Evil Magicians and Mesmerists in Classic Horror

Continuing our month-long series of classic horror posts launched here, today we survey several films from the 1930s and 40s that are centered around sinister monsters and villains who scheme for wealth, sex and/or power using magic and thought control. You might call this subgenre an offshoot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And the Mummy films certainly fall into this subgenre, but there are so many of them that they form their own category and we have given them their own post. 

Often in such films the characters have much in common with mad scientists. The line between science and the supernatural is often blurred. In both cases the person at the center is in fanatical pursuit of knowledge, a knowledge so earth-shaking it transforms him into a monster. In this particular branch of the genre, the racism we spoke about in our opening essay comes into play — the magicians are usually from the “East”:  Asians or Jews, with an intrinsic ability to horrify or disgust based on their foreignness, a story point readers of H.P. Lovecraft know well, although he is far from the only perpetrator of this unhealthy mindset. And horror is far from the only genre to encompass it — it can be hard to know where to draw the line, for many murder mysteries and suspense thrillers of the day come very close in spirit (and even science fiction fantasy if you consider characters like Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon serials). For me it crosses the line into horror when: A) the mystical villain possesses actual uncanny magical powers that are not revealed to have mechanical solutions; and B) he either commits or tries to commit abduction, torture, rape, murder…or world domination.

A few related posts on closely allied subgenres will follow, on mad scientists, sadists and witch doctors.


Svengali (1931)

I find it strange that this film is not normally associated with horror — I think it qualifies as much as, say, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  And John Barrymore, who plays the title character earned more than his share of horror street cred in his version of the former film. There is more than a hint of the supernatural in Svengali’s hypnotism, especially as realized in this film….his eyes become these amazing huge smokey orbs with no pupil or iris. Also he is as evil as any monster or mad scientist, and , as in so many horror films of the time, his creepy aim is to catch, control and rape “the girl”.

I read the novel Trilby many years ago…it is is dreadful, as bad as, or worse than Dracula. And the book is jaw-droppingly anti-semitic. That aspect has been expunged here. Instead of a Jew, Svengali has now become a mysterious “Pole or something”. But he is still painted as disgusting, with unwashed, greasy long hair, a pariah even among Bohemian artists.

Trilby (Marian Marsh) comes into the scene as an artist’s model. Svengali is attracted to her at once, gives her his “headache cure” and the story proceeds from there. But he also notes that she has rare vocal architecture. He can control her mind long distance. He makes her a great singing star. But the process drains him. He begins to waste away. Five years later when the heroes catch up with them they are at their peak, but begin to descend because Svengali can’t keep it up any more. At the last performance he dies…and because she is psychically connected to him, Trilby dies too.

Poster - Chandu the Magician_01

Chandu the Magician (1932)

Fox’s answer to Universal’s string of horror hits. It is an absolutely gorgeous movie set in a “Mysterious East” of the imagination. It is based on a radio show that had much in common with The Shadow and Mandrake the Magician, and clearly is a model for the later comic book Dr. Strange.

“Chandu” is the American Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) who in the first act has just finished a course to be a yogi of the highest order. He celebrates his mystic ceremony by performing some gratuitous, familiar magic tricks: causing a rope to float, walking across fire. He is given his mission by his mystical mentor to go out and do good in the world. Conveniently his first mission is close to home. His brother in law, a scientist who is working on a death ray (cue the tesla coils) is kidnapped by an evil mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is great in the part; the guy who plays Chandu unfortunately is a bit of a schmuck. The bulk of the plot is set in Egypt which mysteriously bears not a trace of resemblance to the modern Muslim country. Though gang members have names like Abdullah, they appear to worship Osiris and other ancient gods, providing us with a choice Mummy movie atmosphere.

Chandu’s sidekick is an old army buddy—for some reason he is a Kiplingesque hard drinking Britisher….what army were they in precisely? He is the comic relief, always sneaking a drink. To keep him in line, Chandu conquers a little impish double who constantly chides him for his drinking. There are many memorable scenes. One very racy Pre-Code scene has Chandu’s niece being sold at a white slave auction. Several, toothless, dark-hued foreigners leer and drool as they bid on her. In a great set piece, the villain causes the floor of the cell containing Chandu’s family to slowly drop out, threatening to send them plummeting into an underground river several hundred feet below. And the climax is blood chilling. Chandu causes Lugosi to freeze with his hands on the control to the death ray. The thing starts to overheat, while the villain stands there horribly immobile until the thing explodes. Nightmarish.


