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Harry Allan Towers had a stop-start career as a writer and producer of English TV shows and movies until he struck it big with The Face of Fu Manchu in 1965, starring Christopher Lee as the racist villain not seen on the screen for 25 years. Face was a clever European coproduction that blended German stars from the Edgar Wallace thrillers with better-known English talent like Nigel Green. Thrills borrowed from James Bond won it a worldwide release from Warner Brothers.
Not soon thereafter, Towers discovered Spaniard Jess Franco, an obsessive Jazz fanatic and óutre film director who had exactly what the independent English entrepreneur needed: the ability to shoot films incredibly quickly. Together they partnered on a fistful of projects, continuing Towers' Fu Manchu series, and Franco's line of artsy erotic horror films.
In this beautifully-transferred edition The Blood of Fu Manchu is a watchable action film of no great distinction. Despite the praise heaped on Jess Franco for his unique stance as a cineaste maudit, the only appeal comes from some impressive Brazilian locations and an okay cast. Tower's screenplay written under his familiar Peter Welbeck name is a dawdling snooze that gives Christopher Lee opportunity to do little more than issue terse orders in a sinister monotone. It's 1912, but characters manage to get from some unknown corner of South America, to London, and return in only a day or two. The story is seriously lacking in humor, and the most important aim of the script seems to be to minimize the days worked by expensive English cast members Lee and Greene.
Although lavish by the execrable standards set by his average post-1970 picture, Blood is thoroughly ruined by Jess Franco's non-direction. Even in this relatively well photographed show, Franco uses his zoom lens as a means of animating dead angles and providing a false sense of pace to un-directed scenes. Although championed by new legions of fans, Franco can be called an interesting director only by his choice of bizarre subject matter.
Many scenes are organized as a zoom master shot, starting on some detail, panning, racking focus, zooming out, and zooming in to follow action and change subject within the scene. But the point of view never changes and the zooming is a major distraction. Often parts of scenes are left out of focus. It's all to avoid time-consuming camera setups and relighting. Typical Franco direction, it must be said, looks like an arbitrary zoom-hosing down of a scene, instead of a directed one. Under such conditions, there are few striking images. Wide masters tend to look like sets waiting for a movie to happen, and details look unconvincing.
Earlier instalments in the Fu Manchu series had been relatively chaste, but relaxed censorship encouraged Franco to include lots of nudity in the cartoonish bandit's orgy scene and in Lin Tang's torture dungeon. Harry Allan Towers' relaxed sense of business ethics enabled him to steal an almost irrelevant short scene with Shirley Eaton from his concurrently-filmed Sumuru, thus adding a James Bond association to his picture's advertising.
Blue Underground's beautiful DVD is an excellent opportunity to evaluate The Blood of Fu Manchu. The extras include a wealth of ad materials and a text essay about the original author, Sax Rohmer, a clever commercial blender of successful H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle franchises. Tim Lucas' liner notes also focus on the writer, who kept the Fu Manchu series going until his death in the late 50s.
The extra docu The Rise of Fu Manchu is an expertly-collected set of great interviews. Franco and Towers are there for their fans, but Blue Underground has included telling sit-downs with Lee, Tsai Chin and Shirley Eaton. In the final analysis, the first two actors did it to have work, and Eaton is direct and frank about the fraud inflicted upon her by the filmmakers. Towers is certainly a lively huckster, but his participation here doesn't enhance his respectability.
The last Franco/Towers Fu Manchu collaboration was, before this DVD, an incomprehensible mess. Now restored to full length, it makes perfect, if unexciting, sense. The static screenplay sends various bit players to Istanbul while Christopher Lee and the leads remain in Barcelona. Anachronistic decor and detail so abounds that the adequate period feel of the previous films has totally disappeared. A boring operation scene seems to last minutes, with a plastic toy for a respirator on the patient's mouth. A heart being transplanted looks like a chunky beef nugget, bite-size for a spaniel.
