Chandu the Magician (1932) used to be a very hard film to see. It wasn’t lost — or even mislaid — it was just in that curious limbo where nearly all Fox Films made before the merger with Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures were sent. (Some Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, and Charlie Chan movies — all of which had been re-issued under the 20th Century Fox label — were the exceptions.) I had seen photos from it in the old “monster” magazines of the 1960s, but that was it — until a Washington D.C. TV station came up with something called Cinema Club 9 around 1971. They specialized in films from the early 1930s and had access to a package that included some Fox titles. A friend of mine lived in that area and recorded the films for me — and that means something different than what it means today. This was years away from the VCR, so when I say he recorded them, I mean he recorded the soundtracks and sent them to me. As a result, I heard Chandu the Magician nearly 20 years before I ever saw it. (Yes, we were a quaint primitive race of movie enthusiasts back then.) Now, you can pop onto Amazon and order it — along with two movies you probably don’t want — for about 12 bucks. Times change.
Whether or not Chandu the Magician is a horror film is open to debate. The movie — co-directed by designer William Cameron Menzies (he’s why Gone with the Wind looks like it does) and Marcel Varnel — was adapted from a radio series of the time. The show was apparently aimed at younger listeners, which has caused the film to be thought of as kiddie fare in some circles. The problem with that idea is that no one was making movies strictly for kids in 1932. It just wasn’t being done. The movie might be — well, okay, it is on the dopey side, but no went spent this kind of money on the effects in this picture on a kiddie picture. It’s rather like a serial and it works best if viewed as kind of naive precursor to Raiders of the Lost Ark — only a lot more compact and less full of itself. But is it horror? Well, it has Bela Lugosi as an evil mastermind wanting control of a death ray with which to either destroy or conquer the world (it seems to matter little which one), so I’m saying it qualifies.
The supposed star of the film is Edmund Lowe — a pretty big star at the time — as Frank Chandler, who has been initiated into the mysteries of the East, become a master yogi called Chandu. As luck would have it, his training ends just as the opportunity for saving the world from Roxor occurs. Seems Chandler’s brother-in-law, Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall), has invented this death ray and Roxor has taken him captive to force him to reveal the secret of how to operate it. Since we are constantly told that Regent is some kind of big deal humanitarian, one might rightly wonder why he invented the damn thing in the first place, but the movie isn’t heavy on logic. Just go with it. This, after all, is a movie in which Chandu can deduce things on virtually no evidence so he can tell the viewer what’s going on. (“It means that Roxor can get nothing out of Robert and has kidnapped Betty Lou!”) Plus, come on, it’s a movie about a death ray, for Clapton’s sake.
The real star of the film is Lugosi, and Roxor is one of his most deliciously evil — and over the top crazy — creations. There is not one sympathetic quality to the man — he’s just plain mean. His big dream is that people will worship him “as a god” once he has the death ray at his disposal. (Well, as a substitute for smiting folks with a lightning bolt, it ain’t bad.) The fact that — his big mad scene near the end — he fantasizes destroying Egypt (with “the greatest deluge since the Biblical flood”), Paris (“City of fools”), and England (“with its sacred traditions, its king, its navy”) leaves some question about who’s going to be left to do this worshipping, but madmen to bother themselves with such trifles. It’s the sort of thing that no one but Lugosi could do — and, boy, does he give it his all. A great film? No. But it’s one fun movie.
It’s worth noting that this wasn’t Lugosi’s last brush with Chandu. Two years later, skinflint producer Sol Lesser would star him as Chandu in the serial film The Return of Chandu. As serials go, it’s a pretty good one, but even with appropriating the great wall from King Kong (1933) for one of its sets, it hasn’t the production values of the Menzies-designed original. Plus, yeah, Lugosi makes a swell Chandu — and it’s near seeing him as the hero — but the serial doesn’t have a villain that’s any kind of successor to his Roxor.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Chandu the Magician Thursday, Oct. 10, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.