Chandu the Magician (1932)

In The Spider (1931), Edmund Lowe (Dinner at Eight) portrayed Chatrand the Great, a hypnotist and magician who solves a murder. Its success led Lowe to take on the role of the similar (and similarly named) Chandu the Magician (1932), reuniting him with director William Cameron Menzies and screenwriters Barry Conners and Philip Klein. Chandu – pronounced “Shandu” – was a master of the mystic arts long before Dr. Strange, a contemporary of Mandrake the Magician and The Shadow. With his origins in a radio drama that debuted in 1931 (where he was played by Gayne Whitman), the character trained as a yogi in India before becoming a crimefighter using his powers of hypnotism, astral projection, and illusion. The formula of a white man learning the mystical secrets of the Orient and returning to the West to battle evildoers continues into contemporary superheroes, including not just the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation of Dr. Strange (2016) but also the new Netflix series Iron Fist (2017); despite their efforts to modernize the characters (and I loved Dr. Strange), both have taken criticism for their pulp-tradition political incorrectness. It’s easier to appreciate these naïve genre clichés when watching Chandu, because at the time the concepts were still somewhat fresh. In the early 30’s, white audience members could become lost in the fantasy of traveling to the far East and uncovering occult mystery because the exotic Orient – in this case, India – seemed like an impossibly distant place and a mysterious one. Of course, part and parcel was the uncomfortable colonialist fantasy of a white man becoming the master of what’s implied to be a less civilized people. The 1930’s were full of Chandus, but the modern viewer might be relieved to know that Chandu the Magician doesn’t contain the kind of overt racism of many of its contemporaries. For example, the Sax Rohmer adaptation The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy, is far more racist, although that film is worth watching for its impressive effects, delicious performances by the villainous leads, and campy dialogue. Karloff, as it’s well known, had a richer and more rewarding career than his one-time rival Lugosi. But at least in this pulp match-up, Lugosi comes through the winner. I am not at all embarrassed to state that Chandu is one of my favorite films of the 1930’s.

Bela Lugosi as Roxor, beside his stolen Death Ray.

Lugosi plays the Egyptian Roxor, an evil mastermind whose latest plot is to steal a “Death Ray” (yes, it’s called that) from a scientist, Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall, Strange Interlude), who, I suppose, only wanted to use his Death Ray for good. But even with the Death Ray in hand Roxor can’t operate it, and demanding that Robert reveal its secret he resorts to kidnapping his daughter, Betty Lou (June Vlasek, aka June Lang, Ali Baba Goes to Town). Lugosi is a treat here, at the peak of his stardom following Dracula (1931); in the same year as Chandu, he would appear in the horror classics White Zombie, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Island of Lost Souls – not a bad run at all. Wearing all black right up to his turban, he has a strangely svelte, athletic appearance, capitalizing on the exotic sex appeal that led him to first being cast as Dracula on the stage. Late in the film he fantasizes about the grand destruction he’ll bring about with his new device, and an extreme close-up of his grinning face melts into images of Paris being zapped and obliterated. With his thick Hungarian accent he exults,

At last I am king of all! That lever is my scepter. London, New York, Imperial Rome, I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins. Cities of the world shall perish. All that lives shall know me as master and tremble at my words. Paris, city of fools! Proud of their Napoleon. What will they think when they feel the power of Roxor?

Princess Nadji (Irene Ware) and Frank Chandler, aka Chandu (Edmund Lowe), consult the crystal ball.

