The 1930s were a different time in many ways. There was a fascination at the time with the concept of the Chinese detective, a sleuth who could solve crimes that baffled the police but who was nevertheless an outsider whose ways both gave him insights foreign to the general public and at the same time made him an eccentric who could not always be understood himself. While best exemplified by Charlie Chan, Chan was hardly the only example, and there were extensive runs of short mystery films based on the similar Mr. Moto and Mr. James Lee Wong, of which 1938′s Mr. Wong, Detective is the first.
But at the same time that America was so fascinated with the Chinese detective, Hollywood wasn’t about to put an Asian man in the lead role of a film. So, in a move that would be cringe-inducing today, Mr. James Lee Wong, Chinese-American, is played by Boris Karloff, an Englishman with some distant Anglo-Indian heritage, with a fair amount of squinting. (Racial sensitivity wasn’t remotely on Hollywood’s radar back in those days.)
Roger Corman’s The Terror is inappropriately titled for a few reasons. First is that it’s just a very common, generic title; it’s the most recent of six different English-language films with that title. (Presumably studios learned to be more specific afterward, but with the state of Hollywood today, I’m sure we’ll see a new The Terror by 2015.) Secondly, the movie isn’t exactly a terrifying film, and there’s only an occasional scare chord to suggest we’re supposed to be concerned. And thirdly, none of the characters in the film seem to be in a state of terror, mostly just concern, confusion, and anger. Even the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (horror legend Boris Karloff) who is the victim of the apparent haunting isn’t so much terrified as just morbidly depressed. It’s more of a supernatural-tinged mystery than a horror film, despite the implication of the title.