I got this on Blu-ray because it struck me as a great way to give another chance to a film that put me to sleep when I was 13. As a teenage classic movie weirdo dorkface, all Bela Lugosi movies I’d seen at the time were winners, except for Chandu the Magician from 1932. This movie STUNK. It was choppy and uninvolving–and actor Edmund Lowe’s impersonation of a piece of wood as the titular hero didn’t help.
What did I know back then, though? I didn’t know how to drive a car. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t know that my clothes and hair looked stupid.
But decades have passed and things have changed. (I can drive now.) Maybe my opinion on Chandu has similarly changed.
Plus, I love high-definition releases of low-budget junk from the otherworldly past. Movies that occupy a modest place in film history. Movies that aren’t written about much at all these days. Movies that are too old for even a lot of self-proclaimed film geeks today to acknowledge. Movies that only the far-gone nutzoids, such as myself, even think about.
If the Kino Lorber company are crazy enough to put out fancy Blu-rays with commentary tracks of ancient B-level Bela Lugosi films, then I will be crazy enough to buy them. (Their Invisible Ghost Blu-ray is good stuff.)
So, I bought this. I watched it. I fired it up. I smoked it. I snorted it. I freebased it. I stabbed a guy in the parking lot at Kroger for it.
And now my freshly minted 2018 opinion of Chandu the Magician is…
Okay, it still sucks. It drags and feels like it was edited with a hatchet.
However, this is an antique that begs to be treated gently. There are good things in it.
Lugosi, in his early 1930s prime, hams it up like a farmer’s breakfast as the villain, a turban-sporting would-be conqueror of the world–as soon as he can steal scientist Henry B. Walthall’s cool new death ray invention. This is Evil Lugosi almost reaching the highs of his terrific performance in The Raven.
There’s also the ambitious imagery from co-director William Cameron Menzies. He offers us a great mad scientist lab, exotic Indian and Egyptian palaces, strange figures in the night and creative double-exposure tricks.
It’s a perfect example of how Menzies could make movies look every bit as exciting and strange as the best pulp magazine covers. Whether working as a director or heading a film’s art department, he was a giant at creating worlds. Menzies didn’t seem to see the point in making movies at all unless they took you a million miles away from where you’re sitting. He pushed special effects to their limit, moved his camera more in one scene than most other directors in 1932 did in entire movies and composed beautiful eye-candy shots that played with strange perspectives (His day-glo 1953 Invaders From Mars is SCREAMING so loud for a Blu-ray that it keeps me up nights). Menzies could do it on a big budget (David O. Selznick gave him top brass authority on the visual aspects of Gone With the Wind, for which Menzies earned an Oscar for production design) and he could do it on a small budget, as in the rushed Chandu.
For all his moviemaking genius though, Menzies had a giant flaw: he had about as much interest in stories and characters as I do in hearing about your office Christmas party (no interest, in other words). It’s a flaw shared by another Menzies sorta-classic, Things to Come from 1936. It’s also why Chandu is pretty bad despite its cool imagery.
Menzies had a co-director, inexperienced French-born comedy maven Marcel Varnel, with whom he split duties. Menzies handled the visual style while Varnel handled the actors. They don’t appear to have been a perfect team, though. Both directors plow through the script like it barely matters. That can be a good thing in some cases, but this is a movie that doesn’t know how to breathe.
Still, even if the film doesn’t light your fire, the supplements here provide a terrific history lesson. In the fifteen-minute retrospective featurette, Masters of Magic: The World of “Chandu”, the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Kim Newman and Bob Burns show up in the middle of smartly selected clips to offer soundbites that argue for Chandu as a fascinating pulp relic and an advancement in movie special effects. Then on the commentary track, Lugosi biographer Gregory William Mank makes like an encyclopedia of every aspect of the film short of knowing what Bela ate for the breakfast. I was more entertained by the commentary than I was by the movie. Mank also acknowledges the film’s flaws and comes off as a personable fella, to boot.
I admire personable fellas. I wish I could be one of them.
As for the picture quality, my memory of seeing this on television way back in my younger years is that it was as battered and covered in fuzz as me in my current “old bag” years–and this disc is an improvement. Kino Lorber either located a much better source than was making the rounds at the Dallas, Texas UHF stations or they did a top-notch clean-up job (or both) . The film still looks its age with some scuffs and scratches, but that’s not a bad thing and there’s nothing distracting about it here.
The only distracting thing about Chandu the Magician is ANYTHING else interesting that you might have going on in your life while this film plods along.