EL FRANCONOMICON / I'M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND

Robert Monell & Alex Mendíbil Blog Alliance

THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969)

with one comment

This is Fu Manchu. Once again, the world is at my mercy.” — Dr. Fu Manchu

No automatic alt text available.

I first saw this second Jess Franco-directed Fu Manchu epic on local television in 1973. It was broadcast in black and white. It didn’t impress me. In fact I didn’t watch the entire film. I decided that I would never watch another Jess Franco film. It seemed that dire….

Then there was the 1981 EVI VHS (above) which was my next encounter, after deciding to give Jess Franco’s cinema “one more chance.” It seemed at least watchable, with some attractive color gel filtering not available on my previous black and white viewing.

It begins with Fu Manchu directing from his secret control room the sinking of a luxury liner in tropical waters by means of a device which turns water into ice and, in the arch-villain’s own words, “safety into Peril!” This is represented by intercutting the sinking of the Titanic via footage from Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 A NIGHT TO REMEMBER with color footage from (according to some sources) an earlier Harry Alan Tower’s Fu Manchu opus, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU. The color footage of the control-room scene depicting the struggle of Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, in his final appearance as the character), daughter-in-crime, Lin Tang (Tsai Chin, looking somewhat more enthused about her murderous antics than in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU) and a henchman over a “safety” switch, of course, obviously clashes with the tinted B & W footage and one wonders if writer-producer Tower’s cared if its intended audience would even notice. The director must have been delighted to be making a Fu Manchu film despite the budget restrictions. The classic Fu Manchu film is, of course, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932, Charles Brabin) featuring a leering Boris Karloff as the mad Doctor Fu Manchu.

The basic plot to take over the world by dominating shipping lanes is reasonable enough but the action quickly and permanently veers into a subplot involving the kidnapping of Dr Heracles (the inventor of the icing process) and his friends, Dr Kessler (Gunther Stoll) and Dr Ingrid Koch (the lovely Maria Perschy). Most of the narrative is set in Istanbul with local mover and shakers Omar Pasha (Jose Manuel Martin), his factotum, Lisa, (Rosalba Neri, wearing her stunning mane under a fez and hiding her body underneath men’s clothing), the spy, Melnick, and the concerned Inspector Ahmet (Jess Franco himself, also topped off with a smart red fez), either working for or against Fu Manchu’s plot. There’s lots of rather tedious exposition and Scotland Yard’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith (Richard Greene) and his loyal assistant Dr Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford) seem pretty much side-lined and clueless up until the very last few scenes. It is amusing to watch an early scene of Nayland-Smith deducing that Dr’s Kessler and Koch have been kidnapped by spotting a lit cigarette on the edge of a polished wooden table.

This film works as an illustration of Ado Kyrou’s exhortation: “I urge you: learn to look at ‘bad’ films, they are so often sublime.” I usually prefer to laugh “with” films rather than “at” them. Nonetheless, I find it hard to not break into a satisfied smile as I watch Fu Manchu standing in Barcelona, atop a Gaudi tower, directing the destruction of a dam. What’s amusing here is that the dam cracking and drowning the workers below is obviously footage from another film with completely different grading and color. It’s a sort of involuntary surrealism resulting from the desperation of near-broke and ruthless filmmakers ready and willing to trick the hard earned cash from the grip of devoted fans of the original Sax Rohmer stories and the previous Fu Manchu films. One has to laugh or feel insulted.

Filming began in September 1968 and I would be surprised if there was a finished script at that point. The exotic locale is Istanbul. Unfortunately, the very first introductory shots of the ancient city (remember, this is supposedly the 1920s) show 1960’s era Chevrolets and BMWs parked on the docks in the foreground. It’s impossible NOT to notice these glaring anachronisms and one wonders what the filmmakers were thinking. Couldn’t they have adjusted the camera a few degrees to the right or left? Why didn’t the supervising editor catch it and use alternate takes? WERE there acceptable alternate takes available? Probably not.

