Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Bloody NEL:
The Unpleasant Profession
of Jonathan Hoag
by Robert A. Heinlein


I couldn’t move on from my recent survey of New English Library science fiction titles without a tip of the hat to Robert Heinlein, given that NEL reprinted a fairly vast swathe of his output during the 1970s.

Believe it or not, this book has actually been in my possession since I was about fifteen years old; entirely unaware of Heinlein’s peculiar and divisive political beliefs, I bought it simply because I thought it looked cool and sounded interested, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The title story in particular sticks in my memory as a wonderfully mind-bending example of Twilight Zone-style high concept SF, the secrets of which I won't divulge here beyond simply noting that it’s definitely worth a read.

Trawling through some web searches reveals that NEL published versions of this book with at least four different cover designs. This is by far my favourite one though, and if you really squint, you’ll be able to spot an art credit on the back cover for Peter Gudynas, an artist who seems to have began working on SF cover art commissions at around this point, but worked more extensively through the ‘80s and ‘90s, devoting his efforts to a design aesthetic which was… not quite so much my kind of thing, let’s put it like that.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Soul Pulp:
Shaft Among The Jews
by Ernest Tidyman
(Corgi, 1972)

Adding to my small collection of blaxploitation paperbacks, we have what I believe is the second of seven Shaft novels written by the character’s creator Ernest Tidyman, and… yes, the title here’s a little on the nose, to say the least.

As anyone who has read much about mid-century New York will appreciate, the city’s working class Jewish community was still just as much of a marginalised, ghetto-bound culture as NY’s African-American milieu at this point, and underworld interactions between the two were generally characterised by a spirit of resentment and distrust, so… I don’t think the title and plot synopsis here indicate that Tidyman’s novel is inherently racist, but when it comes to a WASP writer addressing this kind of subject matter, the title is at best misguided, and it’s a safe bet that 21st century readers who dare venture between these pages are liable to encounter some pretty, uh, ‘salty’ content.

Believe it or not though, I didn’t just pick up ‘Shaft Among the Jews’ just in order to shock people by leaving it sitting on the coffee table – that symmetrical, proto-disco montage cover painting – attributed online to Fred Pfeiffer - is absolutely swell.

Oh, and I think we get a glimpse of Tidyman’s sense of humour via his dedication:

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Pan’s People:
Gideon’s Month
by J.J. Marric


I’m afraid I’ll be heading off on holiday for a while through May and June (no prizes for guessing where). As such, I’ll be leaving you with a few pre-scheduled posts, offering up some recent additions to the various bits of my paperback collection I’ve been featuring here over the past few years. And, it seems weirdly appropriate that we should kick things off with a book seemingly set in London during a May heat-wave.

Like many of the British crime books published by Pan (see: The Little White God), there’s a heavy ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ feel to this one, although the sight of a lady in her night-gown being threatened by a knife-wielding ne’erdowell at least hints at the more lurid content that crime stories and thrillers were routinely dishing out by the dawn of the 1960s. Lovely artwork as always from BITR hero Sam ‘Peff’ Peffer.

J.J. Marric was of course a pseudonym for the impossibly prolific John Creasey – we covered another entry in his long-running Gideon series here a few years back.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Janine Reynaud

I was sad to hear today, via Tim Lucas’s blog, of the death of Janine Reynaud, who has apparently passed away at her home in Texas at the age of 87.

Born in Paris, Reynaud is best known amongst Jess Franco fans for her remarkable lead performance in his landmark Necronomicon (1967), and she also comprised one half of the “Red Lips” duo along with Rosanna Yanni in its light-weight follow-ups ‘Sadisterotica’ and ‘Kiss Me Monster’ (1968).

After this, she accompanied most of her collaborators on those films (minus Franco) to Germany, for the Adrian Hoven-directed ‘Im Schloss der Blutigen Begierde’ [‘Castle of the Creeping Flesh’] (also 1968) – not a classic film by any stretch of the imagination, but one that I nonetheless have a great deal of fondness for, not least due to the fact that Reynaud rules in it.  

