Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) has been studying under the tutelage of an Eastern mystic, and has at last completed his schooling, becoming Chandu, the first white man to be a yogi. In the temple which has become his home, he tries out his newly acquired powers, performing the Indian rope trick, having an out of body experience and walking over flaming coals without coming to any harm: there is no doubt in his master's mind that he is ready to enter the wider world. But he will have a mission to vanquish every evil he finds, and one in particular is pressing, that of Roxor (Bela Lugosi), a villain who has designs on the intellect of Chandu's brother-in-law (Henry B. Walthall). Why is that? Because the scientist has created a death ray!
A death ray that has the potential to destroy whole cities should it be misused, which begs the question, what else would it be used for? Why create it in the first place? The answer to that would be to give this comparatively brief movie an exciting finale as it is about to be unleashed and Chandu does his level best to prevent it, for this was what used to be termed hokum, pulp fiction to keep the kids and indulgent adults entertained and often in the form of an outmoded art, the movie serial. These had emerged more or less at the same time as the radio serial, when the medium was used for drama or comedy as much as it was for music, and tuning in every week - or every day, even - to catch up with the adventures of your favourite characters was something millions did.
So what better for the story-hungry movies to do than loot the radio for material, hence that medium's Chandu made it to the big screen, first as a standalone film and next as a serial, placing Lugosi in the title role? In the first film, he was in his by now quickly developed villainous persona thanks to Dracula typecasting him as an exotic presence of malevolence, and though that was not what he would play exclusively, it remained what he was best known for, it was expected of him (which offered the opportunity for producers to use him as a red herring in their thrillers as well). As anyone will tell you, his Roxor was the definite highlight as far as the actors went, a perfect marriage of over the top scheming and the full-blooded gusto of the star.
Lowe was the ostensible lead, and was in dashing, affable stylings as was typical of the day, a solid grounding of heroism amidst the surroundings of Egypt, or what passed for Egypt in Hollywood of the era. Though this was not a lavishly-budgeted effort, it conjured up a genuine sense of otherworldliness thanks to James Wong Howe's glowing cinematography and the imaginative art design with cleverly used sets and miniatures all creating an atmosphere of the arcane, a sense of danger for Chandu and his sister's family to face peril in. There was also a princess, Nadji (Irene Ware, an actress who never quite made stardom), for our man to romance and rescue, and this being a Pre-Code movie there were instances which would never have gotten by the censors a couple of years later, such as the eye-searing torture device or Chandu's niece (June Lang) at a white slavery auction where she was plainly clad in a slip and nothing else (don't get too excited, the actress was only fifteen at the time).
But it was the thrills that this was here for, and directors Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies (who must have been in charge of those sets) kept this rocketing forward with great pace. If the idea of Bela Lugosi getting his hands on his own, personal death ray sounded irresistible entertainment to you, then this would deliver on the fun without a doubt, and though he was not in this as much as perhaps his fans would have liked him to be, he was certainly making his scenes count, practically rubbing his hands together and smacking his lips with glee at the thought of wiping out half the human race and forcing the rest of it into slavery. In addition, there was comedy relief from the tragically shortlived Herbert Mundin, a Liverpudlian character actor who made a niche for himself in Hollywood: his bits of business with his own, tiny double, generated by Chandu to put him off the demon drink, offer an impression of how wacky this could get. More interesting from a social point of view, the concerns that the masses could be swayed by a charismatic madman was definitely in the air. But mainly, this was a rollicking good time for vintage aficionados.