Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968 ) / THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969) (Blu-ray Review)


Label: Blue Underground
Region Code: Region-FREE
Duration: 94 Minutes/94 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono with Optional English subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1)

Director: Jess Franco
Cast: Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Shirley Eaton,Richard Greene, Maria Rohm, Maria Perschy,  Rosalba Neri

In the 60's producer Harry Alan Towers bought the rights to British author Sax Rohmer's series of yellow-peril novels about a maniacal Asian supervillain bent on world domination, Fu Manchu, the character had appeared in numerous TV, movie and novel incarnations, but it was nefarious producer Towers who would go into revive the character in the 60's after three decades of inactivity, in a series of five film starring horror icon Christopher Lee (The Creeping Flesh) as the titular Fu Manchu. The criminal "yellow-peril" character is patently offensive to Asians, make no mistake, and Lee's makeup appliances which give him the Asian-styled eyelids was surely poorly advised, but apparently cinema goers went for it in the 60s, and the franchise was a huge success... that is until Towers recruited decided to forgo his usual English directors like Don Sharp (Psychomania) and brought in Spanish Eurosleaze auteur Jess Franco (She Killed In Ecstasy) for what would turn out to be the last two entries in the 60's series, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), the latter of which effectively killed off the character for quite some time, with only one revival I'm aware of, the send-up The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) by comedy-legend Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther), which I've never seen. Towers must have liked Franco though, these were the first of several team-up the pair collaborated on.

The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)opens deep in the Amazon jungle, we find the nefarious Fu Manchu and his loyal daughter/assassin Lin Tang (Tsai Chin, You Only Live Twice), in their cave lair where they have rediscovered an ancient poison secreted by a particular snake, a venom that is only deadly to men, first causing blindness and then a painful death a few weeks later. He devises a evil plan for world domination, to lace ten women he has kidnapped with the venom by having the snake bite them, and since the poison only works on men, he will send them out into the world laced with his "kiss of death", under some form of mind control, to spread his poisonous kiss of death to his intended enemies and world leaders, and if his ransom demands are not met, they will all die, oh how devious! 

His first victim is his longtime arch nemesis, Scotland Yard Detective Nayland Smith (Richard Greene, Tales from the Crypt), a young woman shows up on his doorstep, forces herself on him with a deep kiss, and while at first he seems slightly amused by the intrusion he is quickly stricken by blindness, his longtime sidekick, the older Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford), the Watson to his Holmes, jumps into action and runs after the girl but she is struck down by a passing motorist. With little other choice, Petrie and the blind Smith head for the Amazon jungle in search of a cure and to apprehend the diabolical Fu Manchu, with the aid of a guide/adventurer Carl Jansen (Götz George), plus a pretty nurse named Ursula (Maria Rohm, 99 Women).

They face many perils in the jungle, including capture and torture at the hands of Fu Manchu and Lin Tang, but the mighty Manchu also enlists the aid of a Mexican bandit named Sancho (Ricardo Palacios, The People Who Own the Dark), who himself is mistaken for an agent of Nayland Smith, his group of bandits are slaughtered by Lin tang, he is then tortured by Fu Manchu on the iron maiden before aiding the Asian menace in his diabolical plans. 

It all comes to a head in Fu Manchu;s jungle lair, there's a shit ton of goofy, poorly coordinated violence, kitschy bloodshed, women in chains, women in peril, and then there's a hilarious dummy thrown over a waterfall, and a weird cameo from  Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger) apparently lifted straight from Franco's The Girl from Rio! 

The movie is a bit of a hot mess to be honest, but par for the course for one of Harry Alan Towers action-adventure movies, loaded with low-budget jungle action and the racist trappings of yellow peril exploitation, but way overstuffed with busy subplots that don't pay off. Lee is a stoic menace for sure, the role is beneath him, but ever the consummate professional he always did his best, living his mantra that “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them”, and sure enough he soldiers on in his Asian eye makeup doing his damndest. However, it's actor Palacios who steals all the scenes, the guy is comedic and fun, and a welcome relief, giving his scenes a sort of spaghetti western comedy feel, good stuff. 

The movie is a bit reigned in by the usual Jess Franco standards, we still get some topless women in chains being tortured, it's just toned down, but it is still a blast in a weird 60's action-adventure sort of way with some great looking exotic jungle locations and a slightly kitschy lair carved in stone, it's good stuff for Lee and Franco fans looking for some good, cheesy fun, with a swanky score from composer Daniel White (The Hot Night of Linda). 