(I’d also argue that it holds historical importance as the first fully-fledged example of the kind of erotica / gothic horror crossover that would soon come to dominate European genre cinema during the early ‘70s – but I’ll save that for my Erotic Castle Movie monograph… one day I’ll write it!)

Thereafter, Reynaud made some in-roads into the Italian exploitation field, appearing in several gialli (most notably Sergio Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’), but she delivered what I think is almost certainly her best performance back in France, in José Bénazéraf’s 1971 masterpiece ‘Frustration’ – one of the best, and most under-appreciated, films ever to emerge from the fertile horror/sex/art-house crossover zone of ‘70s European cinema.

As a brief bit of mental arithmetic will confirm, Reynaud was considerably older than your average uninhibited starlet when she took on these challenging roles, but her unique features, statuesque build and evident self-confidence made her an electrifying screen presence, allowing her to convey a sense of mature sexuality and inner turmoil that is frequently captivating – something that Bénazéraf took full advantage of as he tore down the walls of her character’s psychological make-up in 'Frustration'.

In all of these films except the Italian ones, Reynaud co-stared alongside her then-husband, the equally weird and mesmeric Michel Lemoine, future director and star of the wonderfully barmy ‘Les Weekends Maléfiques du Comte Zaroff’ (aka ‘Seven Women For Satan’, 1976), who sadly passed away in 2013.

Naturally enough, Reynaud lent her talents to many of the low budget softcore and comedy films that Lemoine directed in France during the early ‘70s, including such tantalising titles as ‘Les Confidences Erotiques d'un Lit Trop Accueillant’ and ‘Les Chiennes’ (both 1973), as well as apparently providing the voice of Joan d’Arc in a picture named ‘Les Petites Saintes y Touchent’ (1974). In between all this – and slightly more accessibly for English-speaking viewers – she was also second-billed in ‘Je Suis Une Nymphomane’ (aka ‘Libido: The Urge To Love’, 1971), an internationally distributed item from arthouse-erotica specialist Max Pecas.

Both now gone, Reynaud and Lemoine must have made a striking couple to say the least, and the stories they could have told from this uniquely wild era of European cinema must have been remarkable.

I’m not sure I recall ever seeing or reading any interviews with Reynaud; I don’t know whether or not she was ever approached to speak about her time in the film business, or if she simply had no interest in doing so, but regardless – it saddens me greatly to think that yet another key figure linking us to the increasingly distant milieu from which these extraordinary movies sprang has passed on, leaving her story seemingly untold, and making that lost world feel even further away.  R.I.P.

The screengrabs above are taken respectively from ‘Necronomicon’, ‘Castle of the Creeping Flesh’ and ‘Frustration’.

Monday, 14 May 2018

VHS Purgatory/Exploito All’Italiana:
The Squeeze
(Antonio Margheriti, 1978)

Not to be confused with the excellent, Stacy Keach-starring British crime movie of the same name, THIS Squeeze was shot in New York with a largely American cast by our old friend “Anthony M. Dawson”.

Given how little known it remains amongst the Euro-Cult contingent, I was pretty stoked when I fished this VHS copy out of some mouldering old cardboard box somewhere about five years ago. Apparently I wasn’t sufficiently stoked to find time to actually watch the damn thing however – that’s a pleasure I left until the clock was approaching midnight last Saturday, and…. well it wasn’t a moment too soon, let’s put it that way.

The plot here sees Lee Van Cleef’s retired master safe-cracker lured out of retirement when the needy and weak-willed son of his former boss (Edward Albert) drops into Lee’s Mexican ranch to explain that his life is on the line if he can’t successfully pull off a daring diamond heist for some nasty German mobsters he’s involved with. Out of loyalty to the kid’s dad, Van Cleef reluctantly agrees to help him out, and soon finds himself on the wintry streets of NYC, with only a full length white overcoat and a furry Russian hat to protect him from the thrills and spills that one imagines will inevitably ensue.

Lionel Stander – looking more like Ernest Borgnine than ever – gets a substantial role as Van Cleef’s old time fence/pawnbroker buddy, Karen Black is the – uh – “kooky” next door neighbour who inexplicably turns up to care for a sullen Van Cleef whilst he’s holed up in a rented apartment with a leg wound, and Robert Alda is the cop hot on their trail.

