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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: May 7th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1932

The Mask of Fu Manchu - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

Blu-ray Review By: David Krauss
The 1930s horror and camp classic starring Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy comes to Blu-ray in its original uncut theatrical release version. The Mask of Fu Manchu is a wild and crazy pre-Code ride and Warner Archive honors the madness and mayhem with a brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the best preservation elements and remastered audio. You've gotta see it to believe it. Highly Recommended.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
NEW 4K RESTORATION FROM THE BEST PRESERVATION ELEMENTS
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/MPEG-4 AVC
Length:
68
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
Subtitles/Captions:
Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
Special Features:
Audio Commentary by film historian Greg Mank, Classic Cartoons: ‘Freddy the Freshman’ and ‘The Queen Was in the Parlor’
Release Date:
May 7th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

"Can you top this?" might well have been a catchphrase among Hollywood movie studios during the early 1930s horror craze. Once Universal hit pay dirt with Dracula and Frankenstein, all the other studios rushed to cash in. Warner Bros produced Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, while MGM mounted Freaks and The Mask of Fu Manchu, which starred Frankenstein's monster himself, Boris Karloff. One of many adaptations of Sax Rohmer's series of stories about the diabolical, power-hungry titular character, director Charles Brabin's film mixes MGM's trademark gloss with an Indiana Jones-like plot, campy theatrics, and some gruesome episodes, all of which add up to one of Leo the Lion's most bizarre, provocative, and uncharacteristic pictures.

Clocking in at a mere 68 minutes, The Mask of Fu Manchu chronicles the efforts of a British archeological team to uncover the tomb of Genghis Kahn at the far reaches of the Gobi Desert and retrieve his all-powerful mask and sword before the dastardly Fu Manchu (Karloff) can get his hands on them in his effort to take over the world. Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) travels ahead of his colleagues, but is quickly kidnapped and tortured by Fu Manchu, who relentlessly grills him about the tomb's location.

Barton keeps mum, and when Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), the commissioner of the British Secret Service, receives word of Barton's capture, he embarks for Asia along with Barton's distraught daughter Sheila (Karen Morley), her fiancé Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett), and Dr. Von Berg (Jean Hersholt). The quartet begins excavating the site, but must also tangle with and vanquish Fu Manchu, his equally evil daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy), and Fu Manchu's legion of loyal minions to foil the despot's dream of global domination.

In addition to an abundance of sexual innuendo and kinky violence, The Mask of Fu Manchu features an array of fantastical scenes and exotic set pieces that transport us into Fu Manchu's deadly realm. Credit the sumptuous art direction by Cedric Gibbons and lavish costumes by Adrian with lending the film its distinctive look, which keeps the eye engaged and makes the preposterous plot easier to swallow.

Brabin, who helmed dozens of movies during the silent era and would make just four more pictures after Fu Manchu before retiring in 1934, deftly combines atmosphere with action and keeps the story moving at a brisk clip. Some impressive special effects punctuate the proceedings, most notably Khan's electrified sword that wreaks havoc during the film's climax. Today, The Mask of Fu Manchu provokes as many titters as thrills, but despite several dated elements, the uncomfortable casting of white actors in Asian roles (a common practice during Hollywood's Golden Age), and some unfortunate slurs (which caused the movie to be cut in the 1970s), it holds up surprisingly well and remains a guilty pleasure for classics fans.

Karloff is delectably devilish and his mellifluous vocal tones, which at times eerily preview his performance as Dr. Seuss' Grinch three decades later, add to the villainy. (I almost expected to hear "you're a mean one, Fu Manchu" sung over some of the torture scenes.) In her autobiography, Loy calls her character "a sadistic nymphomaniac" and recalls "Boris and I brought some feeling and humor to those comic-book characters." Loy, who was forced into playing a number of what she calls "exotics" early in her career, insisted Fah Lo See would be her last ethnic role and MGM - in a rare conciliatory move - acquiesced to her demand.

Long before he portrayed the even-tempered Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movies, Stone appeared in scads of prestige pictures and brings a measure of dignity to The Mask of Fu Manchu. Morley, fresh from her sexy turn as Paul Muni's moll in Scarface, shrieks with abandon and the strapping Starrett, who is memorably tormented by Karloff and ravaged by Loy while bound to a table and wearing only a loincloth, plays the hunky hero with square-jawed resolve. Hersholt, after whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would name their long-standing humanitarian award, perks things up whenever he's on screen, but never more so than when he must try and escape two enclosing walls of iron spikes that threaten to impale him.

