The Mask of Fu Manchu is about a group of English archaeologists, commissioned by a certain Sir Nayland (Lewis Stone) who race against the power-hungry Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) for the contents of Genghis Khan's tomb in the Gobi desert. But before the expedition can begin, the lead archaeologist, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is kidnapped by one of Fu Manchu's henchmen and taken away to his palace, where Fu Manchu tortures him for the information about where the tomb is. He is kept there for many days until his daughter Sheila (Karen Morely) and her fiancé Terry (Charles Starrett) begin to worry. They go to Sir Nayland and tell him that they will continue the expedition without fear of Fu Manchu and that they will try to find Sir Lionel anyways. Nayland lets them go, but soon accompanies them on the journey as well. The expedition team starts off and soon finds the tomb with no problems. There, they take the Mask and Sword of Genghis Khan to put in the museum, but Fu Manchu wants the Sword and Mask to "become" Genghis Khan and take over the world! They get the artifacts back to where they are staying for the night and set a guard to watch them just in case. The guard is killed in the middle of the night but the sword and mask aren't stolen. The next day, one of Fu Manchu's henchmen comes to the house where the team is staying and offers to trade Sir Lionel Barton for the sword and mask. Sheila jumps at the offer despite Terry's doubts, so Terry brings the sword and mask to Fu Manchu's palace, where he is looked over in strange ways by Fu Manchu's Dragon Lady-China Doll daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy). Fu Manchu takes the sword and tries to do some freaky electrical stuff to it, demonstrating his scary powers. However, Nayland secretly swapped the real sword of Genghis Khan's for a fake, so Fu Manchu's special electricity experiment doesn't work. Terry is whipped as punishment under supervision of Fah Lo See, who later plans to make him her sex slave and then kill him. Fu Manchu steps in and injects Terry with a mind-control serum and sends him back to bring Sheila, Nayland, and the real sword and mask to Fu Manchu. He does so and they all walk right into the trap. Fu Manchu plans his world domination strategy and decides he needs a ceremony to celebrate it. He sends Sheila off to get ready to be sacrificed at his ceremony, who gets angry and says to him, "You yellow beast!" He sends Terry off to be bedded by Fah Lo See. He sends Nayland off to be eaten by some crocodiles. And he goes off to put on his fancy robe for the ceremony. Nayland then manages to escape and rescues Terry, while Fu Manchu assembles his army of Middle Easterners, black guys, and some other Asian-looking people for a pep rally where he wears the mask and wields his sword. Nayland and Terry find a big electronic death ray zapper and zap Fu Manchu as soon as he is about to stab Sheila. Then, for good measure, Nayland and Terry zap his followers as well. Fast forward several days, and Nayland, Sheila and Terry are aboard a boat back to England. They toss the sword over the side of the boat (but not the mask?) so that it will be safe from any future Fu Manchu.
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"Will we ever understand these Eastern races?" -Sir Nayland
Remember how I wrote about Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless? He is Fu Manchu, just from outer space.
The horror. Quite literally, I'm afraid. This movie is the embodiment of Yellow Peril. It's the Perpetually Foreign and Inherently Evil Scary "Oriental!" Because Dr. Fu Manchu wants to take over the world! He wants to lead all of Asia in an uprising against the accursed white race! He enjoys torturing people! He injects funky serums into the bloodstreams of next-to-naked white men! He wants to sacrifice a white woman to an accursed pagan god! The horror! The indignity!
"Should Fu Manchu put that mask across his wicked eyes and take that scimitar into his bony, cruel hands, all Asia rises. He'll declare himself Genghis Khan come to life again. And that, my friend, is what you have got to prevent." - Sir Nayland
Some background on Fu Manchu: Originally conceived by British author Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu was "yellow peril incarnate" an an evil scientist to boot.
"Men of Asia! The skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down on the white race... and burn them!" - Fu Manchu
Let's ignore Fu Manchu's scary intelligence for a moment, shall we? Let's focus on his sadistic scariness instead. He puts Nayland on a weird seesaw that gradually lowers him into a pit of (presumably) hungry alligators (or are they crocodiles?). He puts some other white guy on a platform between two walls of spikes that inch closer and closer together until... well, you get the idea (Said white guy is rescued, but not before he freaks out sufficiently). He has Terry whipped into a pain-induced stupor and then injects him with funky serum. He puts the good Sir Barton under a giant, endlessly clanging bell for days without food or water or reprieve from hearing the sonorous clanking, eventually driving poor Sir Barton insane. What does this do, you ask? This makes Fu Manchu an even more frightening character. Not only will he kidnap you, he'll torture you too! It's another little aspect to this already disgusting character that makes his foreignness and his evilness even more intolerable. He'll torture you in ways unimaginable! And he'll get a kick out of it! And on top of that... he's Asian! Asian and evil! Evilly Asian! Asianly evil! My eyeballs are rolling in terror!
Then there's Fu Manchu's army of Asians. Of course, this screams of perpetual foreigners and peril of all types - that's to be (hate to say it) expected from a movie from this time period. However, the only "East Asians" we see in the movie are Fu Manchu and his creepy little daughter, plus or minus a few mute extras. The rest of Fu Manchu's army is made up of... Middle Easterners? What's the subtext here? That the East Asians are the power-hungry ones, and the Middle Easterners are the ones who will follow their leaders like little woolly sheep? I have no ideas. Care to help me out on this one?
This one's right up there on the So-Racist-it-Makes-Me-Violently-Sick list with Mr. Moto. Shame.