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Bonus Reviews: The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Ghoul (1933)
Horror Bulletin Bonus Reviews
For this week’s bonus films, we’ll look at a couple of old Boris Karloff classics. We’ll start off with over-the-top-racist “Mask of Fu Manchu” and continue with the by-the-numbers “The Ghoul” from the following year. Let’s go!
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The Ghoul (1933)
Directed by T. Hayes Hunter
Written by Frank King, Leonard Hines, Roland Pertwee
Stars Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger
Run Time: 1 Hour, 17 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
This was a lost film for a while. Then a print was found in Czechoslovakia, then later another in England. It wasn’t available for a while, but people taped it off a 1984 broadcast. Bootleg copies of the muddled Czech version and copies of copies of VHS were in wide circulation. So if the copy you are able to see seems a little grainy, it might be because it’s the third or fourth time around. It doesn’t hold up that well today, quality aside. It’s pretty tame with a low body count, few scares, and nothing really groundbreaking.
Mahmoud, follows another man home. “I want the eternal light,” he demands. The other man says he no longer has it. The man says he sold it to Professor Morlant, but it’s OK because he believes in the Eternal Light. Morlant is dying, and it may be buried with him.
Elsewhere, Professor Morlant is near death. Mr. Boughton and Laing are there with him. Broughton reads Morlant’s journal from the previous year. He reads that Morlant has the Eternal Light. Morlant tells Laing to beware of Broughton, and to follow some very specific instructions pertaining to his burial. The Eternal Light is a huge jewel that must be buried with him, and it’s supposed to grant him immortality. “If you refuse me, you’ll have reason to fear!” he threatens. Laing bandages the jewel into Morlant’s hand. Morlant then dies, and we can’t tell if Laing took the jewel or left it in Morlant’s hand as ordered.
The next morning is the funeral. Morlant is put into the crypt. Broughton opens the coffin and looks for the jewel, but doesn’t disturb the bandage. He thinks Laing stole the gem. Mahmoud then arrives but can’t get it. We soon learn that Laing does have the jewel as he hides it in a can of coffee.
Ralph Morlant, the old man’s nephew arrives, and he’s not pleased that he wasn’t consulted about the old man’s death. Broughton warns the young man not to go to the house, as he won’t like what he finds.
Betty gets a letter from Morlent’s lawyer. She must have inherited something! After a bit of skulking around in the foggy darkness, Laing shoves a note into Betty’s hand. Almost immediately after, she gets her purse stolen by Broughton, who reads her letter. Mahmoud finds the pieces of the letter on the street. The note warns Betty not to go to the house; it’s a very similar warning as that given to Ralph. She and her friend, Kaney decide to go anyway. We see someone planting explosives on the door to the tomb, but they don’t detonate it when interrupted by a car driving by.
After this, everyone converges on the Morlant house that night. They are joined by Nigel Hartley, a local vicar. Broughton is at the house, searching everywhere for the missing jewel. Aga Ben Dragore comes into the house and introduces himself. He asks to visit Morlant’s tomb. Hartley calls him a pagan, but the women stick up for him. Betty and Ralph bicker, but they probably like each other. Kaney and Ben Dragone pair up as well.
While all this is going on, Laing stands outside the tomb and trash-talks the whole situation. Inside, the lid of the coffin opens. When Morlant stumbles out of the tomb, Laing screams and runs away. Morlant doesn’t look happy to have lost his jewel. Morlant kills Dragore’s chauffeur.
Back at the house, Dragore and Kaney try to make coffee– with Laing’s coffee can. Laing bursts in and scares them both half to death. He grabs the jewel out of the can. He then warns Ralph and the others that the master is coming for them all. Broughton tells the others to avoid Laing, as he’s probably insane.
Laing watches Morlant bend the iron bars to the window and come inside. Broughton sees Morlant attack Laing. Laing, however, says he hasn’t got it; “The girl has it.” Broughton tells Ralph what he saw, but Ralph doesn’t believe any of it.