The delicate bubble of Fantastique is burst from the get-go. Director Franco was able to employ some delicious emerald and crimson color-gel lighting to illuminate the tatty lab sets and underground chambers which fill with water at the end. This does indeed provide some sort of comic book/serial ambience which the director discusses in the accompanying documentary, THE FALL OF FU MANCHU. The climax is a riot of ineptly edited stock footage: explosions from B & W war movies, shots of characters hurrying out of the exploding castle and Lin Tang, followed by Fu Manchu, rushing out of the shot, not once, but twice. Ed Wood, you are avenged!

We haven’t even mentioned the “heart transplant” scene and it’s probably best not to. Every detail, from the costumes to the sets, seems completely unconvincing, false. This falsity, though, can be compelling when guided by an aesthetic trickster with the talent of Jess Franco. Unfortunately, the results are highly erratic and its obvious that Franco had very limited control over the final product. Lee looks totally exhausted here and even more uncomfortable in his Asian makeup than in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU. Rosalba Neri’s polymorphous-perverse spy pretty much steals the show and attention tends to fade when she is offscreen. Franco’s THE GIRL FROM RIO (also written and produced by Towers) and 1987’s SLAVES OF CRIME (sans Towers) were more visually striking attempts to approximate Sax Rohmer and both had a compelling erotic atmosphere as a bonus added extra, something CASTLE totally lacks. Listen closely to producer Tower’s comments about Jess Franco’s direction. Towers once said something to the effect that Franco couldn’t direct traffic, describing the director as a musician whom traded his trombone for a zoom lens. It will be up to the individual viewer to judge whom to blame for this highly entertaining fiasco.

BLUE UNDERGROUND has provided another colorful transfer from mostly pristine original materials of the longest (94m) version of this film yet to appear on home video. The 1.66:1 letterboxing and Dolby Digital Mono sound transform this admittedly modest effort into a highly watchable curio. Extras include a theatrical trailer, poster and still gallery, “The Facts of Dr. Fu Manchu”, talent bios and VIDEO WATCHDOG Tim Lucas finishes off his thorough and highly informative liner notes on the history of the Fu Manchu phenomenon. This has been released in HD on Blu-ray since this review was first written, making the comic book aesthetic even more impressive.

Reviewed by Robert Monell, copyright 2003-2018

Written by Robert Monell

7 julio 2018 at 2:43 PM

BANGKOK, CITA CON LA MUERTE (Clifford Brown, 1985)

leave a comment »

BANGKOK, APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH (VSOM dupe from Spanish television broadcast; No official North American VHS, DVD release)

Features
Reviews
Video Resources
Links
Credits
A good-natured experiment, BANGKOK CITY OF THE DEAD (1985) mixes comic book-style imagery with crime film elements, some self parody and a martial arts driven thriller plot. Franco has tried this before, notably in the delightful LOS BLUES CALLE POP…. (1983) and La sombra del judoka contra el doctor Wong (1985). Unlike LOS BLUES CALLE POP…. BANGKOK is fascinating to the seriousJess Franco student but may not engage interest as a serious action film with martial arts interludes included. The overly formulaic plot combines drug running, Thai pirates (led by Lina Romay), karate fighting, kidnapping, comic relief and tourist footage which looks cribbed from an unknown source.

The yacht-going daughter of a millionaire is kidnapped by pirates. Her father (Eduardo Fajardo) hires a bumbling private eye named Panama Joe (Bork Gordon) to locate her. The daughter’s boyfriend is also on the kidnappers’ trail. Panama Joe discovers the crooks are led by a drug smuggler (Antonio Mayans), who is in turn being double crossed by Queen Amania (Lina Romay). The detective roams around the faux Asian locations, tries to play both sides against the other, while uncovering deeper layers of corruption and double dealing.

BANGKOK is dialogue and plot heavy to no good end, and Gordon’s imitation Inspector Columbo ramblings just do not spark enough interest. The characters are shown talking in cartoon dialog balloons during the opening credits, but Franco unaccountably drops this unusual device immediately and never picks it up again. What’s left is a C-minus adventure with some ill-timed comic relief and ineptly staged karate stand-offs, in which the participants miss each other by miles. Gordon (Christian Borck) just seems a disheveled guy, actually a German comedian/television actor, who wandered in. Like the karate stuff, comedy-parody needs timing. The lines and martial arts blows rarely connect. Actually, I managed to find some amusement in the martial arts showdowns where the fighters miss contact with each other by such obvious distances that it looks like children playing at karate fighting. This is all likely due to a crushing schedule/lack of budget. Nonetheless the colorful cinematography frames the locations with skill and makes the Canary Islands seem like Southeast Asia, at least for 90 minutes.

Lina Romay has a few touching moments as the pirate leader, but she is once again miscast, and her familiarity as Lina Romay distracts from her performance. In one embarrassing scene, shes dances around in a tight swimsuit accompanied by a mechanical band. The result might been cute in 1973, but at this late date it is unfunny and unflattering to the talented Ms. Romay. Veteran character actor Fajardo (DJANGO)  turns in a professional but unexceptional performance as the millionaire.

The movie benefits from its luminous cinematography and occasionally hectic energy but needs a more interesting focal point.. The Far Eastern locations, represented via the aforementioned stock footage are given an atmospheric boost by Pablo Villa’s (Franco and Daniel White) brassy score, some of which recalls music heard in Franco’s earlier FU MANCHU AND THE KISS OF DEATH/KISS AND KILL (1967). Given the negatives I’m at the stage where I can still engage with and enjoy even an understandably flawed genre mashup such as this one. It’s obvious that Jess Franco took it serious enough to attempt to deliver a multi-faced entertainment package under impossible circumstances. As he told me when I interviewed him on his Golden Films Internacional period, these productions were “poor” i.e. made at very low coast, with little or no resources and rushed out to theaters or hidden away in the offices of producer Emilio Larraga to be lost forever. I had some fun watching it but have no idea where one could see it outside of fan websites. I am not aware of any DVD release, although it may have appeared on Spanish VHS.

The version I saw was from the wretchedly unreliable VSOM and had no English subtitles. Maybe if a good quality print with desperately needed language options appeared I would give it another shot.
(C) Robert Monell [1998: New Version: 2018]

Bangkok, Cita con la Muerte
1985 87 MINUTES Spanish TV broadcast DIRECTED BY “CLIFFORD BROWN” (JESUS FRANCO) WITH: LINA ROMAY, ANTONIO MAYANS, JOSE LLAMAS, HELENA BARRET, BORK GORDON, EDUARDO FAJARDO

Written by Robert Monell

29 junio 2018 at 9:38 PM

MARIA TOWERS ROHM (1945-2018)

leave a comment »

Here is some updated information on the recent, sad passing of the iconic actress Maria Rohm, the wife of Jess Franco’s former producer-writer Harry Alan Towers. She appeared in a series of Jess Franco films, from THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) to SEX CHARADE (1972), the latter a still lost film. She had acting skill, acquired from her work in the Viennese theater from the age of 5 and developed for decades in numerous productions by Harry Alan Towers and others. She also had class, a lovely woman and warm friend whom her fans will miss.

She was a magical presence, especially as the haunting Wanda in Jess Franco’s VENUS IN FURS (1969). She probably gave her most layered performance in Franco’s EUGENIE.. THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION/DE SADE 70/DIE JUNGFRAU UND DIE PEITSCHE/LES INASSOUVIES (1970).  In that Sade adaptation she plays the stunningly beautiful but devious Madame de St. Ange, the female viper from Sade’s story Philosophy in the Boudoir, who attempts to destroy,  but ends up liberating, the young, innocent Eugenie (Marie Liljedahl). Written by producer Towers, under his Peter Welbeck beard, it’s one of Franco’s best Sade adaptations. The cold blooded Mme St. Ange is perfectly and memorably captured by Maria’s precise performance. Maria was also well cast as Mina Harker in the Franco-Towers EL CONDE DRACULA (1969), as prisoner 99 in Franco’s 1969 hit 99 WOMEN, and as the innocent Mary Gray,  persecuted as a witch in the Towers-Franco historical horror THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970), featuring Christopher Lee as witch-finder Judge Jeffries. She managed to focus attention as both likable characters and as villains, matching wits and holding her own with the imposing Christopher Lee and other international stars.