In their place we get imitation Mario Bava lighting and stock footage sequences lifted from other films (A Night to Remember, some show with an exploding dam) to pad out the uneventful script. Fu double-crosses everyone he meets, and is so predictably ruthless, it's a wonder why anyone bothers to pay any attention to him. He spends the movie 'perfecting' an icemaking scheme that worked just fine in the first reel. The professor appears give him the wrong formula at the end, causing his headquarters to explode, but the script neglects to clarify this. Instead it gets bogged down in details. He's kidnapped a scientist, but now needs to kidnap doctors to keep his scientist alive. As soon as the patient is conscious after his operation, he's trying to extort info from him. He makes enemies of a crime lord long before doing so is necessary. What ol' Fu really needs is a course in effective management.
We never really see Fu's big ice idea work, although it sounds a lot like it was lifted from Kurt Vonnegut's Ice Nine in Cat's Cradle. Apologies if there's a Sax Rohmer tale with an identical scheme.
Under the reduced circumstances (Blood of ... is an epic compared to this one) Christopher Lee aquits himself well, and Tsai Chin gets to do a couple of nasty killings instead of just snap out orders. Richard Greene walks through a couple of pitiful 'action' scenes, and although Maria Perschy is pretty, she isn't given much of a personality to play. Director Franco does give himself the role of a Turkish police chief who wears 60s Western shirts. There's no sex this time around, and precious little real action, so perhaps it's a compliment to say that the show is more watchable than it has any right to expect. The talented Burt Kwouk shares the first scene with Christopher Lee, a throwaway prologue that generates more tension and acting energy than anything in either Fu Manchu film.
Blue Underground's DVD of The Castle of Fu Manchu looks and sounds great, with bright colors for the costumes and the many scenes lit with purple and green light. The rather attractive score comes through clearly as well. In the extras this time around, Tim Lucas gives specific film facts for the two Fu Manchu titles, while the interview-docu short subject The Fall of Fu Manchu is a welcome opportunity for Chris Lee and Jesus Franco to tell pleasant anecdotes about each other.
The odd film out in this collection is a so-so murder mystery directed by John Moxey, the maker of the somewhat interesting Horror Hotel. His direction is strictly TV standard, which befits producer Towers' ambitious but rather feeble mystery script and its generic title.
The story opens with a very dry robbery scene shot on the Tower Bridge. It soon coalesces in the circus setting, re-using the same Billy Smart's circus from the rather good Circus of Horrors six years earlier. Although sharing a few circus stock shots with the earlier film, this picture doesn't have a performing context. However, there are several impressive scenes with animals, rehearsing, etc. It's far, far better than the terrible Herman Cohen film Berserk!
Unfortunately, the mystery is no mystery and most of the action comes down to the kind of whodunnit simplicity familiar in Television detective shows of the 60s. The international cast has several German actors for that market. Rising notable Klaus Kinski has three short walk-on scenes that constitute a completely irrelevant tangent. The eventual culprit is a choice worse than arbitrary. One weak theme that still makes its impact is the 'code of the circus' idea. A malefactor unpunished by the law gets his just desserts from his peers. Some fairly tense moments (this is no horror film) are provided by a scene with what looks like authentic knife throwing.
Christopher Lee is top-billed and well cast as a lion tamer: those cats really react to his commanding presence and voice. Yet he spends 95% of the film under a hood and has little chance to be anything but a generic menace. In whodunnit terms that makes him innocent, at least of the central crime at issue. Good acting from the cast, especially Leo Genn, keep the film at a moderate level of interest.
Blue Underground's DVD of Circus of Fear is another sterling presentation. Director John Moxey is on board with a friendly, non-incisive commentary that mostly sticks with production facts about the movie. The trailers and ad galleries are fine. The package text informs us that the American release was originally cut by 22 minutes and in black and white, and that this transfer includes a lost 8-minute sequence. Moxey or Blue Underground's genial host may discuss the specifics of this in the commentary, but if they did, I missed it in my sampling.
By 1970 the Jess Franco/Harry Alan Towers collaboration was well established, and relaxed censorship was conducive to the marketing of their sexy horror films and perverse art pictures. This costume picture (again, not a horror film per se) is lavish and cheap at the same time, with okay costumes and locations betrayed by cutprice direction and a script tailored for speed and economy. Savagely cut in almost all markets (it was cut radically for the US, and meaninglessly retitled Night of the Blood Monster), the complete version presented here is a ponderous film heavily weighted in favor of exploitative and incompetent nude scenes that make Hammer films' concurrent adult efforts look tasteful by comparison.
