THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU
Color, 1968, 93 mins. 41 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Christopher Lee, Richard Greene, Howard Marion Crawford, Götz George, Maria Rohm, Tsai Chin, Shirley Eaton
CASTLE OF FU MANCHU
Color, 1969, 91 mins. 59 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Christopher Lee,
Richard Greene, Howard Marion Crawford, Tsai Chin, Rosalba Neri, Günther Stoll, Maria Perschy
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
After being lured back to reprise his Dracula role once for Hammer and vowing to not do so again (which turned out to be a short-lived decree), Christopher Lee was in high demand throughout the 1960s in a variety of horror and adventure films for various studios. During this period he managed to find another popular recurring character in the form of Fu Manchu, the pulp novel icon created by Sax Rohmer in a long string of paperback thrillers filled with global threats by a prime example of the "yellow peril" that posed an oddly xenophobic threat to England. Lee bowed the character in 1965 with The Face of Fu Manchu in 1965 for producer Harry Allan Towers, which was followed quickly by 1966's The Brides of Fu Manchu and 1967's The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, all released by Warner Brothers/Seven Arts in the U.S. When that deal ended, Towers took the series and frequent star Lee to director Jess Franco for two more films, which were shot mostly in Spain with a bit of location work in Rio. The end results were a little confounding for fans of the series and drew very harsh criticism over the years, especially the final film, though Franco fanatics will find them easier to appreciate as early entries in the director's cycle of colorful, glossy projects for Towers, which also included Venus in Furs, 99 Women, The Bloody Judge, and Eugenie.
1968's The Blood of Fu Manchu, also released in edited form as Kiss and Kill and Against All Odds, ups the kink factor of the series to its highest levels and brings back the usual characters including Fu Manchu (Lee), his nefarious daughter Lin Tang (You Only Live Twice's Chin), and regular British adversary Nayland Smith (Tales from the Crypt's Greene) for another variation on the idea of a female army scientifically engineered to take out world leaders, a la Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. Here ten women are being held captive in a forgotten Amazonian jungle city and filled with enough poison to kill a man with a single kiss. Fu Manchu decides to test out his latest sexy weapon on Smith, which leaves him blinded and relying on compatriot Dr. Petrie (Crawford) to help him track down the villainous scourge. That leads them to the jungle where they infiltrate the deadly lair with the aid of soldier of fortune Carl Jansen (George) and the beautiful blonde cowgirl Ursula Wagner (Rohm, Towers' wife and frequent star).
Filled with bright colors, banditos, and bondage galore courtesy of chained women in cages, this film encountered numerous censorship hassles and raised more than a few eyebrows with its publicity stills of topless women being tortured, one of which adorned the film's first VHS release box in America despite the fact that anything remotely naughty had been trimmed out of the film itself. The nudity level is actually pretty discreet by today's standards, but for a series of adventure films geared at preteens, it was definitely strong stuff. The low budget and sometimes pokey pacing can be a challenge if you're expecting something like the earlier Fu Manchu titles, but as a slice of cinematic exotica (with a slinky score by regular Franco composer Daniel White, it's an amusing diversion and a key entry in Franco's post-'60s evolution. Extra points for a cameo appearance by the always welcome Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger), in between her Towers gigs on The Million Eyes of Sumuru and Franco's The Girl from Rio and supposedly stuck in here without her knowledge.
The following year's The Castle of Fu Manchu is easily the least loved of the series and displays significant signs of a slashed budget, mainly consisting of close ups of characters sitting in rooms with a lot of stock footage thrown in to pad out the running time. Not helping matters was the fact that the film was released in murky, poorly timed theatrical prints in most territories, with even worse video editions over the years and a butchered version aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000 making it a real slog to watch. Fortunately the refurbished transfer issued on DVD in 2003 (at the same time as Blood) improved things considerably by restoring Franco's original color schemes, which are vital to appreciating its place in the director's canon and give the film a more stylized feeling than before. It's still highly flawed, of course, but not the endurance test it seemed to be at first glance.
This time Fu Manchu intones that he has developed the means to turn water into ice, which means he can control the solid or liquid state of the oceans. He proves this by sinking an ocean liner (with footage strangely cribbed from Brides of Fu Manchu and A Night to Remember!) and threatens to hold sway over the nautical shipping routes around the world. To accomplish this he needs the enforced services of some of the world's most brilliant minds, namely Dr. Heracles, Dr. Kessler (Stoll), and Dr. Koch (Perschy). The intrigue heats up in Turkey when other parties including Lisa (Italian sex symbol Neri, dressed in drag for an extended period) and even Franco himself as a local inspector get involved in the plot, which also tangentially brings back Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie again (still Greene and Crawford) to unravel the mystery, which also entails some open heart surgery and even more stock footage.
As mentioned above, both of these films bowed on DVD in 2003 from Blue Underground and looked considerably better than any prior editions. They were also the most complete editions to date, reinstating substantial chunks of footage removed for various territories over the years (with the U.S. getting the shortest one, sometimes years later). The same contents are ported over onto one disc for the 2017 Blu-ray release (absent a couple of text rundowns about the films), but in this case that's meant a little too literally; the preexisting standard def masters have just been ported over here, upconverted and given a slathering of waxy noise reduction that kills much of the film grain and detail in the process. There's literally no increase in detail here whatsoever, and in fact some issues like aliasing are aggravated in the process. Playing the DVDs via upconversion actually results in a more pleasant and convincing presentation, so consider grabbing this only if you don't have the DVDs already and can find it cheap. The audio also shows no difference from the prior editions as well. On the featurette side, "The Rise of Fu Manchu" (15m3s) features Franco, Lee, Eaton, Tsai Chin, and Towers, while "The Fall of Fu Manchu" (14m) has Franco, Lee, Chin, and Towers, essentially forming a complete piece between them about the rise of "yellow peril" pulp novels (which bore no resemblance to reality), the strangeness of Towers buying rights to the series and writing original scripts under his own pen name instead, the annoyance of the Fu Manchu makeup, and the amusement of having a director whose real first name, "Jesus," provided plenty of on-set puns. Theatrcial trailers and galleries of posters and stills are included for both features, with The Blood of Fu Manchu getting both its American and European trailer options.
THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU - DVD Frame Grabs
THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU - DVD Frame Grabs
Reviewed on June 10, 2017.