Although the print under review here is an absolutely brutal pan-and-scan job, it's still clear that cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi (an Italian exploitation vet whose credits include ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’) extracted some great atmosphere from the snow-covered Brooklyn and Manhattan locations, and composer Paolo Vasile also keeps things ticking over nicely with some cracking ‘70s cop show music.

So far, so good but… oh man. How can I best put this? If you watch this one at all, don’t do so late at night. I took the plunge, and my battle to keep my eyes open until the end proved more epic than anything than unfolds in ‘The Squeeze’.

A director who spent most of his career making competent, impersonal mid-tier genre movies, Margheriti seems to have taken the opportunity to strike out in an uncharacteristically bold direction with ‘The Squeeze’. Unfortunately however, that direction involves ditching the action-packed hi-jinks viewers might reasonably have expected of a film like this, and instead attempting to craft an under-stated, melancholy thriller in the vein of, say, ‘The Conversation’ or ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’, perhaps even drawing slightly on ‘Midnight Cowboy’ in its attempt to concentrate on the oddball friendship that develops between the Van Cleef and Albert characters.

The thing is though… (deep sigh)… making a film work on that level requires a few things. Like excellent writing, good direction, and a convincing set of performances. With all due respect to the combined talents of the cast members I’ve listed above, no one working in any of these capacities on ‘The Squeeze’ seems to have felt the need to raise their game much beyond the level you’d expect of a run-of-the-mill late ‘70s Italian crime flick.

Which is to say, ‘The Squeeze’ basically plays out like a run-of-the-mill late ‘70s Italian crime flick in which nothing whatsoever happens. There are no real action scenes as such. No fights, no running around. No sleaze or violence, no crazy shenanigans, not even any amusing dubbed dialogue. The characters are one dimensional, the plotting is predictable and boring. The cast spend most of their time sitting around moodily, muttering dialogue that you feel might have carried some meaning in an alternate universe where it hadn’t been knocked out by a team of writers who were just treading water between the ‘Death Wish’ rip-offs and the ‘Rambo’ rip-offs.

There’s a big explosion after Van Cleef pulls off the diamond heist, but one explosion does not an action movie make. Thereafter, Van Cleef spends most of the remaining run time hiding out with a bad leg, trading sullen banter with Black’s genuinely rather insufferable ‘ditzy single chick’ stereotype.

In one of the film’s weirder touches meanwhile, Albert is arrested for the heinous crime of playing the display drum kit in a shop window without permission (I kid you not) – a caper that apparently lands him with a stretch in maximum security, where he spends much of the rest of the movie playing poker with some Black Panther type dudes.

(Even more unfeasibly, Van Cleef is shown reading about this in the papers the next morning, where we briefly see a headline along the lines of “LOCAL HOOD DRUMS HIMSELF TO JAIL” topping a full page story – it must have been one hell of a slow news day in NYC.)

Whilst all this is going on, the film’s primary antagonist – the nasty, Boris Johnson-lookalike German mobster – has been unceremoniously rubbed out by some thugs working for the guy they stole the diamonds from, and so, with its two protagonists both cooling their heels in confined locations and its main villain out of the picture, the movie proceeds to ramble on toward…. what exactly?

I mean, I’m sure Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet or someone like that could have pulled some compelling drama out of this lackadaisical scenario, but – again, with all due respect to his achievements in the field of broadly decent exploitation flicks - Antonio Margheriti, not so much.

The film’s eventual conclusion is, admittedly, nicely played out, with a bit of a melancholy kick to it, but it’s more of an “I guess I should be feeling something here?” kind of deal than anything else, and the faux-profound closing dialogue between Van Cleef and Stander, like much that has proceeded it, falls flat.

In closing, it’s worth noting that my tape of ‘The Squeeze’ ran about eighty four minutes, whilst the box states ninety three minutes and IMDB gives a run time of ninety nine. Could it be possible that I’ve just subjected myself to some kind of heavily neutered TV version of the film with all the good bits cut out? Or alternatively, is there an uncut version out there somewhere that is even more monumentally tedious? Or, is the ninety nine minute thing on IMDB just a mistake, and the differential in the video run-time just a result of those always mind-boggling PAL / NTSC conversion issues? Answers on a postcard, please.

