Saturday, 29 March 2014
The Blood of Fu Manchu
‘Fu Manchú y el Beso de la Muerte’ [Spain], ‘Der Todeskuss des Dr. Fu Manchu’ [“Dr. Fu Manchu’s Kiss of Death”, Germany], ‘Kiss & Kill’ [U.S.A.], ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Kiss of Death’ [U.S. video titles, according to IMDB?].
Having recently looked at one of the highlights of Jess Franco’s tenure with Harry Alan Towers, it seems only fitting that we should turn our attention to one of the flat-out stinkers… or at least, that’s how Franco’s two Fu Manchu movies usually seem to be viewed. Personally I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one, as we shall see below.
The Fu Manchu series was of course the flagship of Towers’ modest production empire through the mid/late 60s. He wrote the scripts for all of them under his ‘Peter Welbeck’ pseudonym, and whilst they’re certainly no classics, I think the earlier entries certainly stand up well as entertaining rainy afternoon type fare.(1) As the decade progressed though, the audience for these kind of old fashioned adventure movies was beginning to drift away, and I can only imagine that interest in the series (which was already pretty outmoded when it began, let’s face it) was fading fast.
So, enter Jess Franco! Put to work on the next Fu Manchu picture by his new paymaster, and lumbered with a characteristically daft ‘Welbeck’ script, Franco fans will recognise that such circumstances usually spell kryptonite for the director’s creativity, but hey, at least he got to shoot in Brazil and hang out with Christopher Lee, and… well, I think he probably made the best of a bad job, all things considered.
Rich with the kind of dazzling invention and realism that if the hallmark of Mr. Welbeck, the plot here concerns – what else? - Dr. Fu Manchu’s latest devious plan for world domination, which this time consists of hypnotising kidnapped slave girls and dispatching them to the homes of world leaders and sundry other important men, whereupon – get this – they will kiss them with their Cobra venom covered lips, resulting in blindness, coma and (eventually) death! Quite what advantages this plan has over, say, sending them letter bombs or something, I’m unsure, but y’know, it was the ‘60s - gotta make an effort.(2)
One of the first victims of this characteristically half-baked diabolical scheme is Fu Manchu’s dogged arch-nemesis, Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, who as a result is blinded and thus spends much of the film off-screen, wrestling with cobra-induced fever. Presumably this turn of events was written into the script after actor Douglas Wilmer, who played Nayland-Smith in the three earlier films, bailed on the series shortly before shooting began, leaving insufficient time for his replacement (Richard Greene) to step into the breach.
Nayland-Smith’s absence from proceedings is unfortunate, not least because it temporarily shifts the burden of heroism across to his ersatz-Watson sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford), who sadly is portrayed here as an utter buffoon, with practically every line of his dialogue reduced a weak joke about how much he misses rainy old blighty and wants to have a nice cup of tea – a fixation that seems to obsess him to such an extent that he should probably seek whatever equivalent of addiction counselling is available to one-dimensional movie characters (he’s even moaning about not being able to reach his Thermos whilst he’s chained up in Fu Manchu’s dungeons!). (3)
As Petrie blunders into the Amazon rainforest following rumours of Fu Manchu’s last known whereabouts, the hero vacuum is somewhat eased by the introduction of rugged jungle adventurer type Götz George (German production money ahoy!) and wandering medic Maria Rohm (producer’s girlfriend ahoy!), who have also stumbled onto the trail of the villainous mastermind for… well, I forget the reasons to be honest, but they are around, anyway.
Much faffing about and several long digressions follow, and during its middle half hour, the film takes everyone by surprise by suddenly turning into a kind of South American jungle-western! Here, veteran Spanish actor Ricardo Palacios spits out scenery and cackles with gusto as a quasi-revolutionary bandit chief named Sancho Lopez. Together with his gang of sombrero-wearing cut-throats (must have been a long ride down from old Mexico?), Lopez takes command of the remote village where Rohm’s character is based, staging bloody massacres and raucous, whore-filled parties with equal enthusiasm.
Just a hunch here, but do you get the feeling maybe Franco or Towers or somebody came back all fired up from an early screening of ‘The Wild Bunch’ just before they started making this one..? It’s all pretty good fun anyway, so if you like the idea of Jess Franco knocking out about thirty minutes of a pulpy south-of-the-border western, dig in.
For the final half hour we’re back in more familiar Fu Manchu territory, but to be honest nobody really seems to have their heart in it anymore, as Franco’s camera starts wondering off to look at foliage and the film’s shaky adventure movie syntax frays to breaking point, with only a nice waterfall, a few sloppily choreographed fight scenes and Christopher Lee’s patented “stand up straight / say the lines / collect the cheque” methodology saving things from collapse.
