beaded, flowing costumes on Fu and Fah. Karloff’s make-up is right up there with his Frankenstein Monster and Mummy. Ominous shadows often loom large against walls and windows to create atmosphere.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Karloff’s lisp can be heard and his speech is somewhat affected by an appliance set over his own teeth. Myrna Loy’s performance as Fah is either at fever pitch or simply silent as she observes and plots. The electrical equipment, shown to full advantage with lights dimmed, buzz, crackle and hum, and a kind of ray gun emits a thick bolt of lethal electricity.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive Collection include the following:

  • Audio Commentary by Greg Mank
  • Freddy the Freshman (6:54)
  • The Queen Was in the Parlor (6:46)

Audio Commentary – Film historian Greg Mank refers to The Mask of Fu Manchu as the “most gleefully sadistic, sexually delirious, high camp horror movie of pre-Code Hollywood.” In 1932, MGM made a profit of $8 million when other major studios lost money. The film had a shaky start. Karloff referred to the production as a “shambles.” The film’s original director was Charles Vidor, but he was replaced after only three days with Charles Brabin. Other writers were hired. MGM wanted a “piece of the action” with horror films, and was out to “out-horror” Universal. Karloff’s lisp was heard for the first time by audiences but it worked for the role. His elaborate make-up took 2 1/2 hours to apply each morning. Myrna Loy, reading the script, said it was obscene. Numerous problems with the censors occurred and many are discussed. In some venues, Loy’s “Faster!” exclamations when Terry is being whipped were either cut down or completely eliminated. The fictional Fu Manchu was created by Sax Rohmer, who was fascinated with ancient Egypt and the Orient. Over 100 million people had read the Fu Manchu novels. Initially, an actual hand from a cadaver was going to used for a key scene, but a rubber hand was ultimately used. Kenneth Strickfaden, who had created the electrical lab equipment for Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, also provided the equipment for Fu’s laboratory. A brief overview of racism directed toward Asians is provided and the “Yellow Peril” explained. The Mask of Fu Manchu premiered in New York City on December 2, 1932, and in Los Angeles a week later. It was laughed at by audiences, who accepted it as an over-the-top comic book movie. Boris Karloff remains the screen’s most famous Fu Manchu.

Freddy the Freshman – This 1932 black & white Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Rudolf Isling is built around Freddy the Freshman, the Freshest Kid in Town a song written by Cliff Friend and Dave Oppenheim. Freddy the Freshman, clad in a raccoon coat, is a canine big man on campus who crashes a college pep rally and becomes the star of the big campus football game.

The Queen Was in the Parlor – Also directed by Rudolf Isling, this 1932 Merrie Melodies cartoon pokes fun at chivalry in the days of knights and their ladies. When the king returns to his castle, he’s told the queen is in the parlor and won’t be seen. He goes to the throne and his jester, Goopy Geer, arrives. A black knight arrives and threatens the princess. Goopy tries to battle him with an ax, then with armor made from kitchen utensils, and finally with a mounted animal head, which results in the black knight’s losing all his armor. He repairs it and runs away. Rudy Vallée croons I Will Gather Stars Out of the Blue and Goopy does an impression of radio’s Amos ’N Andy.

The Mask of Fu Manchu is faithful to its pulp fiction origins. The story flows at a fast pace, mixing horror, science fiction and adventure as the British contingent faces the criminal mastermind. Fu Manchu and his daughter Fah are the most memorable characters, with their sadistic eroticism. Karloff takes the character of the evil genius to incredible levels of monstrosity, and Loy, with limited screen time, makes the most of every scene she’s in. The film is often shocking in its graphic torture scenes but provides an hour’s worth of thrills and one of Boris Karloff’s most distinctive screen portrayals.

- Dennis Seuling