CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966)
*½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B
starring Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache
screenplay by Peter Welbeck
directed by John Moxey
THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968)
*/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Maria Rohm, Howard Marion Crawford
screenplay by Peter Welbeck
directed by Jess Franco
THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969)
*½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Maria Perschy, Richard Greene
screenplay by Peter Welbeck
directed by Jess Franco
THE BLOODY JUDGE/Il trono di fuoco (1970)
**/**** Image A Sound B Extras A
starring Christopher Lee, Maria Schell, Leo Genn, Maria Rohm
screenplay by Anthony Scott Veitch
directed by Jess Franco
by Walter Chaw The sort of box set that horror fans and film historians slaver over (though Sino-Western ambassadors probably aren't too pleased about), Blue Underground's exceptionally, reverently remastered four-disc "Christopher Lee Collection" gathers four obscure Lee pictures--The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Castle of Fu Manchu, Circus of Fear, and The Bloody Judge--in presentations so vibrant and beautiful that they're almost enough to distract from the uniform tediousness of the films themselves. A little like avant-garde cinema, these pictures--all but one (Circus of Fear) directed by the notoriously, appallingly untalented Jess Franco--function better as theory than fact, unfolding on staid soundstage environments with single camera set-ups, stock footage, and jump cuts, and squandering, for the most part, the magisterial presence and delivery of Lee. (For the record, a lethal drinking game could probably be devised around the number of times Franco zooms to different parts of the same shot to avoid the inconvenience of relighting or moving the camera around.)
Produced by Harry Alan Towers, all, the amateurishness and languid progression of this quartet makes Hammer Studios' also-boring movies from this period at least shine with the lustre of their production values. Banking on a new permissiveness in the amount of violence and nudity allowed, much less encouraged, in European genre productions, the Towers pictures (he often scripted as well under the nom de plume Peter Welbeck) are indicated by their prosaic exposition offset by their virulent racism. My uncle never forgave Peter Sellers for his portrayal of Fu Manchu--I'm thinking he never saw Lee's. I'm guessing, too, that Jess Franco's difficulty distinguishing Mexican banditos from South American gauchos hasn't won him any fans south of the border, either.
CIRCUS OF FEAR
Beginning with a non-Fu Manchu title, Circus of Fear, the oldest film of the four, is a rather static crime-drama directed with a workmanlike lack of spark by John Moxey. A delicious if unexamined subtext that recalls the underbelly denouement of Tod Browning's Freaks is the only real selling point of the picture, a crime drama about a robbery gone awry that leads to an encounter at a circus led by a hooded lion tamer (Lee). A cameo by Klaus Kinski is of interest but, like Lee's shrouded turn, the picture is mainly a curiosity for film historians, Lee fanatics, and devotees of stock footage and unimaginative screenwriting and direction. Feeling like a miniseries at a feature's length, Circus of Fear isn't really about the circus nor is it frightening in any measurable sense, washing out as a limp crime noir with an arbitrary setting and conclusion.
Blue Underground presents Circus of Fear in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer easy on the eyes and short on grain and edge enhancement. The film looks amazingly good for a feature of its age, even if Moxey's eye tends to make it all seem like a low-budget BBC production. A feature-length commentary from Moxey is the main extra for the picture, a light and rather literal yakker that finds Moxey diligent in recounting a few dry behind-the-scenes anecdotes while coming up short on important information (such as which sequences were cut for the United States release and why). The trailer, extensive poster and still galleries, and the kind of notes for which Anchor Bay (that other genre company) is famous round out the presentation.
THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU
The Blood of Fu Manchu, it's fair to say, is an incomprehensible, sprawling mess of a picture involving the evil Oriental abducting ten nubile lasses and making them carriers of a deadly venom through the love-bite of a mysterious snake--a trope borrowed by the transcendent Ninja Scroll. The picture is characterized by an astonishing amount of dead air, Franco's ridiculous zooms and hideous framing choices, and a bevy of subplots--each more deadening than the last--that only take time away from Lee's surprisingly respectful treatment of the title character. Loads of curiously sexless nudity fails to titillate, while bandit king Sancho Lopez (Ricardo Palacios, Towers's answer to Oliver Platt) engages in a portly dance of menace. The picture's awful, it's safe to say, with Fu's evil daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), the series' version of Charlie Chan's Number One Son, saddled with the bulk of the mysterious chink-of-no-remorse stereotype. Of greatest interest is the realization that Franco's sleaze-ploitation pics paved the way in more ways than one for flicks like Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust.
The Blood of Fu Manchu's special features begin with a 15-minute documentary, The Rise of Fu Manchu, that features interviews with Franco, Chin, Towers, and Lee. Franco goes on at length about the Sax Rohmer and Edgar Wallace/Republic Pictures Fu Manchu series and his affection for it and for the comic-book series that sent a whole generation of kids into a frenzy over the Yellow Peril, God bless 'em. I would have appreciated a little insight from Chin as to her rationale for taking part in something that hates her race and gender with such a dedicated zeal, an issue she raises before answering it with the standard "I did what I had to do" line. Not really worth getting up in arms about, frankly, but the wasted opportunity for something more than sort of an overview of what purchasers of this box set no doubt already know is disappointing. Most illuminating, probably, is Lee saying that Orientals need not lose face (it's a good thing that the ol' skin is pretty thick by now), and Shirley Eaton has a few tales out of school that hint at what the docu could have been. The film is a relic and should be spoken of in terms of sociology and context rather than hagiography.
