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THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969)

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

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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 a 2:43 PM

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  1. Good review. I like the Franco Fu Manchu’s

    Douglas Waltz

    8 julio 2018 at 1:07 PM


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