When I watched Grindhouse last year, the experience left
me wanting more. Not in a good way,
mind you. But that is another (heated)
discussion for another day. However,
like most of you, what I enjoyed most about Grindhouse were the trailers
interspersed throughout brought to you by special guest directors. For me, the most entertaining was Rob
Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. and for one reason in particular: Nicolas
Cage’s cameo as the infamous Fu Manchu.
I don’t know what it was, but seeing a Hollywood heavyweight of Cage’s
stature embrace a classic character from Hollywood lore is something that just
makes me giddy. Say what you will about
Cage and the decisions that he makes, but the man definitely knows his genre
Anyway, seeing Cage’s five-second cameo reminded me of the
original Boris Karloff film The Mask of Fu Manchu from 1932, one of the most
interesting horror films to be released during that period. Come to think of it, I’d use the word
“horror” loosely, as it is more like an action/adventure with a hedonistic and
twisted antagonist at its core.
It wasn’t until last year that I finally saw the film after
buying the Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection DVD set. It was a film that I knew all about based
strictly on the reputation it garnered over the years. The film is probably most famous for being
outright racist in nature. Fu Manchu is
an Asian doctor who adores torture and mischief and plans on taking over the
world along with his race of “yellow men” and requires the tomb of Genghis Khan
to achieve such a lofty goal. Racist
undertones aside, Fu Manchu is a film that embraces the oddities on display
and has fun with the outlandish premise.
I’ve always been a fan of the great Boris Karloff and seeing him here,
in full Asian garb and British accent, takes some getting used to. But once you get passed that little hurdle,
I guarantee that you will have a good time.
It wasn’t until a number of years ago that the film was
completely restored. At one point in
time, it was a film long thought to be lost forever, but thank goodness it
wasn’t. It’s an adventure tale, a brief
(questionable) history lesson and demented horror film that deserves pretty
much all of the controversy it’s received over the years.
Fu Manchu is a character that’s been seen in forty different
films and played by a slew of different actors. Nowadays, in this ever-growing PC mentality, the character
wouldn’t stand a chance with the censors, which is why he is so delicious. He represents a specific frame of mind of
American society and a negative one at that.
But that’s what makes him so fun.
Yes, it’s offensive, but the cheese factor is so high that it quickly
becomes an afterthought. Without a
doubt, the greatest performer to portray Fu Manchu was Karloff. Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge fan of
the horror icon, or maybe it’s because he’s the only actor who truly understood
the character. Of course he’s
outlandish, but Karloff plays him straight and there is an underlying sense of
unshakable menace that has to be seen rather than described. Plus, he has one of the most memorable
introductions ever; one that has forever engrained itself into my psyche for
its pure spookiness alone.
The budget of the film was quite low, which adds to its
overall appeal. Sadly, over the years,
the controversy has prevented the film from being seen by a larger
audience. Aside from the racism
prevalent throughout, the story contains a number of grotesque (at least, by
the standards of the 1930s) torture sequences that reveal the extent of Fu
Manchu’s cruelty. It is all due mostly
in part to Karloff’s incredible and haunting performance and true genre fans
are aware of such a fact. He may be
remembered for his performances in Frankenstein, The Mummy and the
television series Thriller, but to me, he will always be Dr. Fu Manchu.
A hit at the time of its release, The Mask of Fu
Manchu now lives on in its originally intended form, with grotesque scenes of
depravity and racism intact. Intense,
outlandish, sinister, frightening and a little cheesy, it is a film that
deserves to be rediscovered. And if
Cage’s all-too-brief performance in Rob Zombie’s trailer is any indication, it
is far from forgotten.