For the previous issue of Monsterzine, I reviewed the wonderful edition of The Devil Bat from the Bela Lugosi Presents series. In it, I praised Lugosis adeptness at playing the sinister Dr. Carruthers, a typical mad scientist role that Lugosi is infamous for playing. For this issue of Monsterzine, however, I thought Id review The Return of Chandu, a twelve-part serial from 1934 that is most notable for having a rare heroic and romantic lead for Lugosi. Yes, thats right, Lugosi played the hero for a welcomed change.
Alpha Video, a company with a large slate of bare bones DVD releases of old films, has released The Return of Chandus twelve chapters in two volumes sold as separate DVDs. While I certainly found this serial interesting and worth my time as a Lugosi fan, Im going to give these discs a mixed review and leave it to you to decide if Chandu is worth your time.
As Ive mentioned, Bela Lugosi plays the title character, whose everyday identity is Frank Chandler. Chandler is gifted in the mystic arts and a good magician. He is in love with Nadji, a princess of Egypt who reciprocates Chandlers affection. Chandler, or Chandu, must protect the princess from the agents of the sect of Ubasti, a group of bad magicians who want to sacrifice Nadji to resurrect another Egyptian princess. As they travel from California to the high seas to the secret island Lemuria struggling against the Ubasti, Chandlers sister, nephew, and niece decide to tag along.
Theyre all rather annoying, especially Chandlers nephew Bob, and their main function seems to be to get into deadly danger and be rescued.
When I first began watching this serial, I thought the episodes were rather fun. Ive never watched a serial before; though, of course, Im very well aware of some of the more infamous serials like Radar Men from the Moon and The Phantom Creeps. The title theme that opens each adventure is rather engaging for its time, and the theme of the Ubasti, a slow drum beat, suits the villains well. The storys premise allows Lugosi to show off several of his trademarks, like his hypnotic stare and mysterious hand gestures. The early cliffhangers, a poison dart blown toward Chandu at the end of chapter 1 The Chosen Victim and a near fatal car accident in chapter 2 The House in the Hills, seemed well-conceived for its genre.
By the time I reached the second disc, however, the contrivances were starting to wear thin. Lemuria, where the Ubasti operate, looks just like the island from King Kong, replete with a large door made of logs that is opened and closed with the strength of numerous natives. Were also given a couple of nods to Poes Pit and the Pendulum in chapters 9 The Terror Invisible and 10 The Crushing Rock. The Ubasti, like typical James Bond villains, dont believe in killing someone without using a ridiculously overwrought device. These two chapters present such clichéd devices as a slowly descending blade/pendulum and a variant, slowly descending rock meant to crush its victim.
I should mention at this point that I did not watch these episodes all in a row but instead watched them over a two week span. I cant imagine watching all 212 minutes of these twelve episodes in one sitting due to the serials repetitive nature, an example of which Ive just given. Every eighteen to twenty minutes, a new episode begins. This means the viewer has to sit through end credits followed by the beginning credits of the next episode, a written recap of the prior episode, and about a minute or twos worth of footage from the end of that preceding episode. To compound this repetitiveness further, Chapter 10 The Crushing Rock, to a large extent, replays the more dramatic scenes from previous episodes in a montage. This would probably be fine for an audience viewing the serial in weekly installments, but it doesnt work well when viewed one after another. Im not criticizing the serial itself, but I wonder if Lugosi fans would be better served seeing this serial in edited movie form, which has been done. The films Return of Chandu and Chandu on the Magic Island are just presentations of this serial in straightforward movie versions.
For the inexpensive price of these two DVDs, sold separately, of The Return of Chandu (you can pick them up directly from Alpha Video for as low as $5 a piece), one cant complain too much about the quality of the films. The prints are worn but serviceable. The image is relatively clean throughout; however, occasional jumps or skips in the film mean that small portions of audio and video seem abruptly choppy at times. The sound quality varies by episode, with some chapters louder than others. Also, the dialogue can be hard to make out when characters seem to be distant (perhaps out of the microphones immediate reach?) or a lot of extraneous sound, like rushing water, is in the background. Chapters 11 and 12 are especially problematic, a disappointment because they offer the serials resolution. Still, on the whole, this is certainly an acceptable presentation of material that is seventy years old and presumably in the public domain, and Alpha Video should be applauded for being the first company, as far as I know, to make this serial available on DVD.
Like the Poverty Row horror films that would soon follow, Lugosi manages to elevate The Return of Chandu above its low budget underpinnings. The episodes tied together total a whopping 212 minutes, about three times longer than the average Lugosi horror flick. This makes me hesitant in my final analysis. Id recommend The Return of Chandu for Lugosi completists, especially since he is given the opportunity to play the hero. Id also recommend this to serial fans, though Im a little unfamiliar still with serials in general. Anyone else, however, would probably be wise to wait and see if The Return of Chandu (the movie) and Chandu on the Magic Island make their way to DVD.
These abbreviated versions with all the duplicated scenes taken out may be more palatable for the casual viewer.