Morlant sneaks up behind Kaney, but doesn’t touch her. Ralph and Betty head over to the tomb to verify what’s going on. Instead, he goes after Betty and gets the jewel. He sees the shadow of Anubis on the wall and thinks he still has a chance at immortality– he goes back to the tomb to await his reward.
Morlant, in the tomb, kneels before the Anubis statue and cuts an ankh into his chest. Laing, Ralph, and Betty approach the tomb and see movement inside. Morlant puts the gem in Anubis’ hand and waits for his judgment. The hand closes, and Morlant falls over dead, delighted to be worthy. But it turns out it wasn’t Anubis, it was Hartley hiding inside the statue. Ralph knocks out Hartley and takes the jewel, but then Dragore comes in with a gun and takes it away. Dragore and Ralph fight, and Dragore locks them all in the tomb.
Kaney accidentally knocks the gem out of Dragore’s pocket, so now she has it. Dragore and Broughton chase her through the woods to an old well where she threatens to drop it in. The police show up, and she gives them the jewel and has Broughton and Dragore arrested.
A fire has started in the tomb. The hidden explosives detonate, blowing the door off. It was Hartley who had planted the explosives there earlier. Ralph carries Betty to safety. The house and all the assets, including the jewel, are now his.
The women characters are annoying comic relief, which isn’t really needed or welcome here.
The soundtrack is decent, the acting is fine, except for the women. Cedric Hardwicke was chewing scenery as the villain, and Karloff didn’t even speak after the first scene. Karloff had big bushy eyebrows, something like the ones in “The Old Dark House” from the year before, but the rest of his makeup seemed appropriate for a man who was only dead a day or two. In “The Old Dark House”, Karloff played Ernest Thesiger’s butler. Here, the roles are reversed.
It doesn’t really hold up too well today. The characters are all one-dimensional and the plot is pretty straightforward. There’s lots of running around, and the only one who is actually murdered was the chauffeur; this doesn’t count Morlant, who apparently died of natural causes in the beginning of the film.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Directed by Charles Brabin
Written by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, John Willard
Stars Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley
Run Time: 1 Hour, 8 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
Before there was Flash Gordon, way before there was Big Trouble In Little China, there was Dr. Fu Manchu. If you can look past the white people made up as Asians and the racial stereotypes, you can appreciate it for a pretty entertaining movie that’s a statement of what things were perfectly okay at the time it was made. And it’s an early example of tropes that are still used even today. There’s action, drama, thrills, and romance. Very much a precursor to serial shorts that would come later.
Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard calls in Sir Lionel Barton for an assignment to go to the edge of the Gobi Desert and find the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. It is said that Fu Manchu, insane for power, is looking for the tomb as well. Should Fu Manchu put on Khan’s mask and scimitar, all of Asia would rise up against the British Empire and the world.
As Sir Lionel goes to his meeting of archaeologists, he’s being followed through the museum by shady Asian folks dressed as mummies. He tells the group about Genghis Khan and his lost tomb. They are going to make arrangements on Friday and leave on Monday for China. Sounds easy! On the way out, the “mummies” grab Sir Lionel.
Terry and Sheila go to see Nayland Smith about Lionel, who has gone missing. Smith explains that her father has been kidnapped by Fu Manchu. Mr. McCleod and Von Berg have decided to continue the mission, and Sheila insists on going along now.
Meanwhile, The evil Dr. Fu Manch drinks a smoky concoction in his lab. He calls for his daughter, Fah Lo See. Sir Lionel comes in, demanding to know the meaning of this. He doesn’t really remember what happened until he arrived there. Fu Manchu brags about his three doctoral titles and says Lionel should call him doctor. Lionel refuses to tell him the location of the lost tomb. He offers Sir Lionel his daughter for the secret. When he still refuses, Manchu subjects Sir Lionel to the torture of the ringing bell.
