Sunday, October 4, 2009

Movie vs. Book: The Mask of Fu Manchu

First off, I want to say I’m very jealous of Bill as far as these reviews go. Movies rarely can equal the book, let alone exceed. So it goes without saying that he usually gets to review more quality than I do. Yes, this time around the movie was far from great. Not nearly as bad as The Mephisto Waltz (if you never read our takes on that, go back two issues and take a look). Even if it doesn’t reach that level of craptacularity, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) is hardly what I would call good.
An archeology professor is sent to retrieve the mask and sword buried with Genghis Khan before the evil Fu Manchu can get his hands on them and, harnessing their power, lead Asia to world domination. Before he can, though, Fu Manchu kidnaps him. Which leaves his daughter and her boyfriend to find him, and stop Fu Manchu, before it is too late.
A lot has been made of the racism in the movie. Yes, there is a ton on both sides. Fu Manchu’s main motivation runs along the “Kill Whitey” lines, at one point proclaiming that the relics will allow them to “kill the white man and take all the white women.” The white folks also get their offensive utterances, referring to Fu Manchu as a “yellow beast”.

Oh, if only the racism was the only problem with the movie. It’s also offensive to women. The daughter, played by Karen Morely, started out as a sane, level headed woman. Halfway through, though, she loses all sense of logic and, because of her runaway emotions, makes decisions that result in deaths. Why the sudden change is anyone’s guess, other than they needed to have certain things done to advance the plot. Sure, there is one strong female character—Fu Manchu’s daughter, played by Myrna Loy. She is intelligent and strong. However, that is tempered by a weird sadistic sexuality that the filmmakers could never have gotten away with post-Code (if whipping is your thing, though, there is one scene in here that’s sure to please).
To be fair, the men don’t get off too easy either. They seem to lose any sense of sense whenever convenient to the plot. The archeologists are deciding who gets to watch the relics overnight, and discuss taking shifts of every couple hours. One proclaims that he can do it all night. They quickly agree, tell him they’ll see him in the morning and leave him be. You know no good can come of this.
One of the bad aspects of the movie actually enhanced my enjoyment of it. The actors chew so much scenery they must have saved a fortune in catering. The two biggest hams are Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Loy as his daughter. At one point, Karloff gets so enthusiastic about his performance he totally forgets he was supposed to be doing a Chinese accent and slips into European. Loy seems to be relishing her chance to play a hyper sexed, dominant woman and gets near orgasmic every time our heroes feel an ounce of pain.
While not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, The Mask of Fu Manchu is far from good. Yes, I had fun giggling at the offensive, yet oddly funny, dialogue and laughing at the over-the-top performances. However, without fermented beverage refreshment, it would be difficult for someone to coax me into watching this again.
There has to be good book adaptations out there. If anyone has suggestions, PLEASE post a comment making a recommendation. Because if this level of quality continues, I may be forced to have Bill review the Gor book/movie duo. If I’m going to suffer through this, he might as well also.

--Jenny Oresol

The Mask of Fu Manchu was a fairly good book. It was a pretty lousy Fu Manchu book. I’ll explain.
I’d only read the first two Fu Manchu novels prior to this one… The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu and The Return of Fu Manchu. Both were fun, and both were ideal for a horror review. The Doctor, after all, is presented as highly honorable, a brilliant botanist and biologist, a natural leader, a manipulator of men and events as a chess-player is a manipulator of the pieces on his board. Unfortunately for his enemies, he is also ruthless and devious, and wants to elevate China to its rightful (in his mind) place of dominance over the Western societies. He is not sadistic, but neither will he hesitate to kill.
He is opposed by Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, men who have earned his respect either through their ability to avoid death at his hands (Smith) or because their medical expertise is promising (Petrie).
The books, therefore, consisted of Fu Manchu targeting people or objects which would help him bring about political victories for China, and Smith and Petrie trying to stop him, or at least mitigate the damage accrued by Fu’s successes. Along the way, victims would die through obscure deathtraps, oddly-trained thugs, rare and modified animals (foot-long spiders, snakes with instantaneous poisons) and engineered plants and fungi. The closer one got to Fu Manchu, the more dangerous the environment became.
Then we have Mask. In it, one… count them, one… person dies on the heroes’ side. He is killed early in the book, and the device used is effectively a 1930s version of the Batrope, so the assassin may slide into a room on the second story. The other big accomplishment of the villain is… a hypnotic narcotic. That’s it.
Oh, I nearly forgot, the rope is made from the web of a specially modified spider. That spider is never seen in the pages of the book.
The plot consists primarily of Fu trying to gain the mask, sword, and Koran of Amir Khan. This is because the archaeologist father of the protagonist’s fiancee unearthed them and is transporting them illegally. In an effort to cover his tracks, the professor blew up the remaining ruins, but the charges were set too high and the flare of the explosion was seen. This has started rumors that the Khan has returned to unify the Moslem world against the West.
Fu Manchu is intending to claim himself as the risen Khan, at least in spirit, and he needs the artifacts to present to the lead clerics at the time and place specified in prophecy. If he does not have them at the meeting, he has no further use for them; obviously the prophecy has not yet begun… false alarm.
What we have here is a great setup for a Fu Manchu story. He’s smarter than the heroes and has far more resources, but he’s also got a far more restrictive set of conditions for his victory.
What we get is a well-told adventure story that could have involved nearly any other villain. It’s like watching a James Bond movie that has no stunts, firefights, or explosions. It could still be a great spy movie, but you’d feel a bit let down. That’s my feeling after reading this book. A very good adventure, but a poor Fu Manchu.
Oh, and I want to point out: This is the first time I’ve NOT watched the full movie with Jen. Yes, I subjected her to The Mephisto Waltz… but I subjected myself to the same thing. She’s not the only one suffering.

--Bill Lindblad