Lugosi is a damn sight better than Lowe, whose Chandu (real name: Frank Chandler) comes across as too condescending to be truly charismatic. He’s best when showing off his supernatural powers. Chandu is introduced graduating from what might as well be Yogi Academy. To pass his finals, he first levitates a rope, which one of the other yogis climbs into another dimension – the rope follows. Then he astral projects, and finally he walks across flames. Having proven his abilities, he’s encouraged to go forth and destroy evil wherever it lies. He enters the Regent residence in a splendidly atmospheric scene: down a long corridor a door opens of its own volition, and his silhouette can be seen; then darkness rolls over, and when light is cast back into the passage, he is standing facing the audience in full mystic regalia. Lowe does appreciably better when he’s in disguise as an elderly beggar, infiltrating a walled Egyptian city by creating a doppelgänger that vanishes after luring its victims astray (in one instance, leaving a shell of clothing that drops to the ground). Chandu is aided in his adventures by the two young Regents, Betty Lou and the Boy Scout-ish Bobby (Michael Stuart), as well as the beautiful Princess Nadji (Irene Ware, The Raven) and the alcoholic comic relief, Miggles (character actor Herbert Mundin, The Adventures of Robin Hood). To keep Miggles from drink, Chandu hypnotizes him into seeing a miniature version of himself that constantly warns him away from alcohol. In an odd twist, at the end of the film it’s the mini-Miggles that wants a drink. Most of these characters are imported from the radio drama, and frankly it’s a relief that the film wastes no time introducing them, assuming a bit of audience familiarity. Even after the film has ended, I’m still not sure what role Princess Nadji served, except to be Chandu’s Girl Friday, someone accustomed to the occult arts; she’s a more appropriate romantic match than the too-innocent and too-teenaged Betty Lou (Vlasek is given a scantily clad, envelope-pushing white slavery scene which is very Pre-Code). Everything moves so fast that you don’t have time to wonder over who’s doing what or why. It’s like a sixteen-part serial compressed into a crazy seventy minutes, and it’s a delirious pulpy delight.

Betty Lou (June Lang/Vlasek) and Dorothy Regent (Virginia Hammond).

Credit for the constant invention must go to co-director Menzies, the famed art director of films like The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and production designer of Gone with the Wind (1939), who had an impressive directing career, including Things to Come (1936), Invaders from Mars (1953), and the underrated Gothic chiller The Maze (1953). Menzies would become a Hollywood legend, and in the early 30’s he had already developed a substantial reputation as a man who could provide eye-popping visuals. Standout moments in Chandu include a point-of-view plunge into a miniature representing an ancient Egyptian temple, dashing down the snaking hallways; armed thugs emerging from sarcophagi whose lids mechanically lower before Chandu turns their rifles into snakes like a modern Moses; the montage of global destruction, including a dramatic flooding, as envisioned by Roxor; Chandu, sealed in a coffin, working a Houdini escape after it’s dropped to the bottom of a subterranean river; and the clever climax featuring a slowly overheating Death Ray. If only all 30’s pulp serials could look this spectacular. (Many scenes, in particular those inside the booby-trapped temple, seem to have been an inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Menzies is joined by his French co-director Marcel Varnel, whose specialty was comedy; Varnel was given most of the dialogue scenes, which are the weaker parts of the film. Luckily, no one sits still in this movie for very long.

A living statue stalks Miggles (Herbert Mundin) inside the Egyptian temple.

Following Chandu the Magician was the twelve-chapter serial The Return of Chandu (1934). This time, Lugosi graduated to the good guy, playing Chandu opposite Maria Alba (Mr. Robinson Crusoe) as Princess Nadji. They reunited for a follow-up serial, Chandu on the Magic Island (1935). Meanwhile Chandu the Magician, while finding fans in such genre aficionados as Ray Harryhausen, disappeared into obscurity as the decades passed, perhaps assumed to be one of the lesser versions of Lugosi schlock. It isn’t. In recent years there’s been a reappraisal, aided by a DVD release in 2008 as part of the box set Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2. Last year Kino Lorber, continuing their excellent work upgrading unlikely films to high definition, released Chandu on Blu-Ray. It still looks its age; it’s a scratchy old film (as my screenshots from the Blu-Ray attest), but with its lovingly rendered film grain comes the warmth of yesteryear matinee thrills, a rollercoaster ride chock full of inventive special effects and nonstop boyhood imagination. It is the height of its modest genre.