The widescreen anamorphic transfer, roughly 1.66:1, is just beautiful considering the disparate sources that needed to have been combed to produce this definitive, allegedly uncut version of the film. Very possibly the first time all of the film has been seen in any format, The Blood of Fu Manchu is an archive piece that speaks of a kind of dedication to the craft and the passion of film preservation bracing to anyone who loves film. A few instances of colour fade and fluctuating contrast is forgivable in this context--this is cinephile heaven. Comparing the international and U.S. trailers offers some insight into the changes wrought on the version that washed up on Yankee shores; an extensive and vaguely repetitive posters and still gallery reminds that the film's original title was Kiss & Kill; a long essay on the life and times of Sax Rohmer offers sustenance for the pulp geek (and who ain't); and extensive biographies of Lee and Franco illuminate not only their subjects, but the strong connection behind the scenes between Blue Underground and Anchor Bay. There are no finer notes sections produced by any other DVD house than these two. In that vein, VIDEO WATCHDOG's editor Tim Lucas provides an illuminating insert for this and each film in the collection.
THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU
The Castle of Fu Manchu, freed from the constricting bounds of pace and any pulse to speak of, concerns the quest of the evil Asian to fix his giant icemaker with the help of an ailing scientist in need of a heart transplant. Hack extraordinaire Franco, who has oft professed his disdain for folks believing that film is ever anything other than worthless populist entertainment, does his best to honour his philosophy again with abuses of the zoom and the rack focus that would make most sentient beings wince. Lee is again interesting as the titular bogey, sinister and a little desperate at times, while Tsai Chin reprises her role as his evil-doing daughter. More stock footage this time around makes a long haul even longer, and every bit of exposition, whether it be a boat ride, a drive to a castle, an invasion of a fortress, or a surgery, seems at least half-and-again too long. The picture is almost all padding, with a few cheap racial stereotypes to spice up the stew; the lurid lighting this time around, all purple and green filters, serves mainly to highlight the connection between Franco's pictures and the Italian exploitation cinema that was quick to follow. Unlike The Blood of Fu Manchu, there's no nudity and only minimal violence to speak of. It could've been worse, and a brief cameo by Franco in a fez shows how, but that's hardly a recommendation.
A 14-minute doc, The Fall of Fu Manchu, is a continuation of the first disc's featurette, with more of the principals going on anecdotally about their involvement with the Towers/Fu Manchu projects. Illuminating, if puzzling (why Franco? Why ever Franco?); what's most striking of these pieces to me is the disingenuity of Towers--once a con man, always a con man, after all. Aside from a theatrical trailer, the rest of the features on the disc, including AR (1.66:1) and quality, are congruent with the first.
THE BLOODY JUDGE
The best title in this set and among the best of Franco's films (indeed, perhaps the best of which he was capable (not good, in other words, but not exactly awful)), The Bloody Judge dramatizes the historical reign of terror of England's Lord Chancellor under James II, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys (1644-1689), who became known by the titular nom de morte for his ruthlessness in doling out sentences of torture and execution. Among the first films to cash-in on Michael Reeves's counterculture classic Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conquerer Worm), The Bloody Judge is essentially an extended series of Lee rolling his syllables around dire pronouncements, and his henchmen torturing naked women strapped to tables. Fans of Bloodsucking Freaks need look no farther for source material, marking Franco as highly influential in the way only hugely prolific, perverse little homunculi can be. Yet for all its surplus of sleaze, the picture is still indicated mostly for Franco's trademark boredom. Of interest are Lucas's returning insert notes, which champion this film as something of a masterpiece of exploitation cinema. Would that I could believe the zooms and out-of-focus shots were born of art rather than an epidemic incompetence.
A 25-minute featurette called "Bloody Jess" features interviews with Lee and Franco about the film, revealing Lee to indeed be the author of the statement that he preferred working with George Lucas to Peter Jackson. (Once the kept pet of talentless hack directors, always the kept pet of talentless hack directors.) His affection for the character of Jeffreys and the film, however, is charming in an inexplicable sort of way. A short deleted scene sourced from a bootleg VHS copy shows Mary upset about her sister's execution, while the other four minutes of elisions are nothing much to write home about. Three trailers, a TV spot, poster and stills galleries, and recycled talent bios round out the extras proper. It can be said, however, that the disc's real special feature is the picture itself, its Cinemascope elements presented and preserved in an eye-popping 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that wrings out vibrancy from the cinematography. I'd wager the film has never looked this good nor has it ever been this complete, with scenes composited from so many sources that, at times, only a German dub is available (at others, a Spanish one). Originally published: November 10, 2003.