Directors: Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies
Kino Lorber

Previously available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, both individually and in the Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2 set, rousing fantasy-adventure CHANDU THE MAGICIAN makes its high-definition debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line.

After a wave of Chandu’s hand reveals the opening credits, a Hindu teacher (Nigel de Brulier, CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT, ONE MILLION B.C.) in a temple high in an Asian mountain range bestows upon hypnotist and adventurer Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe, GIFT OF GAB, DINNER AT EIGHT) the moniker of “Chandu” as he is inducted into the sacred company of the yogi. After executing a variation on the Indian rope trick, separating and reintegrating his “astral body” with his physical form, and performing a fire walk to demonstrate his supernatural powers, Chandu is shown the image of power-mad super-villain Roxor (Bela Lugosi, THE DEATH KISS, WHITE ZOMBIE) in a crystal ball by the venerable yogi, who admonishes the newly christened magician to go forth and “conquer the evils that threaten mankind.” Chandu’s sister Betty Lou (June Vlasek [Lang], WHITE HUNTER) and husband Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall, DANTE’S INFERNO, THE DEVIL-DOLL) relocate to Cairo, where Robert works feverishly perfecting a “death ray,” which he tests by vaporizing a huge stone slab.

Roxor’s henchmen kidnap Robert, spiriting him away to Roxor’s temple fortress at Meidum, and Chandu materializes in the Regent home, pledging his help in finding Betty Lou’s captive husband. Princess Nadji (Irene Ware, THE RAVEN [1935] ), descendant of a long line of Egyptian kings, and former flame of Chandu, is summoned to Roxor’s fortress, where he demands the allegiance of Nadji’s people, threatening to “drown them like rats” and destroy all the works of civilization with the aid of Regent’s death ray if they resist, his ultimate goal being to return humanity to savagery so he can rule over all. Chandu, shadowing their meeting undercover, sets the temple on fire as a diversion and helps Nadji make her escape, carrying her through the flames unharmed. While Chandu is still in love with Nadji, she rejects at his advances because “her life belongs to her subjects.” After surviving an attempted poisoning by one of Roxor’s minions, Chandu and Nadji locate his lair with the aid of a crystal ball.

In his death ray laboratory, Roxor’s henchman is punished for the failed poisoning by having his eyes burned out with a double-pronged hot iron poker, with which Roxor then threatens Robert to force him to make the death ray operational. A stone statue come to life traps Chandu, his alcoholic sidekick Miggles (Herbert Mundin, TARZAN ESCAPES, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD), and Nadji in a chamber of the temple. Making their escape, Chandu clouds the minds of Roxor’s armed guards, who see their rifles as hissing, coiled snakes. Meanwhile, Roxor has removed Regent to another location, and now threatens to harm his daughter Dorothy (Virginia Hammond, ROMEO AND JULIET [1936]) if he doesn’t cooperate. Disguised as an unkempt beggar, Chandu sends his astral body to distract Roxor’s guard while he rescues Dorothy, alerting Roxor to his presence.

Returning to his fortress at Meidum, Roxor makes a final demand that Robert show him how to operate the now functional death ray, and forces him to write a letter to Dorothy, doctoring it with “invisible ink” to lure her into returning to the temple, where Chandu and Nadji are now also being held captive. Recreating one of the goddess Isis’s favorite punishments, they inter Chandu alive in a sarcophagus, which is weighted and cast into the Nile, and Betty Lou, son Bobby, and Dorothy are placed in a cell with a slowly collapsing floor over a rocky, water-filled pit. Robert capitulates to Roxor’s demands, who begins his death ray assault on London and Paris, and forces himself on Princess Nadji.

Based on the hugely popular radio serial of the same name starring radio and movie actor and voice artist Gayne Whitman (THE MASKED MARVEL, ONE GIRL’S CONFESSION), which originally ran from 1931 to 1936 and was revived in 1948, broadcasting it’s last episode in September 1950, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN was produced by Fox Film Corporation three years before their merger with Twentieth Century Pictures. Marcel Varnel (PUBLIC NUISANCE NO. 1) and William Cameron Menzies (THINGS TO COME, INVADERS FROM MARS) share directing credits, Varnel presumably handling the dialogue scenes while Menzies supervised the production design and special effects sequences, which are generally well done except for a few moments of unconvincing process work. Similar in feel and tone to movie serials of the era, if a bit more intelligent and satisfying, CHANDU benefits greatly from Lugosi’s over-the-top performance, the imaginative and impressive set designs, and a snappy pace that rarely lets up. Herbert Mundin is faintly amusing (and somewhat eyebrow-raising today) as booze-swilling camel jockey Miggles—wearing a fez, hallucinating his own mini-me and mini camel, and tippling almost constantly—although as 1930s comedy relief characters go, Miggles is pretty tolerable. Modern viewers’ closest frame of reference for CHANDU will likely be Steven Spielberg’s INDIANA JONES movies, which, of course, were in part homage to 1930s/1940s chapter plays. With it’s blending of primitive electrical technology, historical fantasy, and white magic, CHANDU will probably also hold interest for enthusiasts of the current steampunk craze (though technically CHANDU would more properly be categorized as “dieselpunk”).