The Mask of Fu Manchu will never eclipse its horror counterparts made by Universal, but it stands tall as a wild, psychedelic camp classic and Warner Archive presents it here in all its uncut glory. If you're an aficionado of the genre, this outlandish pre-Code picture deserves a spot in your collection.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Mask of Fu Manchu arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the best preservation elements yields - for the most part - a dazzling 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. When the transfer is good - and that's about 95% of the time - it's practically impeccable, with inky blacks, well-defined whites, and beautifully varied grays producing a sleek, vibrant picture that exhibits just enough grain to maintain a lovely film-like feel. A bit of crush creeps in during especially dark scenes, but overall shadow delineation is quite good and the ornate details in the eye-popping costumes by Adrian and lavish art direction by Cedric Gibbons are crystal clear. Razor-sharp close-ups highlight Karloff's distinctive beard, the leathery hides of snakes and alligators, and the satiny complexions of Morley and Loy.

No nicks, dirt, or scratches mar the print, but a few rough moments provide a stark contrast to the rest of the pristine presentation. Heavy grain, substantial softness, and a flat, dull look distinguish these snippets, which are blessedly brief, but crop up every so often. The Mask of Fu Manchu is 92 years old, so it's not surprising portions of the film have fallen into disrepair over the years. Though Warner Archive always seeks out the best possible elements for its transfers, complete original negatives of films of this vintage are rare. A few subpar minutes is a small price to pay for the rest of the transfer's perfection.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies remarkably clear, well-modulated sound. Both The Mask of Fu Manchu and Tarzan, the Ape Man were produced the same year, but the audio on The Mask of Fu Manchu is far superior to the audio on the Tarzan Blu-ray disc. There's not much music in The Mask of Fu Manchu (the film was made just before scores became the norm for Hollywood movies), but effects like ringing bells, static electricity, thunder, and rain are powerfully rendered. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend, no distortion creeps into the mix, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the creepy, campy mood. Films from the early 1930s are often hampered by the era's primitive recording equipment, but the fine restorative work on The Mask of Fu Manchu has resolved any defects, resulting in a pleasurable aural experience.

Special Features

Ranking:

Warner Archive provides an audio commentary and a couple of vintage cartoons in its extras package.

  • Audio Commentary - Film historian Greg Mank sat down for this lively, informative, and entertaining commentary back in 2006. He opens by calling The Mask of Fu Manchu "the most gleefully sadistic, sexually delirious, high camp horror movie of pre-Code Hollywood" and goes on to describe the film's "chaotic shoot" that included the replacement of original director Charles Vidor, script troubles, and a scandal involving actress Jean Harlow that rocked the studio. Mank points out bits of dialogue and scene snippets that were cut either at the time of the picture's release or as late as 1972 at the behest of the Japanese American Citizens League due to their offensive nature. He also discusses censorship issues, notes Fu Manchu was Karloff's first speaking role, examines other Fu Manchu novels and movies, provides some cast and crew mini bios, and explains a couple of alternate endings. Mank is obviously a fan of the film and his enthusiasm, along with his insights, make this track well worth a listen.

  • Vintage Cartoon: Freddy the Freshman (HD, 7 minutes) - This frenetic, college-themed 1932 Rudolf Ising cartoon follows Freddy from the big dance to the big game.

  • Vintage Cartoon: The Queen Was in the Parlor (HD, 7 minutes) - Another 1932 Ising short, this tuneful Merrie Melodies cartoon features the voice talent of composer/singer Ken Darby as it chronicles the chaos at a fictional palace.

Final Thoughts

The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of the weirdest films to come out of Hollywood's Golden Age. Packed with sex, sadism, and psychosis, this pre-Code horror classic is quite a trip and Warner Archive brings it to brilliant and bizarre-o life with a new 4K scan struck from the best preservation elements. Remastered audio, a lively commentary track, and a couple of vintage cartoons amp up the appeal of this welcome release. Highly Recommended

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