Appellate Judge Tom Becker is nobody's Fu.
In 19th Century Baltimore, personable yet psychotic villain Jason Cravette (Patrick O'Neal, Matchless) escapes a trip to the gallows by severing his hand from a manacle. To cover the unsightly stump, Cravatte purchases some screw-on cleavers, skewers, and other dangerous looking cutlery and sets out to use them on those he holds responsible for his fate. Suddenly, his hand becomes a portable Chamber of Horrors. Hot on his trail: Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova, Mean Streets) and Harold Blount (Wilfrid Hyde-White, My Fair Lady), wax museum curators and highly successful—if still amateur—sleuths.
Meanwhile, far away, in another part of the world, arch-villain Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, The Man with the Golden Gun) has kidnapped the wives and daughters of the world's top scientists and entrepreneurs. These shapely yet terrified captives are not being held for ransom; rather, the fiendish Fu is blackmailing their men-kin into building him the ultimate weapon of destruction—so he can rule the world! Will The Brides of Fu Manchu help him finally achieve this nefarious goal, or will he once again be thwarted by the noble and boy-scout-like Sir Dennis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer, The Vampire Lovers)?
I actually saw Chamber of Horrors when I was around 10 years old, when the local Catholic school decided to show movies on Saturday afternoons to pick up a couple of bucks. Five friends and I trooped into the auditorium and discovered that, including ourselves, there were exactly…six people there for what ended up being the only attempt to fundraise through movie day. I think the church people thought they'd rented a different movie, a monster epic from the '30s or '40s, or maybe one of those Inquisition epics. Were they ever mistaken.
As the opening moments unfolded, even we had to wonder what the nuns were thinking. First, in a pre-credit sequence, we were warned of scenes so horrific that they'd be tipped off by a Fear Flasher and Horror Horn—an effect in which the screen strobed red while the soundtrack went all car alarm. Then, the credits started with what looked like blood splashes being flung at the camera while a chorus of women screamed. And then, there's the opening sequence in which madman Jason Cravette marries a dead woman and then carts her off to enjoy the wedding night. Had we been better versed on the facts of life and not reliant on a few well-worn pages from The Godfather as our sex education, we would have been all abuzz about the not-so-veiled hints of necrophilia, but since we were still fuzzy on what living men and women did, the whole sex-with-a-corpse thing went right over our heads.
Chamber of Horrors was actually an unsold pilot for a TV series with Danova and Hyde-White as a 19th Century Holmes and Watson-type team. The chamber in the title refers to a wax museum they ran. The pilot pushed the envelope just a bit much for '60's television, so it was beefed up a bit (including a cameo from Tony Curtis) and released theatrically.
It's really like two separate movies. The one focusing on the investigation, which would have brought Danova and Hyde-White into our living rooms each week, strains a bit to be clever, cheeky, and charming. We've seen these characters before, and we know what they're going to do and how it's going to turn out.
But then there's this whole other movie going on in Chamber of Horrors, and this movie is a lot less predictable, as well as sexy and satisfyingly tawdry. Patrick O'Neal is just great as the deranged and vengeance-hungry Cravette, and TV writer Stephen Kandel gives him a far better character than the usual cookie-cutter loon we might expect. In addition, Jason is agreeably kinky. "You're a tramp," he purrs appreciatively to one comely lady, and she really has no argument with that, so he spirits her off to use her rentable charms as a major cog in his wheel of vengeance.
The Fear Flasher and Horror Horn are cute gimmicks, nice throwbacks to the William Castle days of issuing insurance policies for those who might die of fear while seeing Macabre or rigging the seats to send out electric shocks ("Percepto") during The Tingler. Here, the anticipation of the screen flashing and wailing is far more effective than anything that actually happens in the film. Those who didn't look away generally just saw O'Neal wielding a blade; frankly, you'll see scarier knife work on Top Chef. It would all be more horrifying if you did look away; unfortunately, you're never told when you can look back.
Fun movie, well worth a look, and more subversive than it seems at first glance.
Next, we get hot girls in cocktail dresses and lingerie chained to a wall and brainwashed to "obey your master." Is it a VH1 reality show? Charlie Sheen's home movies? Not, it's The Brides of Fu Manchu.
Chamber of Horrors is like a white-hot poker in the eye of gut-wrenching horror compared to The Brides of Fu Manchu. This one has camp value but little else.
It's always fun watching Christopher Lee, but he doesn't actually get to all that much here. The heavy lifting is left to Tsai Chin, as his devoted daughter, Lin Tang, whose psychic hold over the pretty prisoners gives the film a nice Sapphic undercurrent.
Most of the film is devoted to Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu's arch enemy, who unravels bits of Fu's fiendish plans with near-clairvoyance, but can't figure out simple things, like getting up a flight of stairs or calling for help to stop a bunch of Fu's henchpeople from kidnapping a woman from a crowded theater.
Actually, it's remarkable that Fu Manchu's men get anything accomplished. They fight like girls, and not Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! girls. You'd think this might come in handy when they are actually fighting with the girls, but their pampered captors almost overpower them. It's worse when they fight the men. There are no martial arts moves or balletic stunts from these Fu fighters, just a few slaps and ill-aimed punches. Given that these young, athletic Asian men are having their clocks routinely cleaned by doughy, middle-aged Brits, there's no doubt that the terrible Fu is destined for failure.
In the tech department, both films sport serviceable mono audio and anamorphic pictures. Chamber of Horrors looks pretty good, clear, with minimal damage. The Brides of Fu Manchu is another story. Parts of this are alright, though other parts look pretty terrible; additionally, I'm not sure if Warner Bros. is giving us the film in the correct aspect ratio. Some scenes seem very tight to the frame; in a number of instances, tops of heads are cut off (and not by Fu Manchu's inept assassins). The extras department is a lonely place; we don't get as much as a trailer.
But we do get these two comically sordid films looking pretty good on one dual-layer disc. If you want to make a night of it, pick up some Jiffy Pop and a trailer compilation to pop in before and between the features—the 42nd Street Forever series is good—and get ready to hunker down and party like it's 1966.
Villainous, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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