Just a year later Jess Franco and Christopher Lee returned to Fu Manchu series with the fifth and final entry, the near universally loathed The Castle of Fu Manchu (1960). Also returning are the villainous daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) and his nemesis Nayland Smith (Richard Greene) and his sidekick  Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford). As promised at the end of the last film, despite his lair having been blown sky high, he returned, with a new diabolical plan. This time he's figured out a way to transform bodies of water into ice, which he uses to threaten travel and commerce throughout the world. It begins with a demonstration of his new found toy, causing an iceberg to appear and sink a luxury cruiser in the Caribbean! The plot is not too far removed from a fiendish 007 story I guess, but the execution is hackneyed, not only does it have scenes from the previous film peppered throughout, but it also used no less that footage from two other films, including a lengthy blue-tinted scene from the Titanic opus A Night to Remember (1958)!

Again we have an overly busy series of sub plots involving an opium dealer, a professor, and his sexy assistant (Maria Perschy, Night of the Seagulls), there's also a heart transplant and of course Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are again hot on the trail of the diabolical Fu Manchu's to put a stop to his fiendish plot for world domination. While the movie is seriously weak sauce it does have a few fun moments, particularly for fans of Franco with some attractive lensing with cool colored lighting, some okay atmosphere, and more of the generally poorly choreographed fighting including some rubbery bayonet action!

Franco himself shows up as an inspector, and there's a cool female assassin for hire played by the Rosalba Neri (The Girl in Room 2A) that help pass the time but it is not a surprise that this ramshackle effort was the last of the Towers produced Fu Manchu films. Again, Lee is an imposing figure, he does what he can with the material, he certainly elevates it to a degree, but as the saying goes, you cannot polish a turd, but apparently you can wrap in in the low-budget trappings of a yellow-peril action/adventure film... this is probably one of the worst films in  Christopher Lee's filmography, but the same cannot be said for Franco, while I love a lot of his stuff he definitely made worse movies than this throughout his storied career. Not helping is that it is absent any nudity and the sleaze is toned way down, plus the score is considerably less swanky this time around!  Again the film ends with Fu Manchu possibly dying in an explosion but again uttering the words "the world shall hear from me again", but nope, that didn't happen folks. 

Audio/Video: The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu arrive on a double-feature Blu-ray from Blue Underground, whom have previously issued both as stand alone DVD editions in the past. Both are presented in 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1) and look slightly degrained, fine detail is smeared the image is a bit soft, it's a slight step in picture quality over the previous DVD editions, but only by a hair. To my eyes The Castle of Fu Manchu has the more attractive of the transfers. The lossless mono audio is fairly flat but clean without any distortion, optional English subtitles are provided for both films. 

Onto the extras Blue Underground have ported over all the non-text based extras, this includes the 2-part The Rise of Fu Manchu featurettes with Jess Franco, Harry Alan Towers, and stars Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, and Shirley Eaton. Franco begins by speaking of his love of the novels by Sax Rohmer, he also compliments Towers on his screenwriting prowess, believing him to be a well-read and literary man with a gift for screenwriting. The director also speaks humorously about getting the call to do the first time, believing it to be a hoax by his friends as it seemed to legit to be true!  For her part Eaton shows up to speak unfavorably of how her scenes from The Girl from Rio (1968) ended up in The Blood of Fu Manchu without any compensation, Franco disputes that fact, but Towers more or less says that if that's what she says it is probably so. Tsai Chin speaks of appearing in films that were biased and racist, the silly plot devices of the series, and how the hero is always a white man, and she recalls Lee complaining a lot about his makeup and some of the misogyny of the movies.  Lee himself shows up to speak about why he stopped playing Dracula, working with Franco and Towers, and how he was puzzled by the fact that Towers bought the right to all of Rohmer's novels but then proceeded to write his own script stories, plus his aggravation at the eye makeup, and how in hindsight they should have stopped after the first film, that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. There are also trailers for each film, plus two expanded image galleries with over 240 images of posters, lobby cards, home video releases, stills and press books from various territories.

The Blood of Fu Manchu Special Features:

- The Rise of Fu Manchu - Interviews with Director Jess Franco, Producer Harry Alan Towers, and Stars Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, and Shirley Eaton (15 min) 
- Theatrical Trailers (2 min) HD 
- Poster and Still Gallery (127 images) HD

The Castle of Fu Manchu Special Features:
- The Fall of Fu Manchu - Interviews with Director Jess Franco, Producer Harry Alan Towers, and Stars Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin (14 min) 
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD 
- Poster and Still Gallery (110 images) HD

Neither of these Fu Manchu films rise to the level of anywhere near the best work that star Christopher Lee or director Jess Franco did, there's good reason that Mystery Science Theater 3000 dedicated an episode to The Castle of Fu Manchu, these are bad movies! However, together this makes for a fun, trashy action-adventure double-feature for fans of sketchy 60s exploitation cinema. Thankfully this can be picked up for pretty cheap, definitely worth a purchase for cult cinema fans, lovers of bad cinema, and those looking to fill in the gaps of their Christopher Lee and Jess Franco Blu-ray collections.