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ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN (1986)

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Jess Franco began his career as an International filmmaker with Harry Alan Tower’s production of THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, after Franco’s success with such personal films as NECRONOMICON/SUCCUBUS, released in 1967. Tower’s series of Fu Manchu films featured Christopher Lee as the pulp icon, but by the time he invited Franco to helm the final two titles tastes had changed. Franco, sans Towers, would return to the Fu Mancu mythos some 20 years later when he had returned to his base in Spain. By 1985 he had established himself as a maker of hardcore features, which were now legal and profitable there.

ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN) Directed by James Lee Johnson (Jess Franco)

This obscurity is a deliriously filmed erotic adventure that updates Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu tales (Rohmer receives screen credit, as «S. Rohmer»), focusing on the master criminal’s daughter, here played by Lina Romay, made up with «Asian» eyes. By this time Franco had further developed his personal film language into a heavily coded fantasy matrix which defied analysis and didn’t interest serious critics or general audiences for erotic entertainment.

Lina Romay appears as the daughter of Fu Manchu, made up with exotic eye mascara (to appear Oriental) and an outlandish hair style. A title card explains it takes place «in an exotic corner of the distant east, [a] paradise of the drug and the corruption.»

Members of the ROCKY WALTERS rock and roll band are kidnapped by her seductive agents and transported to a hotel in the jungle, which doubles as an armed camp. There they are drugged, tortured, and forced to sign over bank accounts and other financial holdings.

This criminal enterprise is investigated by a karate fighting investigator and an Interpol agent (Marco Moriarity) who wears a pink shirt. The movie climaxes with an air strike carried out by a secret agent flying a Jump-Jet delivering a napalm payload into the encampment, represented by the Hotel Tropicana, filmed through a palm forest. So this qualifies as perhaps Franco’s final Eurospy adventure at a time when that subgenre was in hibernation.

 This amusing, colorful, if sometimes slow-paced trifle is most interesting for the eye-popping filter effects, which fill many scenes with intense color illuminations and bright hues, sometimes overwhelming the action. But Franco, as always, is more interested in style, mise-en-scene, than any kind of realism. This is a live action cartoon or comic strip. The female bunch are a sexy and imposing army of Amazons who recall Shirley Eaton and her followers in FUTURE WOMEN/THE GIRL FROM RIO (1968).

Surviving the air assault Lina Romay gets to repeat the old Fu Manchu standard at the end: «The world will hear from me again!»

After this return to his roots in popular genre cinema Franco would return to hardcore porno features with such titles as PHOLLASTIA and FALO CREST (both 1987), shot back-to-back in sunny, trashy Benidorm, a favorite Franco location, and both vicious send-ups of such then-popluar US television series as FALCON CREST. Franco hadn’t lost his subversive scorpion’s sting. Nonetheless, ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN remains a visual treat for the eyes awaiting an unlikely HD release.

(C) Robert Monell; new version 2020

Written by Robert Monell

16 septiembre 2020 at 4:24 AM

ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN (1986)

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. ESCLAVAS DEL CRIMEN) Directed by James Lee Johnson (Jess Franco)

This obscurity is a deliriously filmed erotic adventure that updates Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu tales (Rohmer receives screen credit, as «S. Rohmer»), focusing on the master criminal’s daughter, here played by Lina Romay, made up with «Asian» eyes.

Lina Romay appears as the daughter of Fu Manchu, made up with exotic eye mascara (to appear Oriental) and an outlandish hair style. A title card explains it takes place «in an exotic corner of the distant east, [a] paradise of the drug and the corruption.»

Members of the ROCKY WALTERS rock and roll band are kidnapped by her seductive agents and transported to a hotel in the jungle, which doubles as an armed camp. There they are drugged, tortured, and forced to sign over bank accounts and other financial holdings.

This criminal enterprise is investigated by a karate fighting investigator and an Interpol agent who wears a pink shirt. The movie climaxes with an air strike carried out by a secret agent flying a Jump-Jet delivering a napalm payload into the encampment, represented by the Hotel Tropicana, filmed through a palm forest.

