Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Brides of Fu Manchu
(Don Sharp, 1966)

After the grimness of “Castle Freak”, some easy-going hokum seemed in order, and hokum don’t come much more easy than this confused pulp adventure romp, the second of five (five!) Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks produced during the ‘60s under the auspices of future sleaze/exploitation kingpin Harry Alan Towers.

“Brides of Fu Manchu” stands out as a bit of an oddity on my video shelves as the proud bearer of a British “U” (“suitable for all”) certificate, an honour it shares only with a dubbed VHS copy of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and my box set of Ealing Comedies. Given the BBFC’s fondness for slapping the dreaded PG – bane of every bloodthirsty six year old – on any film that dares flirt with such notions as ‘mild peril’ or raised voices, this does not necessarily bode well for a tale concerning the nefarious escapades of everybody’s favourite racist caricature of an Oriental crime baron.

But then, as all British film fans know, the ways of the BBFC are as inscrutable as those of Dr. Fu Manchu himself. Take those aforementioned Ealing Comedies for instance – full of shady goings-on and grown-up situations, no doubt, but they’re heritage you see – young children will benefit from their calming and humane influence, not like some godforsaken American thing about robots shooting rockets at each other - ugh, heavens no.

You may think I’m exaggerated, but only last month I heard a spokesperson for the BBFC interviewed on Radio 4, earnestly explaining how they’d arranged for a historical drama with a certain amount of profanity and sexual content to have it’s certificate lowered due to it’s educational interest and positive message, whereas a popular comedy with similar content was given a higher certificate because it was deemed to be a load of silliness. Maybe they had a point, but making calls like that shouldn’t be part of their job. Imagine that kind of patronising attitude on a wider scale, still making the final decisions vis-à-vis which freaky, lunatic b-movies can or cannot be legally screened in the British Isles! I know things have opened up a lot in recent years, and the BBFC haven’t actually stopped me watching anything I wanted to see recently, but even so.

Anyway, enough of such griping, let’s turn our attention to the kind of wholesome fare the BBFC assures us will delight viewers of all ages – “The Brides of Fu Manchu”!

This begins with a scene in which a scantily clad girl is suspended from the ceiling by her hair, before another, hypnotised, girl hacks away her bangs with an axe, letting her fall to her doom in a pit full of venomous cobras, while a British actor playing an offensive stereotype of a Chinaman and a Chinese actress portraying his daughter look on, cackling manically and apparently taking sadistic pleasure from the proceedings.

Good work, BBFC. I mean, don’t get me wrong, personally I’d probably call my children in specially and make them watch it, but let’s just add that to the extremely long list of reasons why I don’t have any children and move on.

A Fu Manchu movie must have been almost as much of an anachronism in the 1960s as it would be today, but if the number of sequels Towers and co churned out is any indication, they certainly found an audience. And if “Brides..” perhaps understandably doesn’t make great play of the character’s alarmist ‘Yellow Peril’ origins, neither does it attempt to apologise for or reinvent him the way a modern day effort would be expected to. Fu Manchu’s ethnicity is not allotted great importance here, and is purely incidental to his role as a secret base-lurking international super-criminal who currently seems to be residing in a complex of tastefully decorated Ancient Egyptian caverns - standard issue villain in a story that essentially plays out as a cranky, Edwardian-era variation on a mid-60s Eurospy movie.

Aside from anything else, it’s certainly hard to believe Christopher Lee hung on for three more of these movies, given his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the role. To paraphrase Michael J. Weldon, they might as well have used a picture of Christopher Lee for all the acting he does here. I guess Lee was probably of the opinion that he’d earned his cheque simply by turning up and agreeing to be filmed whilst wearing the costume, and to be honest I can see his point – that moustache is simply beyond the pale.

Anyway, the net result of Sir Christopher’s acceptance of pay in return for public ridicule is that Fu Manchu, in the course of realising his fiendishly crack-brained scheme to kidnap and hypnotise the beautiful daughters of the world’s twelve most esteemed scientists in order to blackmail them into helping him hold the world to random with a radio controlled death ray (well, wouldn’t you if the opportunity arose..?), calls upon a palette of expression consisting primarily of barking orders like a bored public school PE teacher, some extremely half-hearted cackling, a great deal of standing still and, mercifully, absolutely NO attempt to act Chinese. He doesn’t even do any of that requisite sinister-Oriental-villain finger waggling type business.

In fact a far more convincing face of sadistic evil-doing in “Brides..” is provided by actual-Chinese-person Tsai Chin as Fu Manchu’s loyal daughter Lin Tang - a super-cool villainess who I wish had got more screen-time. (As the first ever Chinese member of RADA, Chin actually has a way strong CV as an actress, having appeared in everything from "You Only Live Twice" to "Memoirs of a Geisha" and that lame modern version of "Casino Royale" – thanks IMDB!)