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When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), shot on location in the Canary Islands, is the most notable of Hammer’s attempts to recreate the global success of One Million Years B.C. (1966). It didn’t have Raquel Welch, and it didn’t have Ray Harryhausen, but it’s as near as dammit. Unlike the semi-prehistoric adventure (and camp classic) Slave Girls (1967) and the later Creatures the World Forgot (1971), this film actually featured stop-motion dinosaurs (as well as a few live reptiles, because what’s a cheesy dinosaur movie without some lizards dressed up as dinos?). The time and effort is appreciated, not just because this was a period when the increasingly strapped Hammer didn’t spend a lot of time on production, but also because the person behind the special effects is Jim Danforth (working with Roger Dicken and Dave Allen), who would go on to work on Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans (1981). (Danforth also sent up films like these by designing the dinosaurs for the notorious 1981 Ringo Starr/Barbara Bach comedy Caveman.) Because Hammer had a habit of promoting its latest bombshell stars, former Playboy Playmate Victoria Vetri (Rosemary’s Baby) was given the starring role, her band-aid of a bikini barely restraining her chief commercial assets. The cast also includes Imogen Hassall, a model and actress whose career and life would take a tragic turn in the years to come, and Robin Hawdon (Zeta One) as the male lead. Hammer veteran Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment, The Abominable Snowman) wrote and directed, from a treatment by none other than Crash and High-Rise author J.G. Ballard (credited as “J.B. Ballard”).

Victoria Vetri as Sanna

It’s not like the story is all that more advanced than Michael Carreras and Don Chaffey’s 1966 original. Here, hair color once again plays a prominent role, as the film opens with three blonde women being sacrificed in tribute to the sun on account of their sun-colored hair. Sanna (Vetri) escapes to the sea, where she’s rescued by a raft piloted by the rugged Tara (Hawdon). She is eventually driven out of Tara’s tribe by the jealous Ayak (Hassall) and by anxiety over the newly-forming Moon, a smoldering eye in the sky which the prehistoric people read as an ill omen. She wanders the prehistoric landscape, pursued by Tara as well as her former tribe, encountering dinosaurs, pythons, and carnivorous plants. I’ve seen this movie several times, and yet all I ever remember about it is Vetri’s falling asleep in a broken dinosaur egg, waking up to find the mother looming over her, treating her like its young. That, and how she makes a pet of one of the mother’s babies, which follows her around like a dog. What is particularly strange about this sequence, which is more kid-friendly than anything found in One Million Years B.C., is that it’s soon followed by graphic nudity, filmed for the international market and cut from the G-rated American print. One cavegirl gets her top ripped off. Then Vetri disrobes for Tara, before making love to him and then skinny dipping. When this film first appeared on DVD years ago as a Best Buy exclusive, it contained the international print but retained the G label on the packaging in error (or vice versa – it contained the international version in error). This is the version I acquired, and I just about spat out my drink when the cavegirl lost her top. Mind you, this is almost three-quarters of the way through the film, and everything up until now has been the sort of mild cheesecake we’ve all come to expect. With the nude scenes quickly piled together and then done, the standard proceedings resume. Something like this could only happen in the rather confused period of British cinema that was the late 60’s and early 70’s, when censorship was loosening and British box office dwindling. (It says something that Guest’s next films would be the sex comedies Au Pair Girls and Confessions of a Window Cleaner.)

A Chasmosaur attacks.

Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray uses the international version, sexploitation element intact, though they’re wise enough to put a warning on the back label. Not that kids are going to want to watch a 1970 dinosaur movie anyway. Camp value is high with this one, which somehow makes One Million Years B.C. look like an exercise in sophistication and restraint. (I dared not activate the disc’s subtitle option, given how irritatingly frequent the made-up caveman language actually is. “Neekro! Akeeta!”) When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth would be pretty disposable fantasy fare were it not for the special effects, which were nominated for a 1972 Academy Award (losing to Bedknobs and Broomsticks). Danforth’s models look fantastic, and hold up well next to Harryhausen’s by demonstrating a realistic smoothness in motion as well as being nicely, sometimes very cleverly integrated into the live action. There can never be enough stop motion dinosaurs in films like these (or, I guess, in general), and it’s nice to see a variety of creatures on display. These include a Plesiosaur, which Tara’s tribe has tied down before it breaks into a rampage, squashing cavemen with its fin; a Chasmosaur which charges out of a cave to attack with its horns; the “Mother Dinosaur” and her baby; a flying Rhamphorhynchus; and a giant killer crab (shades of Mysterious Island). All of these moments are genuinely fun, though the caveman drama is never less than tedious. The final image of the film, when a tsunami has sent the survivors’ raft washing up on a cliff overlooking the prehistoric world, has an irresistible pulp appeal, like something from an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation. If only the rest of the film could maintain such striking imagery alongside Danforth’s wonderful dinosaurs!

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