One of the first rip-offs of the admirable Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, this replay of similar historical events a couple of generations later dispenses with any logic for Judge Jeffreys' cruelty beyond patriotic malice. Christopher Lee is given little screen time to do anything but threaten other cast members and blackmail Maria Rohm into his bed. As the money goes to the crown, he has no profit motive, and nobody but the executioner (a successfully creepy Howard Vernon) seems to worry about the issue of witchcraft. The power-mad Jeffreys is not even a sadist; he never witnesses the tortures he mandates.
Actually, neither do we. There's talk of drawing and quartering, but we all we see is one woman burned and one hanging victim hacked at with an axe while choking. The rest of the edgy material is sleazy torture chamber material with lots of fake blood and sadistic guards carving up chained nude women. Some females retain strategically-placed rags while being drawn (so much for Franco's disregard for hypocritical screen standards) while the nuder scenes are laughable in their salacious dullness. Only morbid interest keeps us watching, because the scenes are neither convincing, scary or even very unpleasant. The moment pointed out by liner notes writer Tim Lucas as 'incredible, transgressive erotica' is a bafflingly inane scene where Maria Rohm licks the blood from the body of a hanging female corpse. The display is so pitiful, it isn't even pornographic. It is beautifully scored by Bruno Nicolai, however.
Even less understandable is the championing of Jess Franco's direction, which is only slightly better than his sloppy work on the Fu Manchu series. The liner notes make the laughable assertion that the battle scene herein proves that Franco was clearly the auteur behind the much-applauded knight's battle in Campanandas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight), the great Orson Welles film on which Franco assisted. The generic and lackadaisical fight in the woods here looks like random coverage. We have no idea who is fighting who or which side our rebel heroes are on. If the color, costumes and location weren't such a good match, we might think it was stock footage from another show. Franco may very well have done the excellent, unique battle scene in the Welles film, but I doubt it, and wouldn't trust Franco's word on the matter. The Bloody Judge would be the last film to suggest a connection.
Although not bad on some levels, The Bloody Judge is still an achingly grim exercise. The English dub job is poor, with lame exposition often injected where it isn't needed. There's little sense of pace, as the film just comes on with arrests and escapes without build-up or context. Witchfinder General plays like a classic by contrast. The German and Spanish minor players (including Diana Lorys from Franco's initial Gritos en la noche carry the story, while Chris Lee and Leo Genn sit in rooms and dispense exposition. Even more scandalous are the few minutes of the wonderful actress Maria Schell, shoehorned in to play a cave-dwelling blind seer. Again, she's irrelevant to the story. Towers is clearly a charming producer; actors like Genn and Schell returned to work with him more than once.
Blue Underground's reconstruction of The Bloody Judge is a triumph of genre husbandry. Besides being cut into different versions for different markets, just finding original materials must have been a chore. This version is touted as the most complete and uncensored ever released, and contains the 'transgressive' material obviously never shown here - some American reviewers actually complained about the lack of nudity and the obvious cuts.
The 'scope picture is anamorphically enhanced and looks gorgeous, showcasing cameraman Manuel Merino's good color lighting of the reasonable sets. Especially good is the musical score by Bruno Nicolai, a definite high point of the picture.
The docu Bloody Jess interviews Franco and Lee. Lee is clearly more proud of this performance, because he liked the character, I suppose. Tim Lucas' liner notes are excellent in pulling up facts about the real Judge Jeffreys. He mentions three different endings, two of which are incorporated into the good windup seen here. The extras also contain some deleted and alternate scenes, mostly clothed versions of nude material.
Horror fans take note: although I don't think much of these pictures in the standard sense, I'm certainly as curious about them as anyone. Jess Franco adepts will be in seventh heaven at the quality, which will appeal heartily to genre fans looking for movies usually seen in garbage video copies, and remembered from their original releases as emasculated butcher jobs. Blue Underground's presentations, from menu design to new docu material, are exceptionally good. Their dedication to their chosen niche makes us earnestly hope that they do well and continue with many more restorations of neglected and misplaced genre attractions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blood of Fu Manchu rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Castle of Fu Manchu rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Circus of Fear rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bloody Judge rates: