Our review of Circus of Fear / Five Golden Dragons (Blu-ray), published July 18th, 2016, is also available.
four forgotten films from Hammer's Main Man of Menace
Occasionally, when you look deep into the long career canon of a famous actor, you usually unearth a few gems, some forgotten work they have done that has been lost amongst the defining roles and notorious missteps. Usually it's an early work, the brave choice of a starving artist. Or perhaps it's a brief turn in an ensemble piece, a chance for the now familiar fixture to hide amongst his peers and simply execute. Examples are as prevalent as the desire of Hollywood to promote television teens into blockbuster superstars. Someone like Tom Hanks can look back at Nothing in Common or Joe vs. the Volcano as times where the public turned a blind eye to what were essentially excellent films. Russell Crowe can reflect when films like Proof and The Sum of Us marked minor hints at his emerging merit within the industry. Even a new to the business brat like Josh Hartnett can point to The Virgin Suicides and O as past/present signs of promise. Following this principle of exhuming buried treasures, Blue Underground has chosen the seminal English scaremeister, Christopher Lee, as their completist target and has set about uncovering a sampling of some of his more minor movies. But instead of looking inside Hammer or his participation in adaptations of classic literature, we are treated to a collection of tainted tales from the substrata of the man's starring roles. While there is nothing wrong with highlighting his work with Jess Franco (The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Castle of Fu Manchu, The Bloody Judge) or within the strict, staid British film system (Circus of Fear), one can't help but feel there were better examples of his thespian qualities out there other than these occasionally mundane missives.
Facts of the Case
The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968): Christopher Lee is the Asian megalomaniac, that diabolical demagogue who wants to take over the world. Having once again survived an altercation with his arch nemesis, the dapper detective Nayland Smith (and his trusty, crusty sidekick Dr. Petrie), Fu has relocated to a tropical paradise to plan his next move. Seems he is fed up with this persistent interruption in his plans for global domination. So he devises a plot to get rid of his hindrances once and for all. Fu kidnaps several young women and poisons their bodies with snake venom. This ancient curse allows the ladies to kill with a kiss. One full-lipped assassin is sent to Smith's London home and he is given the peck of peril. He goes blind and has to travel to South America to find a cure. Along the way, he runs into agent Carl Jansen, hot on the trail of Fu and his fiery daughter Lin Tang. Ursula Wagner, whose Uncle was a victim of the Chinese tyrant, is along for the ride as is Sancho Lopez, a vulgar leader of a gang of bandits. Together they work to prevent Fu and Lin from giving the world a lethal loving.
The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969): Defeated once again at the hands of Nayland Smith, our man from Manchuria (otherwise known as Christopher Lee in fairly convincing eye make-up), heads over to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and decides to give the planet the cold shoulder. Seems he's kidnapped a scientist who has the secret for freezing the global water supply. To prove his new power, Fu sinks the Titanic…oops sorry, a "luxury liner" sailing the Caribbean. Fu contacts the leaders of the world and makes his demands. This gets Nayland Smith all up in arms again. Along with his ever-present traveling "companion" Dr. Petrie, our man from the Yard tries to discover just what in the devil this dim sum demon is up to. But before he can connect with some key links in the chain of convolution (a heart doctor and his leggy assistant), the sources are also kidnapped. Seems Fu needs them to do a little exploratory transplantation on his ice age frostbite specialist. So it's off to Istanbul (not Constantinople) where a drunken cop and an opium kingpin may hold the key to defeating Fu and his fortress once and for all.
Circus Of Fear (1966): In this combination heist film/haunted circus movie, Lee is Gregor, a mysterious lion tamer who always wears a black hood to cover his face. He was disfigured in the ring and uses the mask to cover his hideous scars. We witness a daring daylight robbery. A van full of money is hijacked and set over the side of the Tower Bridge, one bundle at a time. Mason, the inside man, gets nervous and kills his fellow guard. The crooks decide to let Mason deliver the loot to Mr. Big. When he arrives at a deserted farm, he is killed with a theatrical throwing knife, like one used by a carnival act. Indeed, it turns out the property belongs to Mr. Barberini, owner of a world famous circus (where Gregor works, naturally). We learn that someone is after the money and is killing off the show folk one by one to get to it. The police will have to go undercover and rely on information from the inside to finally find the identity of Mr. Big and wrap up this high profile case.
The Bloody Judge (1970): One of the most feared legal minds in all of 17th Century England, Judge George Jeffreys was infamous for his cruel and harsh punishments. Seeking to rid the realm of traitors to the throne and the evils of witchcraft, he was known for handing down vicious sentences of excessively violent torture. As played by Christopher Lee in this almost epic historical melodrama, Jeffreys is neither completely power hungry nor blindly devoted to his cause. In essence, he is a man caught between his place and his perversion. When he becomes enamored with a young woman whose sister he condemned, it starts a chain reaction of betrayal, backstabbing, and treachery. The son of a high-ranking lord is accused of supporting open revolt against the King. His lover is the young lady that Jeffreys is obsessed with. When the rogue and his woman are captured, Jeffreys condemns them unless…unless the young lady shares her favors. All the while, the Lord maneuvers to save his son and protect his country as civil war wages on.
Christopher Lee has experienced quite the renaissance, career wise, in the last few years. Long considered a legendary figure in film, his status as relic from the past was eradicated with starring roles in the two biggest blockbuster trilogies mobbing the multiplexes this new millennium. In the Star Wars prequels, he is Count Dooku, forever to be remembered as kicking a little Yoda butt before he made his escape to the safety of the Empire. In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy he is Saruman the White, the evil wizard stand-in for Dark Lord Sauron. It's not like Lee had dropped out of acting. He has appeared in dozens of movies over the last few years. But just like another actor (Vincent Price) whom recalls both his delicate civility and macabre background, the Hammer horror films he starred in over thirty years ago have forever hounded Lee. It is almost impossible for him to escape their impact, their passionate fan base, or their blatant typecasting. Price was a man of many seasons, forced to trade on fright as a means of continued success in the industry. And so Lee has done what many before have: he's simply let the moviemakers believe what they want and cast him where they require. And that has lead to some strange, sorry choices. Blue Underground does us the service of pointing out just few of these misunderstood missteps by gathering them together and calling it The Christopher Lee Collection. Some fans will be fascinated. And there will be a few who find these uneven examples of acting-as-job wonderful and evocative. But the majority of people approaching this set will wonder why these movies were selected and just what Lee thinks about them today. They will be surprised by both answers.
Our box set tour of Lee obscurities begins, rather fittingly, with one of two tossed off sequels to the puzzlingly successful British Fu Manchu movies. Basically black hat vs. white hat horse operas with Chinese and English characters essaying the evil and good roles respectively, these ersatz racist looks at the "yellow peril" from the Far East are the direct result of some very warped Western ideals about the Asian community. Placing the decidedly Caucasian Chris in the role of the famous fiend was the only positive step the producers took. There is a respectability and nobility he brings to the cartoon creep that keeps it from turning completely vile. Number four in the series, The Blood of Fu Manchu shows the series barely on life support. There is at least a halfway decent premise—the kiss of death as delivered by dozens of comely lasses—but nothing much is done with it. Nayland Smith, the mincing Moriarity to Fu's sinister Sherlock, is also underused. He is stricken sightless in the first ten minutes of the movie and spends the rest of his screen time (save for a little gun heroics at the end) trying to feign blindness. Basically, The Blood of Fu Manchu boils down to a series of pseudo connected scenes slopped together to add extra emphasis to the outrageous race bating going on. Never mind world domination, this movie is more concerned with cultural slander.
At least The Blood of Fu Manchu is an equal opportunity offender, if by that you mean that it takes pot shots at both Asians and Hispanics with identical vigor. About twenty minutes into the movie, a human bowel movement named Sancho Lopez shows up and proceeds to soil the movie for the rest of its running time. Supposedly a skewed sketch of a Mexican bandito as open sore, he is a sweaty swine behemoth moving his mounds of moist girth from one scene to another to add "local color" to the stagnant story. After all, nothing says we're south of the border and buried beneath the equator more than having a self-propelled pile of pork fat essay a major, unshaved pit stain of a character. You hope he's just a day player, the kind of crass caricature added for some bad taste humor and then left to collect flies. But no, Sancho has more scenes and more impact in this film than Lee's unlucky Fu. What should have been a chance for the Asian anarchist to introduce a new sexy and sly way of defeating his enemies turns into a spoiled spaghetti western without a man with no name. This is typical of Jess Franco. He fills his films with wonderfully evocative shots (the final sequences by the waterfall are picture postcard perfect), but the majority of his movie is the result of Harry Allen Towers tainted, curt screenplays that are short on linear drive and long of stupid ancillary characters. Lee's talent alone cannot save this film from being an inert mess.
Thankfully, there is much more Fu in The Castle of Fu Manchu and this makes for an infinitely more fun example of the genre. We avoid any and all Spanish slobs and instead use the location as accent, not excuse for the events that occur. We also get back on track to the whole outrageous plan for world domination dynamic that is supposed to make up the motives in these movies. Fu is supposed to be trying to concoct a bizarre scenario and then get narrowly defeated before he can execute it. In Castle, Fu actually gets to sink a ship, the "Notthetitanic," as it travels in blue tinged monochrome across the screen. The usage of stock footage from A Night to Remember may show the financial bankruptcy prevalent in this final offering of the oriental by director Jess Franco and producer/writer Harry Allen Towers, but it really broadens the scope of the picture. It gives it an epic quality it really doesn't deserve. Thankfully, the movie spends more time in the machinations of mad scientology and goofy gadgetry. We get to see the machine that makes universal ice cubes, and when he is particularly peed off, Fu unleashes his unholy wrath on a dam that cracks and breaks, spilling its liquidity all over a cast of several, optical composite styles. It's such flourishes as these, plus the added asset of allowing the title character to actually control the movie, that makes The Castle of Fu Manchu a silly, superfluous film that is actually fun at times.
Franco here paints a beautiful and occasionally psychedelic setting that also lifts the film's spirits. Those who've only seen Castle in its MST3K incarnation will be surprised at the way this new Blue Underground transfer looks. They will also marvel at how competent the movie is made to feel in digitally remastered widescreen. Thanks to their increased screen time, both Lee and Tsai Chin as the wicked daughter Lin Tang give much fuller, richer performances. Equally good are the actors playing the local nomads and Arabs. But one has to feel badly for Richard Greene as the Anglo archrival of the Asian arsehole. Nayland Smith is more or less forgotten here, not given a malady like blindness (as in The Blood of Fu Manchu) or an integral role (like that of the heart specialist Dr. Keller) and is more or less reduced to a plot necessity. Heck, they even toss his by now incorrigible "life partner" Dr. Petrie into the subplot saloon for a few pints before he's allowed back into the main thrust of the movie. Greene is meant to stand around looking professional and natty, but when he finally turns into an action hero, it's like watching a chartered accountant kick ass. Greene is so stuffed with bubble and squeak and bunched into his Seville Row wardrobe that he's as convincing as a corncob in the role of brave hero. All etiquette aside, The Castle of Fu Manchu is hardly as bad as its reputation makes it out to be. It's stupid, scattered, and smug, but it's still strangely compelling in a Saturday matinee serial kind of way.
On the other hand, Circus of Fear is a very confusing film. It begins like a typical robbery thriller, a precision plan for stealing an almost impossible score played out point by point for our supposed viewing enjoyment. But no sooner have we seen the deed than we are thrust into a gangland power struggle and a new story of trust and greed. Then it shifts to a big top tale of adultery and dirty secrets. Add in a little unseen killer threatening members of the three-ring residence and a dwarf with blackmail on the brain, and the movie becomes top-heavy with plot points. And we still aren't done. We have to include a dose of identity theft, old-fashioned show business vendettas, and a wild animal attack or two to completely stress the storyline. With a titillating title and a cast featuring many of the Queen's finest, this should have been a British Berserk!, a tantalizing tale of terror under the big top. But instead, we get a meshing of The Italian Job with a more soap opera version of The Greatest Show on Earth, all encased in snippets of several other cinematic stalwarts to pad the running time. It really does feel as if two script ideas were melded together, like heist "peanut butter" being thrust into gooey carnival "chocolate." The fact that the movie constantly has to keep reminding itself what sequence we're in, and what it has to do with the overall narrative, shows that more times than not the right hand of Circus of Fear doesn't know that the left hand even exists. Without an occasional Scotland Yard tea break for expositional clarification, this movie would have been forever befuddled.
With a cast this good, Circus of Fear really should have been better. But what happens to this movie is typical of most films that ladle on the sub-plots and backstory. At some point, they have to wrap all the loose ends and they learn just how difficult it is. They barely cover their bases before other unanswered issues rear their unresolved head. Trying to address all the red herrings and plot rerouted leads to a movie that's more mechanical and substantially less atmospheric. A setting like the circus is ripe with intrigue, and yet it seems no film can genuinely tap into it. It also doesn't help that star Christopher Lee (the reason for this disc's inclusion in the set) appears, sans mask, for about ten minutes overall. The rest of the time he is merely a black hooded presence who can only sell threat and mystery with his voice. Lee is an expert at doing this very thing, but it would have worked better had the covering been partial, like the Phantom of the Opera, just showing a portion of his profile. Lee has the face for horror, but Circus of Fear just wants to hide it. As they do with Klaus Kinski. The enigmatic actor is left to stand back in the shadows for most of his performance, to let his famous mug and a dangling cigarette do most of his work for him—when we are allowed to see it. Only little person Skip Martin is allowed enough leeway to make his grubby, extorting dwarf character something truly creepy. He exudes the sleaze and evil that is lacking from so much of the sad extravaganza.
The final disc in the set (and a film exclusive to the Collection) is The Bloody Judge. Be forewarned: those looking for Jess Franco's erotic take on terror tales like Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General (AKA The Conqueror Worm) or Mark of the Devil will be cruelly disappointed with this movie. Certainly there are a great many exploitation elements here. We get extremely gratuitous torture and plenty of sexy women in all manner of undress. But this movie also wants to be a serious period piece, an examination of British politics, pretenders to the throne, and an inquisition-like purging of witches. It's far more daring than the other films in the set and offers a chance to see Lee in a highly dramatic, straightforward role of power perverted. Jess Franco, always known as an ambitious, visual director, outdoes himself with the locales and sets in this film. There is an authentic flavor for the time and place. He also handles a couple of battles brilliantly, staging horses and soldiers inside a barrage of explosions with grace and cunning. Frankly, with the stellar cast, exceptional look and feel of the film, and the subject matter in question, this should be a wonderful, wicked motion picture. Unfortunately, The Bloody Judge is not. It's more routine than rousing, and for every sequence of sadism or sensuality, there is another of blubbering blind oracles and badly dubbed menservants getting their cockles in a pinch. Something seems off in this dramatization, as if all the elements are in place but not tuned properly. It's not Lee's fault, or even Franco's; this is unquestionably some of their best work. Something is amiss and the answers as to why seem equally elusive.
Maybe it's the fact that we never care for the fate of any of the characters in the film. The aristocrat's son is a pretty boy cipher, never given much nuance or personality. His father is worse: a man of words and wounds (he constantly holds his hand in a paralyzed claw over his chest, but we never get a reference as to why). Except for Maria Rohm as Mary Gray, the rest of the females in the film were obviously hired for their ability to look fetching while being flogged. They are all eye candy and curves. Once you get past the main cast, everyone else is indistinct and similar. And that is never good in a movie filled with awkward names and uncertain loyalties. The fact that you have to constantly ask yourself who is who on screen makes The Bloody Judge a very annoying experience. As does the unfocused scope of the film. This movie is literally all over the map when it comes to styles and tone. At some points it wants to be a war picture, a judicial caper, a supernatural cautionary tale, a bio-pic, a tale of corruption and career, a horror flick, a S&M skinfest, and an intense, knowing character study. Franco admits that competing claims from several producers (all trying to maximize the movie for their country's market) resulted in this cornucopia approach, but it doesn't help to make the movie compelling. Since we don't care about the people, we better understand and appreciate the circumstances they are in. But we can't here. The Bloody Judge just doesn't know how to turn one genre off and jump-start another. As a result, all the epic sweep and glorious cinematography is wasted. This film is decent, but it could have been a decadent, disgusting treat.
Blue Underground—that deranged deliverer of obscure specialty films—has done it again with The Christopher Lee Collection. Instead of going for the easy mark or the big score, they scour the globe looking for the most obtuse movies in their most complete versions possible. Then they gussy them up with brilliant transfers, polished sound, and more extras than many big budget studios provide in an entire quarter's output. Each film in this set is offered in its original theatrical aspect ratio (Blood, Circus, and Castle are 1.66:1, The Bloody Judge is 2.35:1) and, except for Blood of Fu Manchu, all look remarkable. Especially good are Castle of Fu Manchu and The Bloody Judge. Blood of Fu Manchu suffers from a great deal of flaring and a few faded sequences, but in general, the colors are all very good and the images are pristine. It is also nice to have them uncut and completely (or as near to completely as possible) intact as possible. People who have problems with these films in the past will welcome the added material. But one does need to point out Circus of Fear. It apparently has some issues. Many on the Internet have complained that their copy of the film freezes intermittently throughout playback. The issue has been given over to the Big Blue U who is addressing it. This critic did not experience any playback problems on all three DVD players he viewed it on. While it may be a problem of minimal or widespread scope, all this critic can do is offer a word of advice: seek out forums and newsgroups on the web and read up on the Circus issue before buying the disc.
Sound wise, these movies are Dolby Digital Mono, and that usually means tinny distorted single speaker sonic snoozefests without finesse or ambience. But surprisingly, each film sounds wonderful. Especially effective are the scores for the Fu Manchu pictures. When it comes to overblown, however, it's a dead heat between Circus of Fear and The Bloody Judge. Circus is scored by Johnny Douglas and he's got the lazy, London pop bebop of the 1960s down to a slinky science (you'll be whistling the trumpet melody line from the main theme over and over again). Judge is another exercise in excess by Franco favorite Bruno Nicolai. When it's present, it practically drowns out everything else. Both scores can occasionally crackle, but that's because of bad mixing, not bad original elements.
As for the bonus material, Blue Underground strikes gold again. We get extensive, data-packed liner note essays by Tim Scott in every package. Each disc also contains trailers and galleries. A couple here even have biographical essays and picture slide shows of the foundational material that made up the initial stories and characters (i.e. Fu Manchu). Then these auteurs of the obscure come up with a fabulous set of interview and/or commentary material that really explains and expands the viewing experience. On the Fu Manchu discs, a 35-minute interview with Franco, Lee, Towers, and Tsai Chin is divided up into two parts. The initial segment describes how all the parties came to the Asian bad guys story and onscreen translation. Part two describes how the series buckled under an ever-decreasing law of diminishing financial returns. Only Chin addresses outright the racist angle. Lee, in typical British style, merely comments casually on how bad he felt for his Chinese co-star. Towers and Franco offer no such apologies, but merely point the finger at each other for ruining what, for them, was a legitimate horror film series that could have continued on. A similar interview on The Bloody Judge DVD is equally insightful. Featuring Lee and Franco, they both share stories of on-set disagreements, the surprising "versions" of the movie, and the complete mangling of the title by American film distributors (just how did this movie about witch trials and treason turns into Night of the Blood Monster?).
Perhaps the only disappointing bonus is the Circus of Fear commentary track. Featuring director John Moxey (with Blue Underground figure David Gregory), it is a very superficial and dry discussion of the making of this movie and Moxey's career as a whole. We learn some interesting facts about the production (the stunts in the heist sequence were completed in one take because…they had to be) and the actors (Klaus Kinski always asked "Why?" whenever he was given direction; Suzy Kendall was constantly visited on the set by then-boyfriend Dudley Moore). We even learn of Moxey's post-UK stretch in Hollywood (he directed The Night Stalker amongst numerous other things). But we really don't learn much about the reasons for events within the film, the plot holes, or the lack of scares. This is just a workman like discussion of a very journeyman motion picture and it has minimal impact.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a scene in Educating Rita that has a certain amount of resonance here. In the sequence, Rita is describing a night at the pub with her family. Everyone is drinking and singing. Rita looks over and sees her mother, who is weeping. She asks, "Why are you crying Mother?" and the reply is simple: "There must be better songs to sing than this." Indeed, when it comes to the long, illustrious career of one of Britain's most dashing and deadly stars, to celebrate Christopher Lee's career with the movies in this box set is to serenade him with sulfur, not sugar. Lee deserves better but unfortunately, bottom of the barrel is what we get. If Blue Underground's desire was to showcase the occasional "will work for food" moments in the actor's varied canon, they couldn't have found more blatant examples. The Fu Manchu films are ethnic slurs just waiting for political correctness to destroy them. Circus of Fear is a weepy, droll as dross who-done-it that makes an episode of Barnaby Jones look like Sleuth (not to mention the fact that Lee hides behind a ski mask for 97.546% of the running time). Only The Bloody Judge gives the actor a chance to shine, and yet he is constantly eclipsed by Jess Franco's flesh obsessions and the static nature of the film's script. In essence, we get the perfect reel to unveil at Lee's celebrity roast, a chance to embarrass a living legend with the very movies that helped to elongate his career. Blue Underground is commended for restoring these films to their original luster. Too bad that a polished pig is still just a shiny sow.
As Dracula, Lee has no match. He brings a truly sinister quality to the suave Count that other actors mistake as maniac. Placed in a position of power, be it as a Nazi leader or Army General, he can be commanding without being coarse. Again, a trait many other performers constantly overlook. There are those who champion his Holmes (that's Sherlock Holmes for those wondering) and others who see him in his various priest/devil/doctor roles. But it's hard to imagine that anyone will remember him for his Fu Manchu. As compelling as Judge George Jeffreys is, the quasi-biographical movie made of that madman's life is just not destined to live on. And anyone wondering what a movie starring Christopher Lee but not necessarily showing Christopher Lee would look like need fret no more—Circus of Fear will calm that qualm until another arrives. The Christopher Lee Collection from Blue Underground is a completist's dream come true. It combines many of the man's long lost works lovingly restored and supplemented for maximum effect. But the films themselves are weak and withered, having failed to bear the brunt of age and expectation well. Sure, other big names have an embarrassment of embarrassments hiding in their closets. Most hope that they will be ignored and only brought up as a source of satirical shame on a smart-assed talk show. But not all of them get the glorified box set treatment. Christopher Lee's legacy will be forever frayed by the celebration of these beautiful yet bland DVD offerings.
Christopher Lee is acquitted of all charges by the Court and is free to go. Blue Underground is also found Not Guilty by the court in the way they have handled these titles, but is found guilty of choosing less than stellar examples of this man's many works.
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Scales of Justice, Circus Of Fear
Perp Profile, Circus Of Fear
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, Circus Of Fear
• Commentary with Director John Moxey
Scales of Justice, The Blood Of Fu Manchu
Perp Profile, The Blood Of Fu Manchu
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, The Blood Of Fu Manchu
• The Rise of Fu Manchu -- Interview Featurette with Cast and Crew
Scales of Justice, The Castle Of Fu Manchu
Perp Profile, The Castle Of Fu Manchu
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, The Castle Of Fu Manchu
• The Fall of Fu Manchu -- Interview Featurette with Cast and Crew
Scales of Justice, The Bloody Judge
Perp Profile, The Bloody Judge
Studio: Blue Underground
Distinguishing Marks, The Bloody Judge
• Bloody Jess -- Interview Featurette with Director Jess Franco and Christopher Lee
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