“Yes, for years my brother has been trying to perfect a death ray that could destroy cities,” Chandu the Magician (Edmund Lowe) says to his Yogi mentor before setting off to save the world from evil. The brother, Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall) mind you, isn’t the villain of Chandu the Magician (1932), he just happens to be creating a death ray the way some people bake brownies, or others make model airplanes. The real villain is Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who kidnaps Regent and his death ray in attempt to rule the world, return it to primitivism, and destroy everything around him.
There’s a charming directness to the plot of Chandu the Magician, an earnestness that is not betrayed by any pretensions by its co-directors William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. It’s as if the plot is merely a vehicle for action and adventure spectacle and all the exoticization of Egypt as one can imagine. And in between bouts of cliché and inanity, I found myself entranced by the film’s sideshow-like sense of spectacle. There’s a real effort to “wow” audiences, and while Tony Scott may be able to afford explosions a hundred times the size of anything in Chandu, I much prefer seeing Edmund Lowe firewalk through a humble, yet effective, blaze of burning coals. It’s not the “quaintness” of older special effects that make them so charming, but that because of the limited economic means of B-movies and the primitive nature of technology (as compared to now) there seems to have been more emphasis on the actual image and the physical environment of the set. A sense of craftsmanship, if you will, that seems lost in today’s overabundance, and over exaggerated sense, of the fantastic.
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