Tuesday, 13 December 2011
Chandu the Magician
Chandu the Magician (1932) dir. William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel
Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi
By Alan Bacchus
Chandu the Magician is a rare and near forgotten adventure film from the great period of early horror/adventure classics. The ‘30s was the era of King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and more. Chandu the Magician stands up well against all of these films for its production value, cinematic energy, exuberance and innovations in cinema that inspired the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Edward Lowe plays Frank Chandler, a British secret agent trained in the eastern mystics of “Yogi,” which has given him powers of hypnosis and mind control. After completing his training he’s told to “go forth with his youth and strength to conquer the evil that threatens mankind.” Chandler is assigned to combat the nefarious Egyptian megalomaniac, Ruxor (Bela Lugosi), who is seeking world domination. Ruxor has kidnapped Chandler’s brother-in-law and scientist, Robert Regent, who has developed a dangerous death ray with the ability to kill many people half-way around the world. Chandu encounters a series of spine-tingling adventures and daring escapes in order to save the world from destruction.
Chandu appears to be one of the main influences on Stephen Somers to make his version of The Mummy. In fact, I'd argue that this film was more influential than even the original 1932 The Mummy. Chandu’s three main protags – Chandler, his sister and the drunken comic relief, Biggles – form the same bumbling trio played by Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah.
Chandu is credited with two directors, Marcel Varnel, a stage director who directed the actors, and William Cameron Menzies, who was in charge of the technical design of the picture. Even by b-movie standards the acting is mostly atrocious, but with today’s eyes, Edmond Lowe’s mixture of British superiority and uber-seriousness is just too silly to criticize. It’s so much fun.
Menzies is the real star of the show and one of cinema’s most ambitious filmmakers. He was a director or co-director in the 1930s on pulpy films such as Chandu. Perhaps his crowning achievement is the British science-fiction masterpiece Things to Come – a cautionary tale of war, which spans 2000 years of history. In Chandu he sets the tone of adventure, mysticism and intrigue with a number of inspired sequences, which, unlike the acting, stands up against any of the films of its era, including King Kong. You just need to watch the opening sequence for evidence. It’s a wonderful shot that introduces us to Chandler’s Yogi training fortress. The shot starts with a miniature of the Yogi castle high atop a mountain (dramatically lit with noir-like texture by the great James Wong Howe), then seamlessly transitions to a tracking shot through the hallways of the lair. The sequence is capped with a wonderful showcase of Menzies’ fine superimposition photography demonstrating Chandler’s new mystical powers.
Chandu the Magician is a whole lot of pulpy goodness, a wonderful time capsule of the ambitiousness of early Hollywood to entertain its audiences and amaze them with new worlds, mad scientists, death rays, charming heroes and exotic villains.