Thanks to Maria for her emails and messages to me on her appearances and memories in Jess Franco-Harry Alan Towers productions. R.I.P.

The 6e0023b6fb548c6a0218be4b8b201ff4 (1)following is from her FACEBOOK page and includes a new Tribute site:

** FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO DO NOT YET KNOW + A MEMORIAL SITE HAS BEEN SET UP xo <3 Hunter

Dearest Friends,
It is with great sadness that I share the news that our dear friend Maria Towers / nee Maria Rohm has passed away. She collapsed suddenly and was admitted to hospital unable to walk. At that time it was determined that she had acute leukaemia and a tumour pressing on her spine which was the cause of the paralysis. She had been in pain for months thinking it was sciatica, so by the time the diagnosis was made she was suffering considerably. Her condition deteriorated rapidly and she died within days of entering the hospital.
I’m sure you all have many questions but to answer each one of you individually while processing my own grief and taking care of all practical arrangements on this end may not be timely.

As one of Maria’s final wishes and to bring everyone together a “virtual memorial” and online portal has been set up at

https://maria-towers.muchloved.com/

*****Here you can post photos, condolences, memories, as well as make direct donations to the Canadian Cancer Society and for her final expenses.

This fundraiser has been set up… https://www.gofundme.com/maria-towers-final-expenses , as one of Maria’s final wishes to remove the burden from the few and share the arrangement with the many. Anything you can contribute is greatly appreciated. xoxo

MARIA-TOWERS.MUCHLOVED.COM
Dedicated to the memory of Maria Towers

Written by Robert Monell

26 junio 2018 at 1:18 AM

VIAJE A BANGKOK,  ATAUD INCLUIDO (Jess Franco, 1985)

with 2 comments

The Robot assassin watches the diplomatic party though sunglasses.

Col. Blimp (Howard Vernon) caught in the lens of the killer robot….Ocular adventures in the Edgar Wallace mode. This is actually a pretty faithful remake of Franco’s 1966 black and white cheapie,  CARTES SUR TABLE /CARTES  BOCCA ARRIBA (ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS), which featured Eddie Constantine as Al Pereira, replaced here with Howard Vernon as an agent Investigating a sect of assassins. With Christian Bork,  Helena Garrett and Jose Llamas.     The scenes involving the rituals of the sect are staged with a touch  of minimalist delirium,  complete with smoke and mirrors. Stock footage is  used to represent Thailand. A film of some visual interest despite the recycled plot.

Above-The Excelsior: Cult Fiction

This was  Franco’s final Edgar Wallace “adaptation”, if there is indeed any Wallace element here at all. Franco spoke about wanting to film Wallace’s THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY right up to the end of his careerNot as much fun as the 1983 SANGRE EN MIS ZAPATOS, not to mention THE DEVIL CAME FROM AKASAVA (1970), as more official Edgar Wallace film adaptations, Jess Franco style. One gets the sense that a gentle type of genre ridicule was intended, which doesn’t quite carry to non Spanish speakers. Howard Vernon appears to be having fun with his Eurospy antics. This Manacoa production was obviously a way to gain further income from an idea which Franco wanted to revisit for nearly 20 years. The color here is less expressive than the black and white noir-look of ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS. There are a lot of personal in-jokes, which only Jess Franco got, simply because he reinvented them, as he did the main plot. It’s always fun to try to imagine what Franco meant with certain scenes in certain projects. But the meaning of this is either deeply buried or nonexistent. As always the “meaning” is not in the dialogue, plot or acting. It’s in the style of the film itself. A hall of mirrors and other reflective surfaces which capture and expand the action, modestly resourced and staged as it is, into sometimes startling dimensions.