Arrayed against this threat to civilisation as we know it, we have the forces of good, represented in the first instance by Sax Rohmer’s own Sherlock Holmes analogue, the redoubtable Sir Dennis Nayland Smith of the Yard. As portrayed here by Douglas Wilmer (from The Vampire Lovers and Jason & The Argonauts), Nayland Smith makes a wonderfully appropriate adversary for Fu Manchu – not an aristocrat or dashing hero, but a stuffy, sour-faced cardigan-wearing sort of a detective – avenging avatar of the kind of lower middle class England that still battles nefarious foreign infiltration every day in the pages of the Daily Mail.

For company, Smith has his own Watson, Howard Marion-Crawford as the jovial Dr. Petrie, chiefly notable for the purposes of this review because throughout the film I thought Smith was calling him “Peachy”, as some kind of affectionate nickname.

Like many early pulp police detectives, Nayland Smith seems to have developed a great scam wherein he spends the day sitting around in his royally appointed study overlooking Parliament Square, eschewing day to day police work and telling anyone who interrupts that he is busy contemplating the diabolical machinations of Fu Manchu – machinations so diabolical in this case that they could only really be comprehended by, say, reading a plot synopsis of “Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machines” and sorta reversing it. As for what Dr. Petrie’s patients think of him spending seemingly all of his time hanging around with his detective pal asking leading questions and enjoying monologues of a heavily expositional nature, well, who can say. Maybe Rohmer’s books address these issues in more detail, but good luck reading them on the train in 2010.

I can’t tell you much about director Don Sharp – who he was, what made him tick, what the notable stylistic features running through his films are – but I can tell you that he is one of my favourite British horror/b-movie directors simply because everything he made was great fun, from “Kiss of the Vampire” to “The Devil Ship Pirates” through to all-time weirdo horror mindblower “Psychomania” in ’73, and “The Brides of Fu Manchu” is no exception. A work of sublime silliness, “Brides..” is the polar opposite of “Castle Freak”, which I watched the same weekend, in that I can’t remember a single element of it that was actually good as such, and yet I enjoyed it immensely.

Oh yeah – actually, one thing I can actually single out for praise is the various fight scenes, which were an absolute hoot! This being the pre-Bruce Lee era, Fu Manchu’s secret army of loyal kung fu guys (who insist on running around town in their pyjamas and bandanas when sent to London on undercover missions) are portrayed as being masters of that classic school boy martial art that consists of leaping into the centre of a room screaming “YAAAH”, throwing a wicker chair at somebody’s head and then getting duffed up by a middle-aged Englishman in a tweed suit. As such, the fight scenes in “Bride..”, particularly an extended number in a hospital, are blunderingly joyous affairs, full of enthusiastic barroom brawl-style fisticuffs, breathless corridor chases, wanton furniture destruction and all that good stuff. I tried to keep a tally of people getting punched in the face, but gave up when I got to about forty. It’s a sort of good natured, old fashioned violence, full of “oof!” and “blast it!” and puffing and panting – not a bit like all the violent violence you get in today’s films.

I also liked Fu Manchu’s wonderfully archaic scheme of shooting vast quantities of energy across the world using wireless sets, and his repeated declaration that he intends to blow up “the Windsor Castle”, leading to a great forehead-slapping misunderstanding on the part of our heroes, which I wont spoil for you here. I loved the brief shot in which some pyjamaed ne’erdowells make off down the Thames in a boat which they don’t even try to convince us dates from the 1920s, I loved French actress Marie Versini as our almost unbearably sweet young heroine/kidnap victim, and the shiv-wielding ‘brides’ revolting against their captors was great fun.

I loved Nayland Smith commandeering a cargo plane to hoof it over to Fu Manchu’s hideout in North Africa, and the subsequent sight of him doggedly leading a conga line of battle-hardened brides in tattered evening wear back toward civilization across the Atlas mountains, as Dr. Fu’s hideout blows up in the background and the credits prepare to roll. And no, I don’t quite get why some mountain caverns in North Africa are full ancient Egyptian stuff either, but the world is full of wonders, whatcha gonna do.

Utterly pointless, morally bankrupt and with a slightly sleazy atmosphere throughout, “Brides of Fu Manchu” is a perfect, undemanding Sunday afternoon movie. For ninety minutes, I put sensible work aside, drank a bottle of pale ale, chuckled my head off and felt great – maybe next weekend, you should do the same. In a personal modification to a recent addition to the lexicon of contemporary phraseology, I have subsequently felt an urge to describe my optimum state of being as: A FU MANCHU MOVIE IS PLAYING, AND THE BEER IS OPEN.

After “Brides..”, one Jeremy Summers helmed “The Vengeance of fu Manchu” in ‘67, before none other than Jess Franco took the reins for two further entries in the series, “Blood of..” in ’68, and “Castle of..” in ‘69. Quite what happened when Franco met Fu Manchu, I can scarcely imagine, but somehow I doubt the BBFC would be inclined to grant it a “U” certificate.

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