 This amusing, colorful, if sometimes slow-paced trifle is most interesting for the eye-popping filter effects, which fill many scenes with intense color illuminations and bright hues, sometimes overwhelming the action. But Franco, as always, is more interested in style, mise-en-scene, than any kind of realism. This is a live action cartoon or comic strip. The female bunch are a sexy and imposing army of Amazons who recall Shirley Eaton and her followers in FUTURE WOMEN/THE GIRL FROM RIO (1968).

Surviving the air assault Lina Romay gets to repeat the old Fu Manchu standard at the end: «The world will hear from me again!»

(C) Robert Monell; new version 2020

Written by Robert Monell

16 septiembre 2020 at 4:10 AM

LA VENGANZA DEL DOCTOR MABUSE (1972)

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la venganza del doctor mabuse
1972 Directed by Jess Frank (Jess Franco)
(a.k.a. DR.M SCHLAGT ZU; DER MANN DER SICH MABUSE NANNTE; DER DOKTOR MABUSE)

In a remote lighthouse lab, criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse conducts mind control experiments on women who are kidnapped by his assistants. Mabuse uses a mineral from stolen moon rocks (!) to create a ray that turns people into obedient robots (cf ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS-1966). A stripper (Ewa Stroemberg), a witness to one of the abductions, in turn becomes the next victim.
Under Mabuse’s telepathic guidance, she seduces an American diplomat. These rapidly escalating events are investigated by Thomas, the local Sheriff, who finally manages to locate the hideout. Mabuse is killed during a melee involving his brain damaged henchman resulting in the lab’s destruction.

This obscure feature represents the last gasp of the long-lived Dr. Mabuse franchise, which had seen better days in the Fritz Lang thrillers of the 1920s and 30s. Franco’s movie has a very rushed look, For instance, one scene is partially obscured by a section of the lens-cap which appears not to have been properly removed. Also, when the cops arrive at Dr. Mabuse’s hideout, the shadow of the Manuel Merino’s camera falls over the arriving police car.

Some amusing touches include Mabuse’s hulking henchman (Moises Rocha), who with his sewn-up skull cap looks like a refugee from a Hammer horror entry. The Red Garter «nightclub,» which is obviously just a parking garage with a few battered chairs and tables placed inside, is the setting for Ewa Stroemberg’s minimalist striptease (the German version of which contains topless nudity removed in the Spanish cut). The office of Sheriff Thomas (Fred Williams) looks like a leftover from some spaghetti western, and Williams appears throughout the film in a cowboy costume. Perhaps this aspect was Franco’s satire of the then popular Eurowestern craze.108225293_10217371291821302_7258743081684700332_o

Despite these technical glitches — and that Jack Taylor is miscast an evil mastermind (he appears too normal to be an evil mastermind, but that does support a banality-of-evil subtext)– the action is punctuated by a «le jazz hot» music score, as well as Manuel Merino’s stylish-on-a-budget photography. Most interesting are some extremely wide-angle compositions in Mabuse’s lab and during the abduction scenes, which distort spatial relationships and employ lighting and color in a way which reminds one of Kubrick’s dystopian sci-fi CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which had a much larger budget and was critically acclaimed while Franco’s live action comic book sank without a trace. Producer Artur Brauner also released an alternate version with footage which Franco did not direct. He also didn’t sufficiently promote the film or add it to CCC’s catalogue.

The final judgement on this is to try to find the longer Spanish language version and take the German language version, available on the CCC DVD with a grain of salt. To reconstruct a proper version one would need to include scenes from both.  The robbery sequence in the German cut has footage obviously not directed by Jess Franco. It was likely added by producer and CCC founder/CEO Artur Brauner, who is also co-credited with the film’s story. It wasn’t included in the CCC sales catalog and Brauner pretty much buried the film instead of trying to give it a wide theatrical release.

