Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Return of Chandu (1934)

Frank Chandler (Bela Lugosi), master of the mystical arts of "The Orient", and therefore also known as Chandu the Magician, brings his friend, the Egyptian princess Nadji (Maria Alba) into the supposed safety of his Los Angeles home.

Poor Nadji is quite the popular girl, you understand. Especially the Lemurian cult of Ubasti is very interested in acquiring Nadji's body as the vessel to carry the soul of an ancient high priestess of their goddess. This kind of soul transfer is only possible into the bodies of members of the Egyptian royal family, and Nadji, being the last of her line, is the last hope the cultists have to get their high priestess reincarnated. Why they didn't try their luck a few centuries earlier is anybody's guess.

The traveling time between Lemuria and California will certainly not be enough to hinder their plans, and soon Chandu and the cultists are playing a merry game of kidnap/rescue the princess. It is quite possible that Chandu is not the most competent of heroes, what with his permanently letting his charge alone or in the care of his nephew Bob (Dean Benton). The latter amounts to a fate worse than death - being in the same room as Bob, at least until he runs off to do who knows what and leaves Nadji to be kidnapped again.

Chandu, you have changed! While the first Chandu film featured the less than fascinating Edmund Lowe in the title role and (house favorite) Bela Lugosi as his nemesis, the excellently named Roxor, this sequel promotes dear Bela into the unusual role of the hero, an opportunity the great man seems to have relished.

As was so often the case in Lugosi's career, he is also the only one on set who does any acting at all, unless one wants to call Maria Alba's excellent work at cowering in fear and being unconscious acting.

Compared to the first Chandu film, Return of Chandu is a much impoverished outing, with sometimes sloppily arranged, cheap looking sets, the already mentioned non-acting, not too many stunts and an effects budget that doesn't allow for much more in the way of magic than a little invisibility (no moving objects here, obviously), Bela's patented hypnotic gaze and the Yogi phone - Bela calling his mystical master WITH THE POWER OF HIS MIND to get great advice like "keep the faith" combined with a little magical GPS. Which I'd call something of a problem in a film about a magician.

This and other of the film's problems, like the repetitiveness of its plot, or a certain lack of transitions, have their reason in the sad and tragic truth that The Return of Chandu isn't a real feature film at all, but a fix-up of the first six parts of a twelve part serial, and a cheap one at that, quite naturally not leading to the slickest of experiences even in the hands of a genius of editing.

Still, it isn't all bad - the opportunity to see Bela for once as a film's hero is a fine thing, and his charisma and presence definitely is preferable to anything your typical white-bread serial hero actor could bring to a film, the few stunts that are there are fun enough, the plot has a certain pulpy drive, even if it does not make much sense, and the evil rituals are quite charming.

I also found myself absolutely enamored with the main bad guy's - whose name unfortunately gets lost through the terrible sound quality of the print - love for very big hats. I suppose he has other deficiencies that make wearing them necessary. He starts out with the biggest damn turban mankind has ever seen, but obviously levels up in the second half of the film and is then allowed to wear the Tower of Pisa on his head.


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