While CHANDU is firmly in the mold of a 1930s serial, it soars above the typical chapter play of the time with its stylized mise-en-scène and imaginative set pieces: Lugosi’s Roxor, clad head to toe in black, with jodhpurs, Nehru collar, turban, cloak, and a wide cummerbund, and Chandu in pith helmet or turban and swirling cape; the exotic, magical yogic ceremony; the imposing, monumental sets of Roxor’s temple lair and death ray laboratory; the surreal living stone statue; a row of mummy sarcophagi lining the temple walls that open out to disgorge Roxor’s rifle-toting minions; the pile of skeletons at the bottom of the gorge outside the entrance to Roxor’s fortress; uncredited Kenneth Strickfaden’s (FRANKENSTEIN, MONSTROSITY) laboratory equipment and crackling electrical effects; a cool sequence where the camera glides eerily through the corridors of Roxor’s fortress at Meidum; and the final death ray assault on Europe. CHANDU THE MAGICIAN was successful enough to spawn the 1934 12-chapter serial THE RETURN OF CHANDU, with Lugosi stepping into the role of Chandu and battling the black magic cult of Ubasti on the island of Lemuria, which was reedited into a 70-minute feature released the following year as CHANDU ON THE MAGIC ISLAND. For fantasy-adventure fans, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN makes a great art deco double bill with the 1935 version of SHE (the first talkie edition, but the sixth cinematic adaptation of Sir H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novel).

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, transferred in 1080p MPEG-4 AVC high definition. The source print is far from pristine, but still very watchable. Black and white levels, grayscale, and sharpness and detail are all more than acceptable for a movie from the early 1930s, and grain is generally tight and unobtrusive, with a few instances here and there where it’s more conspicuous. The image shows fairly constant light to moderate speckling and blemishing, some barely noticeable black lining, and occasional stretches with light bands of “snowy” speckling along the sides of the frame, although it’s never heavy enough to distract from enjoyment of the movie. Audio is reasonably clear for a movie of its vintage, with no perceptible hiss, hum, crackles, or pops.

An audio commentary by Gregory William Mank, recorded for the 2008 Fox DVD release, is included as the Blu-ray’s primary extra. Mank provides background on the massively popular radio serial—which Ray Bradbury claimed to have taken inspiration from—comparing it to the recent Harry Potter phenomenon; discusses the creation of the screenplay and special effects, the distribution of the film, the careers of cameraman James Wong Howe and co-directors Varnel and Menzies, the salaries and other credits of the major players, and the history of death rays in movies; reads excerpts from contemporary reviews; relates trivia gleaned from an interview he conducted with Bela’s fifth wife, Hope Lininger; addresses the friendship and alleged feud between Boris Karloff and Lugosi; describes the frightening chaos created by a 10,000-strong mob of fans at the funeral of Lowe’s wife, actress Lilyan Tashman; and reveals the surprising original meaning of the name Chandu.

Also carried over from the DVD release are a short restoration comparison—revealing that at least some cleanup, most likely digital, of more-conspicuous speckling and spotting was performed—and the “Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu” featurette (15:17), featuring contributions from familiar genre historians and filmmakers Kim Newman, Ray Harryhausen, Bob Burns, Paul M. Jensen, Steve Haberman, Christopher Wicking, and Mr. Mank, among others. It’s a well made and interesting extra, but there appears to have been some kind of mastering error in porting it to Blu-ray as the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio has been “stretched” to approximately 1.66:1. I tried the disc in two different Blu-ray players with two different digital TVs, and no matter how the view mode was set (16x9, 4x3, side stretch, and so on), the picture is either stretched to 1.66:1 or “squeezed” to less than 1.33:1. Fortunately, the feature and other extras do not suffer from this error. Trailers for Kino Lorber Blu-ray releases THE BLACK SLEEP (open matte, 1:36) and WHITE ZOMBIE (1952 reissue, 2:46) are also included, but missing on the Blu-ray is the nicely done still gallery of 45 images that was present on the 2008 release, so completists will have to hang on to their DVD. The case cover insert features reversible artwork, with original 1932 poster art as the alternate front cover.

While big fans of CHANDU will surely be pleased with the HD upgrade of the feature itself, the imperfect presentation of the featurette and missing still gallery might give less forgiving viewers pause as to whether to double dip. I’m normally a big supporter of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray releases, and own more of their Blu’s than those of any other video company, but DVD extras going missing on HD reissues is the bane of Blu-ray collectors and the Achilles’ heel of all too many BD releases (Olive Films is probably the worst offender on this score). I’d still heartily recommended this release for admirers of the movie, albeit with a minor caveat due to the flawed and missing extras. (Paul Tabili)