As the torture continues, Von Berg, McLeod, and the others find the tomb. They descend and find many golden treasures. Naturally, there’s a curse upon all those who enter. They also find Khan’s skeleton, wearing a mask and holding a scimitar. The locals rush in and bow before Khan, worshiping him until the white men run them all off. They clearly can’t let the evil doctor get ahold of them.
Fu Manchu, who has no sons, asks his guests to accept a message “from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” She says the prophecy is about to be fulfilled: the scimitar and mask are coming to them soon.
The Brits, as the British did back then, bring all the treasures out of the tomb and await the journey home in the morning. McCleod is killed by an assassin that night, and they have a funeral the next morning. Terry wants to stay another day to recover, but Smith insists they leave tonight. “We can’t even trust our own Coolies,” says Smith. Terry finds a hand outside, and it’s wearing Sir Lionel’s ring.
A messenger arrives from Fu Manchu. He wants the Khan relics for the return of Sheila’s father. Sheila insists that Terry take the items to Manchu. Terry does it; he goes to meet Fu Manchu and takes the relics with him.
Fu Manchu turns on his scientific equipment, and the sparks fly. He draws lightning to the sword, which glows and melts. It’s a fake! Terry swears he didn’t know, but Manchu’s men take him away. Fah Lo See personally and delightedly oversees his torment with the whips.
Sheila tells Smith where Terry went. Sir Lionel’s body is dumped outside their door. Smith admits that he had a fake sword made just for that purpose, but didn’t think it would be detected.
Smith goes to the local opium den and pays the fee. He then looks around and follows a man with a dragon tattoo to Fu Manchu’s hideout. He finds a trapdoor that leads to a system of caves; Fu Manchu is waiting for him there. Smith finds Terry, but Manchu says he plans to inject him with a mind-control serum that will enslave him. After much scientific mumbo-jumbo, Terry gets injected.
Terry shows up at Sheila’s place; she says he looks tired. Von Berg falls for it, but Sheila knows immediately that there’s something wrong with him. Terry gets Von Berg to give him the real mask and sword.
Once again, Fu Manchu puts the sword in his lightning machine, but this time, he is pleased with the results. He promises to kill all the heroes first thing in the morning. Sheila talks to Terry and tries to convince him to wake up and help them. Terry breaks the spell, but Fu Manchu orders, “Take them away!”
Nayland Smith is tied to a huge seesaw with an hourglass on one end that is running out of sand. When the sand runs out, he’ll be dropped into a pit of alligators. Sheila is to be a human sacrifice. Von Berg is put into a trap with slowly moving spiked walls that will soon kill him.
Fu Manchu puts on the mask and addresses the crowd of his followers. The statue of Genghis Khan hands his scimitar to Fu Manchu. Smith escapes from the alligators and helps free Terry and Von Berg. Terry rushes to save Sheila while the other two start working on the lightning machine. Things go badly for Fu at this point as the lightning machine starts frying the entire audience. Pandemonium ensues.
Later, on the boat back to Britain, Smith decides to throw the scimitar overboard. Von Berg says it wouldn’t surprise him to see Fu Manchu back for it. But no, we’ll never see him again— right?
Karloff is brilliantly evil here, but his Asian makeup is atrocious by modern standards. There are only a handful of real Asians in the movie, all in non-speaking roles. Everyone else is a Brit in yellowface. Except for the numerous bald, black men (slaves, I assume) that Manchu has– in the heart of China. There’s all kinds of weird racism going on in this one, some of which doesn’t make much sense.
We both immediately noticed his resemblance to Flash Gordon’s Ming The Merciless character, and we checked; both the Flash Gordon comic strip and the serials began several years after this film. There are many similarities.
That said, it’s got a lot of action and moves quickly. It’s fast-paced and interesting throughout. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, but keep in mind that this film originated many of the tropes that we still see today.
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