Fu Manchu is a pop cultural figure as guilt-provoking as he is indelible and irresistible. His mixture of haughty, exotic nobility, ingenious criminality, and infinitely perverse sadism is iconic. Without his example, it’s doubtful we would have the James Bond variety of supervillain – Ian Fleming was actively inspired by Fu’s creator Sax Rohmer and his brand of pulp writing, especially with Dr. No – and also ultra-smart but sadistic überfiends like Hannibal Lecter, nor cavalcade-of-cruelty dramas like Saw and Hostel, proving that torture porn is not a recent invention. Much of the juice of the film versions of Rohmer’s cult character came from their structural refrain of placing victims in Fu’s clutches to be dispatched through the most lovingly invented and described varieties of slow and sticky ordeal and execution. The series begun by Hammer studios in the mid ‘60s starring Christopher Lee used Fu Manchu as a natural riposte to the Bond films, but with the bad guy as the focus, and also pulled off the admirable trick of making Fu Manchu a pop-art icon of devilish power-hunger and undying threat to the status quo.
The Mask of Fu Manchu, directed by Charles Brabin (with uncredited work by Charles Vidor), is on the other hand a work of unreconstructed Yellow Peril anxiety. This film was a reboot of a series starring Warner Oland that had begun in the late silent era, with Boris Karloff, only a year into his sudden stardom as a silver screen ghoul, taking over the role. The plot of The Mask of Fu Manchu is familiar pulp stuff, reproduced since almost unaltered in endless comic books and serials. Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), Fu’s perpetual Scotland Yard nemesis, asks archaeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), to ensure that he, having located what he believes to be Genghis Khan’s tomb and putting together an expedition to China to excavate it, make sure that he beats Fu to digging it up, for the mastermind believes he can whip up a wave of fanatical warriors in taking up the Khan’s mantle by wielding the conqueror’s mask and sword. Fu’s men capture Barton before he can get his team moving, however, and when he refuses to tell Fu where the tomb is, he is subjected to torture, tethered under a giant bell that rings incessantly. Barton’s party of fellow archaeologists, including his daughter, Sheila (Karen Morley), her hunky fiancée Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett), and colleague Von Berg (Jean Hersholt), with Sir Nayland watching their backs, manage to penetrate the edge of the
and unearth the tomb, removing the precious sword and mask. A high-stakes chess match develops as Fu threatens Barton’s life, pressuring Sheila and Terrence to hand over the totems. Terrence caves in, but on handing the relics over, enrages Fu when they prove to be fakes. Gobi Desert
Barton is quickly killed and his body dumped. Terrence is placed in the hands of Fu’s daughter, Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy), whose torture and near-rape of him is forestalled only by her father’s desire to use him further. Terrence is then tethered and forced to watch the long, bloodcurdling process by which Fu puts together a serum, taking poison from all sorts of deadly animals, that will make him an automaton in Fu’s control. Sir Nayland locates Fu’s lair under a tavern in the nearest city, but is swiftly captured in the labyrinth that leads to it, amongst a proliferation of inflatable snakes. Terrence, under Fu’s influence, tricks Sheila and Hersholt into digging up the real sword and mask, and then leads them into Fu’s waiting minions. Sir Nayland and Von Berg are both placed in familiar machines of death, the policeman suspended over a pit of crocodiles with his counterweight’s sand slowly running out, and Von Berg between slowly contracting spiky walls. But Sir Nayland manages to escape and, saving a revived Terrence and Von Berg, then turns Fu’s own gigantic electrical beam onto him and the rest of his army, frying them, before Fu can sacrifice Sheila as an offering “to our gods” (which ones?) as the cap to his ceremonial ascension as Genghis Khan’s heir.
The influence of this specific film on the Indiana Jones movies is impossible to miss: the mind control trope and cabal of fanatical foreign devils was utilised in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and the finale, with bolts of lightning striking down the massed evildoers, instantly evokes the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), on top of all the archaeological derring-do and historical name-dropping. Unlike more modern variations, Mask takes no care at all to hide its roots in imperialist paranoia. The racism is rendered in such flagrantly bogus terms that it’s hard to take seriously, and yet the film is certainly not in the least embarrassed about wielding the most paranoid, caricatured vision imaginable of Fu Manchu as an equal, opposite master of reverse-imperialism inciting the “East”, apparently a conglomeration of storybook Sultans, effete Asiatics and brawny, disposable Africans, to war against the West. Taken at face value, the ludicrous stereotypes, the rhetoric with which Fu whips up his followers, calling for them to kill all white men and marry their women, and even the jokey final scene offering up an ugly, dim-witted Chinese steward on a ship as a (phew) non-brilliant, properly servile representative of the east, could make you want to take a shower afterwards. Imperialist-era genre tales often revolved around paranoia over the importation of the signs of foreign culture, and that’s acutely visualised here in the almost surreal scene in which a collection of Egyptian mummy cases disgorge living agents of Fu, swathed in bandages, to drug and kidnap Barton, a touch that could have leapt straight out of Louis Feuillade, as well as deeper, darker artists of the unconscious.