Watching these Fu Manchu movies, I always find myself wondering who the hell they were aimed at, and who actually bought tickets to see them back when they were in cinemas. I mean, on the surface they’re pretty much just old-fashioned, kiddie-friendly adventure movies, very much in the spirit of the b-movie swashbucklers that Hammer used to knock out for the half-term holidays, but as the series progressed, they seemed to start throwing in all these vaguely kinky, Sadean sorta elements that seem squarely aimed at a more adult, horror/sexploitation audience – a stylistic disjuncture that leads to a pretty schizophrenic feel at times.(4)
I probably don’t need to tell you what effect hiring Jess Franco had vis-à-vis this trend, and right from the opening shots, things are amped up considerably here. The movie opens with scantily-clad slave girls being marched through the jungle in chains by whip-wielding henchmen, and before we know it, they’re being man-handled by a leather-masked torturer and suggestively mocked by Fu Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin). This kind of BDSM slave fantasy stuff was already bubbling under the surface in earlier instalments, but it’s pretty full-on here, becoming almost as sleazy as one of Franco’s Women In Prison films.
The implicitly erotic figure of Lin Tang plays a bigger role than usual here too, basically taking on the bulk of day-to-day evil-doing business from her father, as he largely scales back his involvement to just the all-important “standing around talking about the plans” element. In numerous scenes, she can be seen bossing around the female captives and behaving to all intent and purposes like one of the sapphic wardresses in Franco’s later WIP epics, whilst towards the end of the film, she’s even seen cackling to herself on her father’s throne, suggesting the possibility of a fun ‘Lin Tang takes over’ plot-line that I don’t think was ever fully realised in these films(?). Anyway, I like her a lot in this one - she’s pretty cool, and Chin seems to actually be having fun in the role for once too.
Elsewhere, this film’s stand-in for the obligatory Franco night-club scene arrives via a sequence in which one of Fu Manchu’s hypnotised slave-girls walks out of the darkness to perform a libidinous dance for Sancho Lopez during his gang’s victory celebration. Going on for far longer than it reasonably should in this sort of movie, this sequence proves to be surprisingly strong stuff, with only the thinnest of diaphanous gowns hiding her boobs from the full glare of whatever kind of mixed up crowd did actually go and see this movie as she rubs and writhes with abandon… before Lopez prematurely ends her performance by bloodily shooting her, which must have further delighted parents and moral guardians, I’m sure. (And yeah, they were definitely goofing on ‘The Wild Bunch’ here, weren’t they?)
For those still keeping score after that point, there are fully bared breasts to be seen on several other occasions, along with assorted whipping and dungeon bondage bits, as any remaining illusions about these movies being made for a juvenile audience go completely out of the window.
Mildly gruesome tortures and a few bits Kensington gore keep things on a Hammer-esque “good ol’ blood-thirsty stuff for the kids” sort of level, whilst smoke and dungeons and skulls and cobras and so forth during the Fu Manchu hideout scenes all perpetuate that particular kind of pulpy horror-not-horror atmosphere that defines these kinda films, whilst mixed up bits of DNA from jungle adventure movies, euro-spy flicks and westerns further dilute the brew elsewhere.
“The moon is full… the moon of life. Let her taste the kiss… of DEATH!”
So, just to recap, we’re talking here about a motion picture in which Dr. Fu Manchu, as played by Christopher Lee, hangs around in a hidden citadel in the heart of the Amazon, hypnotising kidnapped girls and using ancient Inca rituals to impregnate them with deadly cobra venom, for the eventual purpose of wiping out world leaders and thus conquering the planet. Those trekking through the treacherous, unmapped jungle to oppose him include a dysfunctional Holmes and Watson-esque duo, a proto-Indiana Jones two-fisted archaeologist and an obese Mexican bandit chief who appears to be getting paid by the guffaw. If that ain’t pulp enough for you, I’d suggest a trip to the saw-mill.
This is far from the most far-out film Jess Franco made, but if you were approach it from the opposite direction, as an example of a low budget matinee adventure film gradually going off the rails, I think it would emerge as being at least moderately weird.
In between the aforementioned hi-jinks, there is much ‘down-time’, much wondering-camera foliage footage and many focus-blurring scene transitions. Much like a more regular Franco film, things soon settle down into a familiar pattern, mixing exciting / kinky set-pieces with segments of plodding, procedural drag that could soon have the casual viewer (and with a movie like this, is there gonna be any other kind?) snoring in vain.
A brief montage demonstrating the progress of Fu Manchu’s schemes around the world does briefly highlight a few bits of absolutely eye-popping, pop art production design – very much in the style of the same year’s astonishing ‘The Girl From Rio’ and, more than likely, probably spliced straight in from unused footage shot for that film.
Music by Franco’s favoured composer Daniel White meanwhile is sadly not much to shout about, dominated as it is by assorted variations on an insipid tune that sounds like a slight variation on ‘Que Sera Sera’, which seems to play incessantly through the film’s middle half hour.
Most of the jungle footage here appears to have actually filmed in some corner of the Amazon rainforest, insofar as I can tell, and indeed, the locations used are very interesting and impressive, including some genuine stalactite filled caves, and a monolithic waterfall that adds greatly to the scope of the film’s otherwise rather uneventful conclusion.
Usually with these things, one tends to assume that all the locations used were probably just a quick bus ride from Rio, where Franco and Towers were based for the simultaneously shot ‘The Girl From Rio’, but, given that the Southern-most part of the Amazon basin is right over on the other side of Brazil, maybe they actually relcoated completely? Or, maybe there IS sufficiently Amazon-like terrain to be found within spitting distance of Rio? I dunno. If anyone can identify the surely-that-must-be-quite-famous dam/waterfall that appears in the film, maybe we can pinpoint it on our sadly non-existent Jess Franco Locations Map? (Obviously it would be a transparent map on a Perspex wall with flashing lights, like the one Fu Manchu always has knocking about in his hideouts..)
Meanwhile, all the scenes in the town besieged by the bandits and the colonial governor’s mansion where Götz George is kept prisoner look to have been filmed back in Spain, with distinctly familiar-looking grand interiors, and a few exterior shots that I *think* might match up with the complex of buildings memorably used a few years later in ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ and numerous of Franco’s other early ‘70s productions.
I’d have to run some of the films again to be sure, and I can’t be bothered to do that right now, but… someone should do a book about this stuff, y’know? Big coffee table hardback thing – “In The Footsteps of Franco” – combining the middle class travelogue market with the cult movie freaks, it should be a good seller. I’m game, if any publishers out there want to pay for the plane tickets.
Oh, and the Fu Manchu hideout stuff is largely done on sets that I’m guessing are redressed versions of the ones seen in ‘Brides..’, and god knows what else besides. (Hey, you need a dungeon? Give Harry a call.)
‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ is not film that really gets much love, but I must say, I quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s sloppy, tedious, cynical and practically the dictionary definition of “a load of old rubbish”, but the sheer amount of stuff going on gives it a strangely epic flavour that few other Franco productions can really match, and, whilst fans of the director will have to accept that it explores his favoured themes and obsessions only in passing, taken as an example of a rainy Sunday pulp adventure movie that’s completely lost the plot and wondered off into unknown realms, I think it has a lot to recommend it. I’d definitely place it toward the top end of Franco’s catalogue of work-for-hire genre exercises.
‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ followed later the same year from Franco & Towers, and even commentators who hated ‘Blood..’ admit that it looks like Citizen Kane compared to that one, so…. that’s something to look forward to I suppose?
(1)‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ (’65) and ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ (’66), both directed by Don Sharp, are quite a bit of fun (I reviewed ‘Brides..’ here). I’ve not seen the third instalment, ‘The Vengeance of Fu Manchu’ directed by Jeremy Summers, but I think I’m gonna walk not run on that one given that Summers also made the unspeakably bad ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ for Towers.
(2) Which is more than Christopher Lee and the film’s make-up team are doing here incidentally – aside from the floppy moustache, Lee isn’t even trying to appear Asian by this point in the franchise… which, though a let-down for fans of casual movie racism, is probably for the best, all things considered.
(3) My favourite thing about Marion-Crawford’s performances in these movies is his habit of yelling “FU MANCHU!?” in moustache-ruffling, outraged surprise at least once per film.
(4)If you think about it, I guess Hammer were actually doing much the same thing too, as ‘The Swords of Sherwood Forest’ gave way to ‘Prehistoric Women’ and ‘The Viking Queen’, although these Towers films, being considerably closer to the margins, tended to get more sleazy more quickly. As I mentioned in my earlier review, ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ has to be the most erotically charged movie ever to be granted a ‘U’ certificate by the BBFC, and I’ve subsequently seen evidence that they even shot some alternate nude sequences for it (“for the Japanese market”, no doubt).