This outcome was all to typical of Franco’s career. Films which were condemned to obscurity/failure by frustrated producers. Seeing the film almost 50 years after it was made one immediately thinks of it as kind of animated photo comic or Eurospy fumetti, complete with the legendary Dr. Mabuse continuing his experiments and planning to throw the civilized world into chaos. It must be remembered that Lang’s series began in the cauldron of German post World War I Expressionism and when the country had Hitler and the Third Reich in its tormented womb. In 1933 Lang would make THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, which Hitler admired to the point of having Goebbels offer Lang the reins of the German film industry. Lang politely withdrew and left the country rather than make Nazi propaganda. His wife, the Nazi supporter Thea Von Harbou, stayed.

Lang returned to Germany in 1960 to make his final film, DIE TAUSEND AUGEN DER DR. MABUSE, produced by Artur Brauner. Lang refused to make follow-ups, which were given to directors such as Dr. Harald Reinl, and were commercial successes. LA VENGANZA DEL DR. MABUSE is a far cry from the Lang series, but not uninteresting. The final Lang film can be seen as a template for the 1960s Bond spy series. Gert Frobe who played the inspector in Lang’s film went on to play the villain Goldfinger in what is still the most famous of the James Bond epics. Franco’s LA VENGANZA… looks impoverished in comparison. The director himself appears in it as the Sheriff’s superior who demands that the abductions ordered by Mabuse be solved post haste. They are, with an assist from plot elements from Franco’s 1961 GRITOS EN LA NOCHE, which was already a decade old.

Franco repeatedly points his camera into the setting sun and bright lights as if trying to saturate his mise-en-scene with chromatic energy if not dynamically staged action. The final showdown has the look and aesthetic  of a grade C western.  One wonders what Fritz Lang, who had publicly admired Franco’s 1967 NECRONOMICON, would have made of it.

 

(C) Robert Monell 1999-New Version 2020.

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Written by Robert Monell

13 julio 2020 at 12:44 AM

LA NOCHE DE LOS SEXOS ABIERTOS (1981)

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NOTE: This Golden Films Internacional production has never had any kind of U.S. VHS, DVD, Blu-ray release, although it has been available on the gray market and online. I would say that it’s about time to have a North American debut of this fascinating, highly entertaining, visually entrancing title, preferably on Blu-ray. This article is based on the 1994 KING HOME VIDEO: COLECCION CINE EROTICO Spanish release. 

Moira (Lina Romay) is a sexy cabaret stripper by night and a secret agent by day. She is attempting to gain information on the Segunda Guerra Mundial, an international criminal group who are about to locate a hidden consignment of gold bars which was secreted beneath the desert during the last days of the Nazis.

Private detective Al Crosby is also on the trail of the gold and teams up with Moira. Eventually, Prof. Von Klaus provides a complex code which, when deciphered, will reveal the location. Moira is briefly captured by the opposition, tortured, and then freed by Al. They make a concerted effort to break the word puzzle, and finally succeed in locating Von Klaus’s desert villa, in which there is a secret room containing the gold.

First, the right notes have to be played on an organ which will electronically trigger the lock mechanism. It involves musical notation from a Liszt composition. When Moira performs the piece, the door opens and the treasure awaits them. The only problem is that the counter-agents have pursued them by helicopter and plan to relieve Al and Moira of their newly found fortune.

Considering the fact that Jess Franco has returned to Euro-spy genre again and again throughout his career, it would seem the genre holds a special fascination for him, as well as providing the trickster director with narrative action that functions as a necessary backdrop to his trademark erotic scenes, personal touches, visual spirals, barbed jests wpid-img_9117923194936.jpegand private conundrums.

Filmed on exotic locations in the Canary Islands this plays like a very outre James Bond detour, embedded with layers of codified musical, cinema, pulp fiction references. Decipher a linguistic code rewards the searches with the location of the gold, if not the entire fortune, but the decoding also involves a musical code, based on Liszt, whose music inspired the Jess Franco written score and scenario for the director’s SINFONIA EROTICA (1979). An even more hermetic joke is that Franco credits a non-existent Liszt composition as the source inspiration.

It is impossible to separate the sex from
any generic conventions at this point in Franco’s career. His later Euro-spy feature DARK MISSION (1988), offers evidence that he could leave aside the obsessive focus on eroticism and make a relatively straight commercial product, but as this more personal early 80s period and his recent films show Franco is at his best when he is
allowed to be Franco.

LA NOCHE… opens with a deliriously filmed strip by Lina Romay, performed in the driver’s seat of a classic fifties American car. This all takes place in an ultra-glitzy night spot, where the sexy action is bathed in gorgeous neon hues. Lina’s gyrations and Franco’s camera work and lighting design seem in perfect harmony this time around, and the sequence is hypnotic.

There are many shootings, double crosses, torture sessions (one outrageously borders on a XXX level of sado-erotic intensity), exotic locales, and Lina Romay has never looked more appealing. 
 (C) Robert Monell: new version (C) 2019

Written by Robert Monell

10 septiembre 2019 at 11:35 PM

Lost Jess Franco film will have its World Premiere in Madrid, Feb. 28th, 2018. An interview with Alex Mendibil.

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Jess Franco scholar/creator of the Facebook Group/Blog EL FRANCONOMICON, Dr. Alex Mendibil, has announced that a previously unknown (by me, at least)/unreleased/never reviewed Jess Franco film will have its world theatrical premiere in Madrid, Spain on February 28th, 2019, at the Cine Dore. Alex discovered a complete 35mm negative of this obscure jungle adventure in the vaults of the Filmoteca Espanola and convinced the library to create a positive of the film from the camera negatives.

From EL FRANCONOMICON Facebook Group: «Time for the news… WORLD PREMIERE!

VAYA LUNA DE MIEL (What a Honeymoon aka The Golden Bug/ El escarabajo de oro, 1980) se estrena el 28 de febrero en el Cine Doré, cortesía de Filmoteca Española que la ha recuperado tras encontrarnos el negativo en sus sótanos. Es una comedia romántica slapstick, con aventuras en la selva y robots de broma, entre cosas como La noche de los sexos abiertos, Sangre en mis zapatos o ¿Cuánto cobra un espía?

Filmoteca Española has restored the negatives we found in its vaults and a big premiere is scheduled for February 28 in Madrid! It’s a slapstick rom-com mixed with jungle adventure and toy robots, between the likes of La noche de los sexos abiertos, Sangre en mis zapatos or ¿Cuánto cobra un espía?

Time for the news… WORLD PREMIERE!

What a honeymoon (what a honeymoon aka the golden bug / the golden beetle, 1980) premieres on February 28 at the cinema doré, courtesy of Spanish film library that has recovered it after finding the negative in its basements . It’s a romantic comedy comedy, with adventures in the jungle and joke robots, between things like open sex night, blood on my shoes or how much does a spy charge?

Filmoteca Española has restored the negatives we found in its vaults and a big premiere is scheduled for February 28 in Madrid! It’s a slapstick rom-com mixed with jungle adventure and toy robots, between the likes of La noche de los sexos abiertos, Sangre en mis zapatos or ¿Cuánto cobra un espía?»

«I talked to the CEOs at Filmoteca and let them know about the importance of the finding, and they agreed to to make a positive print and release it as part of the 30th anniversary of the Filmoteca on Feb. 28th. ,» Alex explained. » I hadn’t heard of the film before and asked Alex for some details of its history. «It was registered in 1980, but no record of a premiere at that time can be found. Working at the Filmoteca I asked for the negative to check. I found the title credits as «VAYA LUNA DE MIEL [What a Honeymoon in English] and that the films was already edited, the sound post-production was also done.»

The film features Lina Romay, Max Boulois, Antonio Mayans, Antonio de Dabo and Emilio Alvarez. It was photographed by Juan Soler and Produced by Joaquin Dominguez. This is one of a number of Franco adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s story THE GOLD BUG; but set in modern day Spain.

Alex describes the film as a romantic comedy-adventure, «It’s about newlyweds who find paper with magic ink from Poe’s story. It quickly becomes a jungle adventure romp, with the couple being chased by fake Chinese villains and Max Boulois as a corrupt consul. There is also a fair with a spooky train, a scene on a ferris wheel, toy robots that self-destruct, and an ending in the style of GOLDEN TEMPLE AMAZONS (1984), with skeletons and the golden scarab. We have the typical music themes by Daniel White, a cameo by Jess, and the locations from BLOODY MOON (1980).»

«The movie has a very fast pace» Alex adds «and a very cool tone. It’s a very small project, without ambitions, but also very effective.»

Since this film has had no theatrical, VHS, Laser disc, DVD/Blu-ray release anywhere this theatrical display of a 35mm projection will be its world premiere. It’s sounds like a fun, serial type affair, Jess Franco style. Alex describes his Jess Franco archaeology at the Filmoteca as «a slow process. The Filmoteaca may have 3000 unregistered titles!» One can only hope some enterprising DVD/Blu-ray company will step up and arrange for a belated HD release. A review of this film will appear here asap.

 Keep up the good work, Alex.

(C) Robert Monell, 2019

 

Written by Robert Monell

22 febrero 2019 at 9:51 PM

Congratulations to Dr. Alex Mendibil

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My sincere congratulations to Alex Mendibil, the creator of this blog and the Facebook EL FRANCONOMICON group. Alex has been awarded a PhD for his doctoral thesis on the cinema of Jess Franco. This is the first such thesis written in Spain and first PhD awarded on that topic there. It joins several other doctoral texts on the director published in New York and the UK.

Alex is a true world class scholar on the dizzying vortex which is the alternate world of Jess Franco. 46220699_10212865867788517_2864979847719944192_n

Written by Robert Monell

14 noviembre 2018 at 11:12 PM

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The concept of the spiritual «Walk-in» an event where the soul of one person replaces the exiting soul of another is a generating factor in several important Jess Franco films, most notably his 1974 LORNA, THE EXORICST (Les Possedees Du Diable) in which the sould a modern female demon/witch invades a young girl (Lina Romay) after she is murdered by the girl’s father (Guy Delmore). There’s a lot more to this 20th Century version of Faust, retold in a downmarket environment as a near hardcore porn item. Soul transference/metempychosis may also be a factor in Franco’s 1967 occult sexploitioner NECROMONICON/Succubus in which Lorna Green (Janine Reynaud) is a disturbed nightclub performer who is dominated by a menacing male demon (Michele Lemoine) who forces her to seduce and murder a number of hipsters of the milieu. Soul invasion/mind control also plays a role in SHINING SEX (1975) and is at the center of MACUMBA SEXUAL (1981), a remake of VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), in the latter two a powerful female dies and her soul invades the body of an innocent female victim.

NAKEWOMAN – Jess Franco, 2005, États Unis/Espagne

Jess Franco doesn’t make «films» anymore, he makes video but the results are still, even in glossy HI-DEF, 100% Jess Franco. I spoke to Jess during the conception of this film and he was quite excited about attempting an updating of VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), which this in essence is, but it’s also more than that. Carmen Montes is the title character, a female vampire who wears nothing but a long red lined black cape and a tatoo of a double headed python which curls around her torso. She dominates a netherworld {Malaga, Spain} where «walk-ins» appear and disappear as suddenly as her attacks. Her most recent victim is a female reporter (FATA MORGANA), the Jonathan Harker character, and Christie Levin is the demented female Renfield who is kept in a private asylum by the mad Dr. Nostradamus (Antonio Mayans). The reporter has come to invesitage the estate of the legendary actress-composer Oriana Balasz. The Snakewoman may be her descendant or her continuation. It begins and ends and is often interrupted by telezooms onto flocks of tropical birds which recall the kites in VAMPYROS LESBOS. The music is spectral but will not enter the imagination in the same way as the ground breaking score for that 1970 cult classic. Carmen Montes does evoke the late, great Soledad Miranda and the film is filled with captivating images. Franco’s director credit appears over an old b&w photo of Marlene Dietrich and this may be another subterranean hommage to the cinema of Von Sternberg. There are a lot of lesbian interludes (Franco told me he wanted to call it VAMPIRE INTERLUDE) but not as many as in some of his recent work and they don’t smother the film. The acting is above average and it’s worth seeing on the SRS DVD where it is coupled with DR. WONG’S VIRTUAL HELL and some still galleries. (c) Robert Monell 2006 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Written by Robert Monell