As is often the case when one scratches the surface of these types of story, all these Orientalist masks are devices for tapping into the dark fantasies of the audience, serving up lashings of cruelty and sexualised assault throughout. This is especially, brilliantly invoked here by Loy’s performance as Fah Lo See, who’s just as perverse as her father. He introduces her to a gathering of his comrades in Eastern revolution as “my ugly and insignificant daughter”, taking the presumed Chinese habit of modesty to an extreme, only for her then to march out with an honour guard, revealing her actual appearance of fearsomely imperious beauty, provoking all the gathered males to drool in lust. She’s no shrinking lotus flower, and pappy delights in her eccentricities. She has Terrence whipped by big black men whilst she quite obviously gets her rocks off, screaming in ecstatics as the lashes smack against his flesh and demanding they whip "Faster! Faster!", before he’ll be injected with that mind-control serum, which is partly intended to render him her mindless sex-slave. Loy, amusingly cast at the commencement of her climb to real stardom, and yet obviously given the role because of her inimitable heavy-lidded looks, once told a story of how she approached Brabin, having attempted to lend credibility to her role by reading up on Fah Lo See’s psychopathology, and telling him, “Do you realise I’m playing a sadistic nymphomaniac?” No, he replied, no he did not. The spectacle of her asserting her control over jut-jawed pretty-boy Starrett is gloriously subversive, and such an extreme vision of feminine cruelty and sexual rapacity would barely reach a mainstream movie screen for decades more. Starrett’s later prostration before Fu and his musclemen is replete with all sorts of glorious inversions, deeply homoerotic to boot. Fu himself is a curious by-product of two worlds, having received three doctorates from Western universities, and he seems to have entirely bought into imperialist ideals, only waged from the opposite ends – he embodies the anarchic impulse that comes from living in full awareness of the hypocrisy of a dominant hierarchy.
The Mask of Fu Manchu represents one of MGM’s few attempts to get in on the horror movie craze of the early ‘30s, bringing in Karloff to take Oland’s place as the character’s remnant of exotic aristocratic poise is shoved aside to revel in his brutality, in a film that emphasises the set-piece nature of its scenes of cruelty, over and above any sort of adventure film zest. There’s very little action before the very end, and the film’s fun is leavened by a mid-section that is a static plod, as Smith and the rest of the expedition hole up in a large house and try to anticipate Fu’s next move. The torture is the real selling point, in a film that takes the liberties expected of a pre-Code drama. The emphasis of the direction is on celebrating Cedric Gibbons’ inspired sets depicting the Oriental-Moderne chic of Fu’s hideout, and in lingering over the intricate delight Fu and Fah Lo See take in their predations, envisioning Fu as a master who blends the occult and the scientific, teasing bolts of electricity onto the end of his long fingernail adornment in the process of testing the mettle of the Khan’s sword, and preparing his various concoctions in swirls of smoke and sparks.
That MGM production is as polished as ever, at least, remarkably good looking for a film of its vintage, and the first and final thirds are a lot of fun, in a queasy sort of way, driven along as they are by the villains and not the heroes, and Loy and Karloff’s inspired performances. The latter alternates an affectation of the stern mandarin for his fellow easterners, but he's happiest taunting his victims in playing the beaming, eager-to-please host whilst subjecting them to hideous suffering, tricking the parched and maddened Barton into drinking salt water, or casually extracting the poison from a snake for his potion by having it bite one of his black servants and then syringing the venom out – the servant dies anyway, not that Fu cares. Stone, who, before he became associated with his soporific role as Andy Hardy’s father, played all sorts of roles often with a strikingly no-nonsense quality, is therefore well-cast as Sir Nayland, but doesn’t get much to do. The whole cocktail is, on one level, disturbing for the impulses it exploits, and, on another, zesty, stylish tomfoolery, because it exploits them so fearlessly. It provokes many varieties of schadenfreude.