(C) Robert Monell (2018)

Written by Robert Monell

26 abril 2018 at 2:02 AM

Subliminal imagery in the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet

leave a comment »

wp-image-2011834079jpg.jpg

 

BELOW:  L’Eden et apres (1970):  I managed to capture this after several viewings. This shot lasts for less than one second of screen time and acts as a subliminal flash which doesn’t register immediately to the eye but is retained in the mind. The image is highly stylized, a depiction of a nude woman lying a bath of red liquid, signifying blood. The picture on the counter is of the lead actress, Catherine Jourdan.

The positioning of the pistol suggests that the woman has shot herself. But there is no realism here outside of what is arranged as a transgressive scene. An aesthetic shock of flesh, red, and white, like an abstract painting. And it illustrates how Robbe-Grillet was an abstract painter in his writing and films.  It’s also an example of the influence of Sade on his prose and cinema. More images will be added to this series.img_20180330_001130.jpg

Written by Robert Monell

4 abril 2018 at 9:32 PM

COMING SOON!

leave a comment »

Finally a HD release of Jess Franco’s 1974 occult shocker.  A kind of Faustian tale of a female demon who destroys a Petit bourgeois French family. With Howard Vernon and Pamela Stanford as the succubus Lorna, who invades dreams, bodies and souls.

Written by Robert Monell

19 marzo 2018 at 2:09 PM

Cocktail Special (1978)/Smoking cigarettes with Jess Franco….

leave a comment »

Smoking cigarettes is an iconic activity in the cinema of Jess Franco, from the inspector lighting up during an investigation in his second feature, the 1960 LABIOS ROJOS, his marvelous monochrome Red Lips template [Picture #6]. Jess Franco himself was a prolific, notorious consumer of cigarettes from a very young age until his finals days. He enjoyed his addiction and it was part of his creative make-up.

In LOS BLUES DE LA CALLE POP (aventuras de Felipe Malboro, volumen 8), his wondrous 1983 Neo-noir/live action comic strip extravaganza, we meet cigarette man Sam Chesterfield, a wise guy piano player played by Jess Franco himself.  The villain is named Saul Winston! Characters named for popular cigarette brands all together in a marvelous, sleazy world called Shit City, in a film which plays like a candy colored music video and anticipates the Robert Rodriguez SIN CITY in both style and mood.

I recently revisited Franco’s last film for producer Robert De Nesle (Picture #3) the 1978 hardcore COCKTAIL SPECIAL (Dutch title card, Picture 4). It’s a micro-budgeted version of Sade’s PHILOSOPHY IN THE BEDROOM, earlier filmed  by Franco in 1969 as EUGENIE, THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION. It opens with images of women reading (The ultimate sin in a man’s world; Picture # 3) and continues with long sequences of Eugenie (Touxa Beni) and her friends lounging around a Portuguese villa, making love, drinking the disgusting title concoction [urine, sperm, whiskey] and… you guessed it, smoking cigarettes (Picture #1).  Robert De Nesle is credited with the script (as Robert Hugue). The film ends with Eugenie unknowingly having sex with her own father (Picture #5) during a masked ball.  Producer/director/writer Jacques Garcia (Aicrag) was also involved. But it’s still 100% Jess Franco.

Cigarettes also played a role in another 1978 Jess Franco film, OPALO DE FUEGO (TWO FEMALE SPIES WITH FLOWERED PANTIES) in which Lina Romay, who plays a stripper, has to undergo torture involving getting sensitive areas burned with cigarettes. Smoking is Cool in Jess Franco’s alternate universe, as cool as Humphrey Bogart smoking his way through a series of 1940s Film Noirs. The Howard Hawks version of THE BIG SLEEP opens with images of cigarettes in an ashtray. Yesterday was the 5th anniversary of the passing of Jess Franco and I’d like to think he is somewhere sitting back and relaxing with a Chesterfield, a Winston or a Marlboro in his hand.Image may contain: text

(C) Robert Monell, 2018

Written by Robert Monell

21 febrero 2018 at 5:23 AM