Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)

Both Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels and the movies based on them are major guilty pleasures of mine. The Castle of Fu Manchu, made in 1969, was the second Fu Manchu movie to be directed by Jess Franco, and it was also the last real Fu Manchu movie. And it marked Christopher Lee’s fifth appearance as the fiendish arch-villain.

There was a 1980 Fu Manchu spoof starring Peter Sellers, but that doesn’t really count.

The Castle of Fu Manchu ends with Dr Fu Manchu promising that the world will hear from him again it seems more and more unlikely that will ever happen. I can’t imagine any modern film-maker daring to try to resurrect this series. Which is a great pity. It’s a symptom of the increasingly lack of fun in our modern world.

The Jess Franco Fu Manchu movies, and this one in particular, are often criticised for their exceptionally low production values and their lack of historically accurate settings and even costumes. Personally I don’t really mind. I see this as a example of Franco’s ability to make entertaining movies on budgets of almost nothing. And Fu Manchu movies are supposed to be campy fun, and on that level I think The Castle of Fu Manchu succeeds.

This time around Fu Manchu is using water as a weapon in his plans for world domination. He has found a scientist who has perfected a method of turning water into ice, even in warm temperatures. And the method works on large bodies of water. In fact it has the potential to work on very large bodies of water indeed - entire seas if necessary. As a first step the evil doctor creates an iceberg in the tropics and sends an ocean liner to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.

Once again the world’s only hope of salvation is the courage and determination of the doctor’s arch-nemesis Nayland Smith. This time Nayland Smith has an unlikely ally. Fu Manchu had made a temporary alliance with a Turkish drug baron, and then turned on his erstwhile ally. Even worse, he captured and imprisoned the drug baron’s beautiful machinegun-toting girlfriend Lisa (Rosalba Neri). Fu Manchu has also kidnapped an eminent surgeon, needing his services to keep alive the ailing scientist who discovered the technique of changing the nature of water at will. The surgeon and his beautiful female assistant join the alliance against Fu Manchu.

The great strength of the movie is the teaming of Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin as Fu Manchu and his wicked sadistic daughter. They played these roles in all five 1960s Fu Manchu movies, and played the roles exceptionally well. Richard Greene is a perfectly adequate Nayland Smith. The real bonus in this film is Rosalba Neri. Putting her in male drag and giving her a machinegun was an inspired decision. She looks even sexier than usual and deadly to boot.

It’s best not to think about the production values at all. If you try to spot all the glaring anachronisms you’ll go mad. It’s a popcorn movie, so the best approach is to just go with the flow. And this movie is fun. It’s silly fun, but it’s supposed to be silly.

The DVD extras feature Jess Franco, Christopher Lee and producer Harry Alan Towers reminiscing about the production. Franco is always entertaining to listen to, and Christopher Lee is surprisingly unembarrassed by the movie.

The Region 4 DVD features a pretty reasonable DVD transfer.

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