Until the first of these three possibilities is proven to be the case however, I’m going to let this rather dispiriting review stand – partly just for the purposes of consumer advice, and partly to highlight the superb poster artwork reproduced on the VHS cover. (Aside from the explosion, and Lee Van Cleef holding a gun, absolutely none of the details depicted in this painting are reflected in the film itself, by the way.)

I suppose it’s possible that, at some point in the distant future, you might run across this movie on late night TV and, noting the intriguing cast, the great locations and the cool music, think to yourself, “gee, this looks like a good movie”. Maybe, if you can call to mind the merest fraction of what I’ve written here today, your evening could still be saved. Take heed.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Pre-War Thrills:
The Mask of Fu Manchu
(Charles Brabin, 1932)

So, to get this out of the way right from the outset: if you’re going to take an interest in the pulp fiction or popular literature of the early 20th Century, you’re going to encounter a lot of racism.

H.P. Lovecraft may have taken most of the flak for this in recent years (largely due to the fact that he is one of the only pulp magazine writers still liable to be read by the kind of young/educated readers most liable to take offence at his repellent views), but, as fascinating as it may be to ponder the psychological underpinnings of Lovecraft’s errant fears and prejudices, the digger one digs into the work of his contemporaries, the clearer it becomes that these prejudices were far from uncommon.

Put into context alongside the unabashed imperialism and hysterical miscegenation fears of writers like Seabury Quinn and Dennis Wheatley, the deeply offensive caricatures of non-white characters that litter the work of Edgar Wallace or the dozens of other, more obscure, examples that blogger Samuel Wilson has chronicled over the past few years via his True Pulp Fiction project, Lovecraft’s more notorious passages are noteworthy only for the unusually strident manner in which he expressed his views, rather than for the views themselves (and, as fans and detractors alike will appreciate, HPL was writer who liked to express just about everything in pretty strident terms).

More than any other writer of course, it is Fu Manchu’s creator Sax Rohmer who must, through the very nature of his most famous creation, be singled out as the poster boy for all this Pulp Racism. I confess I’ve not read enough Rohmer to really make a call on the extent to which this assumption is justified, but…. well really this is all just a long-winded way of saying that I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised to discover that a Fu Manchu movie from 1932 is pretty damned racist.

Perhaps I’d been lured into a false sense of security here by my familiarity with the 1960s series of Harry Alan Towers/Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies [see my reviews of ‘Brides of…’ and ‘Blood of…’ here and here]. Though still a far cry from what anyone would be liable to deem ‘politically correct’, these films are essentially pretty good-natured affairs that tend to treat their antagonist’s ethnicity as a mere incidental detail – a bit of exotic colour to liven up his Bond villain-esque schemes for world domination.

Charles Brabin’s film, by contrast, is definitely pulling no punches. “You hideous yellow monster,” heroine Karen Morley spits at Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu at one point, shortly after he in turn promises to “..destroy your whole accursed white race”. Clearly sensitivity of any kind was not on the cards here.

Adapted by a veritable raft of screenwriters from the simultaneously published Rohmer novel of the same name, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ indeed presents us with a villain whose motivations are somewhat different from those of the unilateral, ego-driven super-villain proposed by most other screen adaptations. Instead, Fu Manchu’s attempts to swipe the face-mask and sword of Genghis Khan from under the noses of the British archaeologists who have just excavated them is motivated by his plan to use the ceremonial power of these artefacts to inspire the people of Asia (yes, all of Asia) to unite and overthrow their Western oppressors.

Leaving aside the fact that, given the geo-political shit that had gone down in the century or so prior to 1932, people in many parts of Asia had pretty legitimate cause to want to overthrow their Western oppressors, the notion that the sight of a Chinese man carrying some paraphernalia belonging to a Mongol folk hero would somehow cause everyone from Istanbul to Yokohama to rise up in revolt is just so utterly bizarre that I don’t even know where to start with it really. It just left me speechless to be honest, but… such is the level of wilful cultural ignorance we’re dealing with here, apparently.

When, late in the film, we see Fu Manchu strutting his stuff on the stage of what looks like a disused theatre, rousing a crowd of guys who largely resemble moth-eaten Afghan warlords of some kind to a mild display of scimitar-rattling enthusiasm (“conquer and breed – kill the white man and take his women”, he memorably exhorts them), we have to wonder how the hell anyone was *ever* supposed to buy this idea, even in the further reaches of fanciful pulp delirium.

Needless to say, the film’s steadfast defenders of the British Empire spend a great deal of time asserting the seriousness of Dr Fu’s rather whimsical scheme, but it doesn’t help that those defenders aren’t really a very persuasive bunch, by and large.

For reasons best known to themselves, the scriptwriters on ‘Mask of Fu Manchu’ seem to have nixed the idea of including Rohmer’s likeable Holmes/Watson surrogates Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, who usually provide the bulk of the heroic daring-do in these stories, instead entrusting our attentions to bunch of fairly grumpy, interchangeable middle-aged men who never really succeed in making much of an impression.

As our nominal protagonist, Morley does what heroines do in these kind of things – being alternately headstrong and hysterical, wearing a pith helmet and fretting about her missing-presumed kidnapped archaeologist father and/or archaeologist husband - whilst the assorted interchangeable chaps offer little in the way of reassurance once she’s out on-site in the Gobi Desert.

To be fair, Nayland Smith is actually present (in the shape of Lewis Stone, who also appeared in The Lost World), but he spends the first half of the movie directing operations remotely from back in London, and when he does finally get in on the action he proves only marginally more formidable than the other fellows, with his name warranting scarcely so much as a shrug from his supposed arch-nemesis.

Oh well. At least Boris Karloff’s take on Fu Manchu has got to be worth the price of admission, right? Well, perhaps, but, with all due respect to Karloff, I’m not sure he comes over all that well here to be honest.

Whereas Christopher Lee in the ‘60s movies presented an appropriately towering, saturnine presence (much as you’d expect I suppose), Karloff’s Fu Manchu feels like a physically smaller figure, with a loquacious, conniving sort of vibe about him.

Much is made in the script of Fu’s doctorates from Cambridge, Edinburgh, Harvard etc, and in light of this, Karloff speaks in his own delightfully melodious tones, without attempting any hint of an accent. As lovely as it must have been for him to give his voice a good work-out after non-speaking roles in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Old Dark House’ however, the cliché-riddled diatribes the script equips him with are scarcely very edifying, and, well… perhaps it’s just me, but the idea of a Fu Manchu who is ceaselessly nattering away rather distracts from the taciturn, Confusion menace I prefer to associate with the character.

On plus side, Karloff does muster some splendidly diabolical expressions, and makes good use of his long, claw-like fingernails, but his performance can scarcely have been helped by a somewhat excessive make-up job – complete with pointed ears – that makes the “Devil Doctor” look more like a fire-damaged elf than a Chinese man. (Attempting to cash-in on Karloff’s recent breakthrough as a horror star, this explicitly monstrous/non-human Fu Manchu was rather optimistically billed as “The Frankenstein of the Orient” on some of the movie’s posters.)

Likewise, the casting of the great Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s lascivious daughter Fah Lo See bodes well, but production anecdotes suggest that Loy (who had often been cast in ‘oriental’ roles during the silent era, in spite of her entirely European heritage) made no secret of her distaste for the material, and her resentment at essentially being forced to appear in the film by MGM is reflected in a performance pointedly lacking in any kind of enthusiasm. (1)

Other gossip meanwhile relates that, when Karloff requested a script prior to shooting, he received nothing but gales of laughter in response, and subsequently had to deal with having his dialogue passed to him from day to day on single-spaced, typo-ridden pages. It also seems worth noting at this juncture that an initial attempt at principal photography on the film collapsed in chaos after three days, with initial director Charles Vidor subsequently finding himself sacked by the studio, and Brabin drafted in at short notice to replace him.

Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that, in purely narrative terms, the completed ‘Mask of Fu Manchu’ is alternately boring and nonsensical, essentially boiling down to lot of stodgy, indifferently shot dialogue scenes interspersed – seemingly at random – with flourishes of morbid, horror movie atmospherics and grand, opulently transgressive set-pieces.

Thankfully though, the latter sequences survive as fairly jaw-dropping examples of deranged, pre-code decadence, and indeed, even as the film embodies the most regrettable aspects of its era’s pulp fiction, it also manages to bring the very best of the pre-war “Shudder Pulp” aesthetic to the screen, going all out to justify Fu Manchu’s reputation as “The Lord of Strange Deaths” with a series of hair-raising, grand guignol spectacles, rendered with such lavish enthusiasm that they feel like ‘Weird Tales’ cover illustrations come to life.

After minor bits of ghoulishness early on (one character gets a knife in the back, a severed hand falls from a tree at another’s feet etc), things really get underway in this regard when we see Fu Manchu subject the first of his English captives to “the torture of the bell” – a somewhat Poe-like conception that sees the poor chap spread-eagled across a slab whilst a gigantic bell bongs away immediately above him.

Not the most gruesome of on-screen torments perhaps, but it’s at least agreeably bizarre, and Fu Manchu’s attempts to entice information from his victim by dangling grapes from his claw-like finger nails and fooling him with salt water carry an icky charge of sadism that serves to set us up nicely for the depredations to follow.

Subsequent highlights include the extraordinary sight of captured leading man Charles Starrett stripped to a loin cloth and strapped to a table with metal brace around his neck as Fah Lo See covetously surveys his naked flesh, a phalanx of Nubian slaves arranged on pedestals behind her like human statues. When Dr Fu himself makes the scene – ominously clad in a surgical gown - the exceptionally icky action that follows involves the fresh blood of lizards and tarantulas being drawn into a syringe and mixed with snake venom pulled directly from the wound of a dying sacrificial victim(!), all to aid the creation of a mind control serum that we then see injected straight into Starrett’s neck.

One of the earliest horror scenes I’m aware of that dares to go straight for a gross-out / gag reaction, this alarming juxtaposition of bodily fluids and creepy-crawlies almost seems to prefigure the post-‘Black Magic’ excesses of ‘70s/’80s Hong Kong horror, and as such proves pretty hard to top in terms of nastiness.

Even more extraordinary in some ways however is a subsequent scene in which poor old Nayland Smith finds himself strapped to a kind of gigantic see-saw, balanced mere feet above a pit fill of – apparently genuine – alligators. Single shots appear to confirm that Lewis Stone himself was hanging mere inches away from the jaws of these surly looking beasts (no stuntmen here!), whilst, elsewhere, another captured good guy (who presumably won the on-set coin toss prior to shooting) merely has to contend with the none-more classic device of having horizontal spiked walls slowly closing in upon him.

Marvellously, all this madness is rendered in lavish, no-expense-spared fashion by MGM, who at the time were riding high as Hollywood’s top-grossing studio, meaning that, like Doctor X before it, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ is able to take full advantage of the brief, magic window that followed in the wake of ‘Dracula’ & ‘Frankenstein’s box office returns, when horror and pulp adventure subjects could temporarily command something approaching A-picture production values.

Both the opening scenes, set in a shadow-haunted British Museum, and the later explorations of Fu Manchu's suitably extravagant subterranean lair employ a series of genuinely vast sets, elaborately dressed with a wildly imaginative mixture of scientific apparatus and faux-Chinese artistry, incorporating throne rooms, amphitheatre-like torture chambers and – my personal favourite – a curtained-off circular alcove carved from a dividing wall within Fah Lo See’s bed-chamber, wherein, we suppose, Fu’s daughter likes to recline with her “victims” (more on which below).

Tony Gaudio’s photography intermittently catches some fine, shadowy vistas on all this high camp weirdness, and, despite the chaos that apparently characterised the production, the film intermittently displays some great bits of visual imagination – most notably the introductory shot of Fu Manchu himself, in which we see Karloff’s fiendish visage reflected in distorting mirror, inexplicably raising a glass of dark, foaming liquid to his lips as electricity crackles dangerously from some off screen device, casting jagged shadow across his face.

It is in moments like this I think that the film’s conception of Fu Manchu really comes alive, portraying him as a man so completely immersed in his hermetic world of rare poisons, venomous concoctions and scientifically-derived terror machines that they have practically (or literally, in this case) become his food and drink, placing him beyond the threshold of mere humanity – a theme that is taken up later in the film, when we see him almost dancing with the sparking, unearthed electricity current that fly from his machinery.

‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ also echoes ‘Doctor X’ in providing another fine exemplar of early horror’s post-‘Frankenstein’ fascination with the sinister properties of electricity. Indeed, Fu Manchu’s impressive array of spark-spewing equipment – including an actual death ray, no less - were built by Kenneth Strickfaden, the legendary architect of the laboratory sets in Universal’s Frankenstein series, and his creations definitely get a good work out here.

Perhaps we could read a touch of metaphorical significance into all these electricity bolts flying around the place too, given that, as has often been observed, there is something weirdly sexual about Karloff’s portrayal of Fu Manchu, with his sinuous movements and his propensity to unleash sighs of pleasure furthering the impression that the scenes within his lair were purposely designed to convey a particular kind of frisson to the thrill-hungry audience MGM were hoping to attract to the picture. (Heck, even the carved figures on doors of Genghis Khan’s tomb look a bit saucy.)

In this respect, the film is particularly keen to push the envelope in regard to Loy’s character, making the nature of the sexual interplay between Fah Lo See and her father’s captives abundantly clear whenever the opportunity arises. When Fu Manchu initially interviews his captured archaeologist, he basically offers to let the man sleep with his daughter in exchange for information about the location of Genghis Khan’s swag (“even this, my daughter, I offer to you”), but the boot is very much on the other foot later in the picture, when, prior to his ordeal with all the snake venom and tarantula blood, Charles Starrett finds himself chained to a dungeon ceiling, stripped to the waist and whipped (with what look like leather straps) by Fah Lo’s musclebound Nubian slaves… all whilst the lady herself looks up, working herself up into a bit of a sweat as she insists they hit him harder, and faster.

After this, we see Starrett’s exhausted body deposited – where else – in Fah Lo See’s bed chamber, where she lasciviously caresses his bloodied torso until the scene is interrupted by the entrance of her father. Essentially, the filmmakers outline her activities as a sadistic sexual predator about as unambiguously as they possibly could without moving into full on stag movie territory, and, though the power of these scenes is somewhat undermined by Myrna Loy looking as if she was being forced to emote at gun point, modern viewers can still thrill as they contemplate the long decades that would pass before American audiences would next be allowed to enjoy the sight of a woman experiencing orgiastic pleasure as she oversees a man-on-man bondage session.

To be honest, given the puritanical edicts that would begin to be imposed upon Hollywood productions just a few years after this film’s release, it’s surprising that the early proponents of the Hays Code didn’t suffer a collective coronary when they learned of the kind of depravity depicted in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’. In fact, having apparently failed to learn the lessons of the disastrous reception that greeted their release of Tod Browning’s notorious ‘Freaks’ a year earlier, it seems in retrospect as if MGM were hell-bent here on crafting a horror movie calculated to offend absolutely everyone on some level.

I mean, even if you were a 1930s citizen with liberal enough sensibilities to roll with all the sadistic torture and sexual perversity, chances are you might have drawn a line at the film’s blunt racial prejudice and dumb-headed colonialism (or failing that, at least been a bit grossed out by all the lingering close-ups of snakes and spiders).

As a result of this triple threat to public morals (and stomachs), it’s scarcely surprising to learn that ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ seems to have become one of the most widely censored films in history. It was banned outright in some territories (including many European countries and, unsurprisingly, in Japan), whilst other local jurisdictions proceeded to arbitrarily cut the film as they saw fit. Some excised bits of the more extreme content, whilst others snipped the inflammatory dialogue, and some even imposed cuts on the grounds of blasphemy, before moral guardians presumably did the same in the next state/county/town, until surviving release prints must have been sliced and diced beyond the worst nightmares of a Lucio Fulci/Jess Franco archivist.