The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

This is tangentially a horror film, a sort of sub-genre (murder mystery/sci fi/ travelogue of the Mysterious East, much like Chandu the Magician). Karloff is the titular Fu a sinister, soulless villain with eight inch long finger nails and a plot to use the powers of the recently discovered sword of Genghis Khan to take over the entire world. He kidnaps the archaeologist who found it, demanding to know its whereabouts, and terrorizing his friends and family. Fu is scarcely human — he much resembles Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. He is also a mad scientist, cementing his inclusion here amongst the horror films. His full title is DR. Fu Manchu.  He operates on people, but usually just to torture them. His torture methods are diabolically creative—he relishes it. Also he has excellent Tesla coils , which he uses to great effect when he gets his hand on Khan’s sword.  His daughter, played by Myrna Loy, exists only to corrupt and torture. They seem to have mysterious powers to mesmerize people against their will and make them their slaves. In the end, the heroes turn the electric ray on Fu’s army of minions and make their escape.


The Ghoul (1933)

A British horror film, with a light tone for the most part that reminds one of “Old Dark House” movies. Boris Karloff an eccentric rich man on his death bed. He had purchased certain stolen Egyptian relics that, with proper ceremony, will bestow immortality. He dispatches his butler to take care of certain necessary duties relevant to the ritual. Then he dies.

The middle of the film reads like a haunted-house, reading-of-the-will comedy. Two heirs: a young man and a young woman who are cousins but become romantically entwined (h’m…), the girl’s room-mate, a scheming lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke), an Egyptian who wants the relics back and his lackey, and a young priest (Ralph Richardson in his first film role). After a bit of interplay amongst them all, including arguments, flirtation, and so forth Karloff comes back to life. He kills the Egyptian’s assistant, attacks the girl etc. He enacts a ritual in the tomb. It then emerges that is a trick, the priest is really some kind of crook. Several characters are locked in the tomb, the others fight outside, and the tomb catches on fire. Finally the tomb explodes, and the couple escapes. Meanwhile, it has emerged that Karloff didn’t really die, he was just catatonic, and the supernatural events were fakes—a naturalistic explanation to the whole thing.


The Return of Chandu (1934)

The sequel to Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi as Frank Chandler (his thick accent completely unexplained). This edition seems done on the cheap and is rather dull, I couldn’t get past the first couple of episodes.


She (1935)

An amazing movie, based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. A kind of flip of the usual sex roles. In this one the monster (or “mad scientist) is an immortal, despotic woman, played by Helen Gahagan Douglas (wife of Melvyn and nemesis of Nixon) in her one and only starring role. And the love object is a young man, Randolph Scott in one of his early non-western roles. He and his partner Nigel Bruce travel to the Arctic circle above Russia and team up with a trader and his daughter (Helen Mack). They are en route to find a rare element said to bestow immortality. “The Flame of Life”. The trader is killed in an avalanche. The three are captured in a cave by Morelock-like primitives, who seem poised to eat them. Then ancient-attired soldiers appear (evoking Sumeria and other ancient civilizations) and rescue them and bring them to She Who Must Be Obeyed (Douglas) in their subterranean land.

She rules with an iron fist, kills whomever displeases her. She wants Scott (who resembles her lover of 500 years ago who happens to have been his ancestor), and has convinced him to stay with her, but then she makes the mistake of trying to sacrifice the trader’s daughter in a ritual ceremony. Scott and Bruce rescue her and escape. Then they run into She at her temple, where she steps into the Flame of Life, which for some mysterious reasons ages her horribly until she dies. This is an RKO picture — gorgeous art deco design, and some very neat choreography in ritual scenes. She was later remade in 1965 by Hammer with Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. 


Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

We shall write about this one further in our upcoming zombies post, but it kind of straddles both subgenres, because this one is set in — of all places — Cambodia. And so the atmosphere is very much that of the Mysterious East, with swirling incense and gongs…



Just wanted to note a related film here. Frank Capra’s 1937 Lost Horizon (which I wrote about here), seems to me much related and it moments seems to intimate horror, but ultimately isn’t, but it’s interesting to contemplate the similarities.

Also: the kind of film we have been writing about seems to evaporate after the 1930s. The reason why is obvious, it seems to me. World War Two brought the western world very much into contact with the Eastern. After that, it lost a good deal of its “mystery”; it was hard to paint it as a world of Fairy Tale Imagination when millions of G.I.’s  had been there and back and never encountered any magicians or magic. It doesn’t vanish entirely, of course. (I think of Marvel Comic’s Dr. Strange, for example, as a particularly late example.) But it is far less prevalent — and certainly not the default, as it once was.

There are later films that come close in spirit, though. This is one:


The Climax (1944)

A rotten title for a movie, but it ends up being worthwhile picture. But one must be patient, and sit through several goopy musical theatre routines. It was conceived as a sort of sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, and has much in common as well with Svengali. Boris Karloff is the throat doctor to a Viennese opera company. Years ago he became obsessed with a diva and killed her. Now the same thing is happening with a new singer. Note to singers: always beware of Boris Karloff when he soothes and assures you and offers to take you back to his house for an “examination”! He hyponotizes the girl so she can’t sing and he now has control over her. (It’s the hypnosis that justified this film’s inclusion here) Eveneually others piece together what’s going on. The singer’s own will triumphs. Karoff flees to his chamber where his previous victim is in suspended animation. Then, as so often, happens, he dies in a spectacular fire. 

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