15 agosto 2018 at 7:19 PM

LILIAN (la virgen pervertida) Clifford Brawn (sic) 1983

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An image which sums up the hard-boiled dimension inhabited by Al Pereira (Antonio Mayans). Cigarettes, a gun, a few drinks, suggesting a minimalist pattern of a gritty life and a story which ends with Al executing the club owner (Emilio Linder) who drugged, raped, and turned out Lilian (Katja Bienert).

In the opening scene of this neo-noir the young, naive Lilian opens a door to the upscale villa in which she is staying and confronts a hardcore scene between Lina Romay and Jose Llamas. That perfectly sums up the issue with this project, which began as Clasificada «S» thriller which had to be upgraded/downgraded to a hardcore feature, necessitating the removal of some 20 minutes of the original’s runtime (84m). The reason was a Spanish law which had been suddenly imposed restricting the showing of «S» product in Adult houses. Jess Franco had to scramble and add this footage since his film would not be playable in more mainstream locations.

I assume the film did reasonably well, probably due to those grudgingly added hardcore scenes, and may disappoint those who look for something more than another hardcore.

LILIAN… tells the downbeat story of a young woman (Katja Bienert) who collapses while staggering though a desert-like area. She has been drugged, held prisoner and forced to be the abused party in an S&M show staged for the edification of the local police official (Daniel J. White) who is supposed to be leading investigations. Instead he takes detective Al Pereira off the case when he gets too close to the truth.

Al has discovered the comatose Lilian, who recounts her terror in a delirium at the residence of retired cop and friend Bernardo (Jess Franco), who counsels Al to forget it. He doesn’t.

Corruption is endemic here as in LES EBRANLEES (1972) and BOTAS NEGRAS, LATIGO DE CUERO (Golden Films Internacional, 1982), two very similar Al Pereira episodes. As in those films, Al Pereira  is depicted as a hotheaded, high minded loser who will ultimately trigger his own exile from the human race.

The villains, the drug lord (Emilio Linder) and his wife (Lina Romay). who fetches him party girls and druggies at her nightclub, are oh-so-chic, part of the local glitter scene. Franco shoots this as a 1980s Film Noir, a virtual encyclopedia of noir references and visual quotes.

Using long takes and wide angle lenses in the style of Sam Fuller (UNDERWORLD USA) and Robert Aldrich (KISS ME, DEADLY), but also incorporating his personal favorites THE KILLERS (Robert Siodmak version) and Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP in the flashback structure of the former and the opening credits of the latter, which are recreated in the penultimate scene when the camera lingers on a pack of cigarettes (American, of course), two whiskey glasses and a pistol on a table. The drug lord had just been sitting there having a drink when Al Pereira burst in and summarily executed him, Dirty Harry style. Al leaves his pistol as a calling card, knowing the police will trace it to him. Then he quickly hops into his car and drives away into a future life of assured damnation.

One evil bastard is done away with, but the corporate  evil of the big combo will continue under the averted attention of the corrupt police official. And the principled avenger and seeker of justice Al Pereira will suffer the punishments of our sinful, fallen world.

The film has a brutal, nihilistic tone which is mediated by one of Daniel J. White’s most breathtaking scores, incorporating a kind of funk theme and an ethereal line. Some of these cues can also be heard in the director’s 1985 Jungle adventure, L’ESCLAVA BLANCA, a Manacoa production.

If one can forgive or fast forward the hardcore scenes there’s a good film in there. Franco and Antonio Mayans are superb as the world weary receivers of Lilian’s sad story. This element of delirious confession to authority figures evokes EUGENIE DE SADE (1970) and Sade’s theater piece, DIALOGUE BETWEEN A PRIEST AND A DYING MAN (1782).

The Spanish «kiosk» DVD version was screened for this review. It has very good video quality, sharp and colorful with acceptable Spanish only audio.  This version lasts approximately 73 minutes.

We’re left with a moral vacuum, set in the glitter scene, which is made into a sexual hell by the insertion of much routine hardcore footage, taking advantage of Spain’s newly liberalized censorship. With strong performances by Lina Romay, Jess Franco as the retired cop, and Daniel J White as the corrupt police official. This was released on Spanish VHS before it appeared as a «kiosk» DVD.

The opening beach escape by the delirious heroine is the film’s best scene.

Filmed on locations in Madrid and Huelva.

(c) Robert Monell, 2018

Written by Robert Monell

5 agosto 2018 at 8:27 PM

THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969)

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MV5BOWNiMGY2OWYtYWM2My00MTI2LWE3NTAtYTU0MDQwZDVlNzg2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjIyNjE2NA@@._V1_This is Fu Manchu. Once again, the world is at my mercy.» — Dr. Fu Manchu

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, 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 inter-cutting the sinking of the Titanic via black and whitgefootage from Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 A NIGHT TO REMEMBER with color footage from an earlier Harry Alan Towers-produced Fu Manchu opus, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966).. 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 (Burt Kwok) over a «safety» switch, of course, obviously clashes with the tinted b&w footage and one wonders if writer-producer Towers 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 definitive movie portrayal of the character.

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).  Then one begins to realize that he fact that turning the world’s oceans into giant ice particles is a bit far-fetched. 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 ambiance 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 black and white 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.

DVD [I haven’t yet seen the BU Blu-ray]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, presumably making the comic book aesthetic even more impressive. The disaster which this film represents also qualified it in high standing as Le Bad Cinema or, even better, genre satire.  Franco does appear to be having good time onscreen and behind the camera. I still want to see the reported ASSIGNMENT:  ISTANBUL version.

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)

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

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A colorful, amusing mix of Kung Fu fighting, Asian aesthetics, modern day pirates, BANGKOK CITY OF THE DEAD (1985) mixes comic book-style imagery with crime film elements, some self parody and a adventure plot with a not-so-happy ending. Franco has tried this before, notably in the delightful LOS BLUES CALLE POP…. (1983) and La sombra del judoka contra el doctor Wong (1985).

BANGKOK is fascinating to the serious Jess Franco student but may not engage interest as a serious action film with Jess Franco-style martial arts interludes included. The formulaic plot combines drug running, Thai pirates (led by Lina Romay), karate fighting, kidnapping, comic relief and tourist footage which on first viewing looks cribbed from an unknown source.*  [Update: the DoP of this film, Juan Soler Cozar, read this review and kindly informed me that he was actually sent to Bangkok to shoot some street footage, and that it does appear in the film. I was very surprised that they went to the expense and trouble to do this, especially considering the production’s obvious micro-budget.]

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. A good quality HD transfer from a print or negative with  language options is required for a more in-depth consideration, but it’s an example of Franco’s 1980s exotica.

*Thanks again to Juan Cozar for additional information on the production of this film.
(C) Robert Monell [1998: New Version: 2020

Bangkok, Cita con la Muerte
1985 87 Minutes. Spanish TV broadcast.Director:  «Clifford Brawm» sic (Jess Franco)/ Director of Photography: Juan Cozar./ Produced by Golden Films Internacional S.A. in Alicante and Bangkok, Thailand.Cast: LINA ROMAY, ANTONIO MAYANS, JOSE LLAMAS, HELENA GARRET, BORK GORDON, EDUARDO FAJARDO

Written by Robert Monell

29 junio 2018 at 9:38 PM