Adding to the confusion, it seems that, when MGM staff returned to the film with a view to striking a new print in the 1970s, they were so shocked by the racially insensitive content that they sliced many offending lines of dialogue straight out of the negative, creating a bowdlerised version that became the only way to watch the movie for decades to come, until the nigh on miraculous discovery of a clean, uncut lab print returned it to circulation in all its unsavoury glory in the 21st century.

For all the multitudinous outrage that ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ provoked however, the moment modern viewers might be liable to find most unsettling is one that largely escaped to attention of censors at the time – namely, the scene during the film’s conclusion in which Nayland Smith and his comrades take control of Fu Manchu’s death ray and turn it upon the arch-fiend and his followers, who are gathered in the hall below.

What I found noteworthy here is that, rather than alarming the villains and prompting them to scatter (as would normally be the case with this sort of thing), our heroes actually mow down every single one of the quote-unquote “Asian” ne’erdowells, even leaving the weapon running to mop up the survivors as they head off in triumph.

Distantly recalling the same dark questions raised by the old College Debating Society chestnut about whether or not the USA would ever have dared to drop an atomic bomb on a European city, there is something genuinely chilling about the sight of the good guys in an action-adventure story casually massacring several hundred defenceless people in a locked room, without their heroism being at all called into question as a result.

Immediately after this meanwhile, the film reaches the nadir of its unapologetic racism in a deeply regrettable closing scene that finds Nayland Smith and his friends aboard ship on their way home to England. They are in the process of consigning Genghis Khan’s sword and mask to the bottom of the ocean (because, y’know, fuck that shit), when they freeze upon hearing the sinister crash of an oriental gong.

Their surprise turns to laughter however when a short, pot-bellied, gap-toothed Chinese man enters stage right to declare that dinner is served. Do you have a doctorate from Harvard, or from Christ’s College, Nayland Smith jokingly asks the man, who shakes his head in mute incomprehension, giggling along with his relieved interrogators as they shuffle past him and head off to get their grub. Cue triumphant musical flourish and ‘The End’ card.

The comparison between this pitiable ship steward and the defeated Fu Manchu is thus made explicit, and the message that the film leaves us with is clear: as long as we keep these people away from our institutions of learning and make sure they don't get any funny ideas, they’ll remain where they belong - illiterate, buck-toothed and banging the dinner gong – and all will be right with the world.

Taking the film far beyond a mere “this is the way they did things in 1932” level of background racism, it’s hardly surprising that these ugly sentiments proved controversial even at the time (apparently the Chinese Ambassador to the USA lodged a complaint about the film following its release), and perhaps, like ‘Freaks’ before it, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ can best be seen as another example of MGM disastrously misjudging public tastes in their rush to try to cash in on the contemporary vogue for horror.

Certainly, no sequels to were forthcoming, despite the obvious potential for turning Fu Manchu into a series character. Karloff quietly returned to work at Universal after filming was completed, and, as we’ve discussed above, the film was withdrawn from circulation in its uncut form for pretty much the entirety of the 20th century.

But, eighty plus years down the line, we can hopefully at least strive toward some semblance of 20-20 hindsight and acknowledge that, for all of the deplorable attitudes it embodies, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’s errant combination of hare-brained colonialism and grotesque, sexualised sadism still proves fascinatingly unsettling and alluring, carrying with it an intoxicating whiff of the forbidden that edges it toward the same “dark camp” category within which ‘Freaks’ eventually found its niche as a celebrated cult film.

With its baroque excesses and general air of taboo-trampling derangement, ‘Mask..’ certainly stands up as just as much of an unforgettable viewing experience as the other (ostensibly far superior) films I’ve covered elsewhere in this review thread, irrespective of the hateful attitudes expressed within it.


(1) Confusingly, Fah Lo See inexplicably became Lin Tang (played by Tsai Chin) in the ‘60s movies, and she had already been renamed Ling Moy (played by the beautiful Eurasian star Anna May Wong) in an earlier Fu Manchu adaptation with Warner Oland, 1931’s ‘Daughter of the Dragon’. In Rohmer’s novels, she was Fah lo Suee, so ‘Mask of..’ gets it closest.