The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE FU MANCHU CYCLE, 1965-1969 | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - THE FU MANCHU CYCLE, 1965-1969

THE FU MANCHU CYCLE, 1965-1969
...and Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu!

Review by Jason Abbey

THE FU MANCHU CYCLE, 1965-1969 boxset

It was a brave or foolhardy individual that decided a box set of the Machiavellian Fu Manchu was required just as the issue of race and representation became a hot button topic due to contemporary events which led to the removal of certain films and programs for their antiquated depiction of countries and ethnicity. Personally, erasing the more problematic parts of our cinematic history stifles debate and potentially erases the historical problematic actions and depictions of race. So, let us don our finest silk robes, slap on the silly putty and deal with the yellow peril that Sax Rohmer’s deeply racist title character enacts on good old Blighty.


The Face of Fu Manchu

The Face of Fu Manchu
The first of the five movies in producer Harry Alan Towers' series is arguably the best of the lot. It's certainly the best looking in the classic Hammer (not a Hammer film but Don Sharp had directed a few in his time) method of making a relatively meagre budget look far fancier than the coffers would allow.

Shot mainly in Ireland, this begins with the execution of criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee), but do not worry - with a further four films to come his deceased state is fluid at best. The execution is witnessed by his arch nemesis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), who grows suspicious of the veracity of the death when corpses start floating in the Thames and a deadly Tibetan Poppy poison starts offing members of the public. With the help of Doctor Petrie (Nayland’s Factotum/Bestie/Love Partner…the relationship is fluid as the films go on), he discovers the dastardly villain is still alive, having hypnotised a double to literally take the chop for him. Working in an underwater lair and with a casual disregard for antiquities, Fu Manchu flexes his muscles by wiping out a village in Essex (the slaaag) - a surprisingly effective and dark scene with multitudes (okay, a dozen) of corpses strewn across the bucolic splendour of England’s finest county.

A relatively tame affair, this hints at casual sadism with the daughter of the despicable Doctor Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) ever ready with a whip and a glint in her eye, but instead makes do with an elaborate unwieldy plot for world domination that gives it a pound-land James Bond flavour.

Green makes for a stern and imposing Smith, terse and focussed, whose one and done embodiment of the role leaves you wistful for what he could have done in further films in the series. Petrie would be played by Howard Marion-Crawford with diminishing returns but here he very much embodies a mutton chops Doctor Watson type, all bluster and colonial spirit. Lee was a big fan of the books apparently and if you ignore the very large elephant in the room regarding casting, has an intimidating feline quality that he has used throughout his career.

It all moves at a fair clip in a Sunday afternoon sort of way, with some fairly archaic fight choreography and a few cameos such as James Robertson Justice as a museum curator, but the professional proficiency of the enterprise seems to make this feel more racist. If I do have to stomach xenophobia, I like it sleazy (luckily Jess Franco climbs on board later). This is in essence the Daily Mail transmogrified into celluloid form.

 
The Brides of Fu Manchu

The Brides of Fu Manchu
In this retread of the first film, returning director Sharp appears to be working with a reduced budget. It's competently shot with the usual dodgy fight scenes. This time the dastardly doctor is kidnapping the daughters of prominent scientists in an attempt to force them to build a device that transmits blast waves through a radio transmitter. Nayland Smith is back on the case (this time in the guise of Douglas Wilmer) with the assistance of the dependable Dr Petrie.

Here the formula is set - with headstrong daughter Lin Tang always ready with a whip and an urge to torture - for an overly complicated plan for world domination (this also includes a bizarre lever that goes to maximum power then up to and past 11 if you want to put everyone in jeopardy).

Burt Kwouk makes an appearance as a henchman here and brings some much-needed life to proceedings (also being Chinese is a plus point). Lee is subdued in this instalment, sat behind a desk giving orders and behaving more like an office manager in a small radio business than a hell spawned villain out for world domination. Wilmer brings a Holmesian grace to his Nayland Smith and business ends as becomes standard with a fortuitous explosion and a threat to return from Fu Manchu at the climax. It is serviceable but in the space of two films there is a sense of overfamiliarity.

 
The Vengeance of Fu Manchu

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu
For the third in the sequence, producer Towers drafts in TV director Jeremy Summers. Wilmer stays on board for another round as Nayland Smith. Filmed in Hong Kong, this time Fu Manchu gets the better of his nemesis, kidnapping and replacing him with a duplicate using the finest techniques to transform one of his henchmen into a facsimile of Scotland Yard's finest. Wilmer plays both roles, mainly silent as the duplicate. With a growl and a constipated grimace he murders Nayland’s housekeeper and faces the death penalty.

Playing like a kitchen sink Face/Off with a Ground Force budget, this is a small scale but engaging entry in the series, playing like a revenge thriller rather than the low rent James Bond shenanigans of previous entries. There are some choice lines; "We have a modern sending and receiving system," the devil doctor intones before unveiling a scroll. This also sticks with the theme of leaving explosives lying around that ends badly and proves that a decent health and safety advisor should be his first hire for his new lair. This is the most restrained in the saga, which works as a palate cleanser because things are about to get weird.


The Blood of Fu Manchu

The Blood of Fu Manchu
The final two entries in the set are lively (sometimes intentional, mainly not). This is due to the frankly bonkers decision to hand the reigns over to the scattergun, dreamlike weirdness of Jess Franco. With a new director comes a new Nayland Smith (Richard Greene), who doesn’t get to make much of an impact as he is incapacitated by a snake venom poisoned kiss from one of Fu Manchu’s hypnotised sex slaves (continuing the tradition of death by clearly non poisonous snakes).

By now the franchise is off the rails and the brand name tarnished to the extent that the last two entries are retitled in the US with nary a mention of the devil doctor. A more European sensibility with post-production dubbing and liberal use of nudity puts this a million miles from the Boys Own adventures of the first entry.

Both Smith and Fu Manchu are side-lined for large parts as the dramatic focus rests on Archaeologist Carl Jansen (Gotz George) and bandido Sancho Lopez (Ricardo Palacios). Sancho and his men enjoy a spot of light-hearted rape, pillaging and pig rustling, all to up the nudity requirements, and Franco indulges his penchant for crash zooms and random editing approaches during the fight scenes.

By this stage, plot starts to make no sense (at one-point Lopez is kidnapped by Fu Manchu because he believes him to be in league with Smith). Fu Manchu's plot to get world leaders killed by a kiss, unleashing loads of poison during a full moon seems mainly to be happening off screen.

Shirley Eaton turns up in fetish gear to espouse some nonsense that feels out of place, mainly because it has been lifted wholesale from another film. Marion-Crawford looks worse for wear as a now bumbling, tea drinking sidekick whose post synced dialogue does not appear to be the same as originally filmed. The wear and tear of his alcoholism is also distinctly noticeable.

Sleazy and bonkers, with a wayward approach to plotting, narrative logic and the basic grammar of film, this is the favoured entry for fans of Franco’s particular brand of dreamlike ineptitude.

 
The Castle of Fu Manchu

The Castle of Fu Manchu
The last entry feels like contractual filler. The opening of Fu Manchu testing an opium derived ice maker splices footage from the climax of The Brides of Fu Manchu with the climactic sinking of the Titanic from A Night to Remember. Using his plan as a means to hold the world to ransom or the sea gets it is one of the more outlandishly pulp plots in the series. Hooking up with an opium dealer, whom he instantly double-crosses, Fu Manchu this time is based in Anatolia, but all the Franco staples are here: the weirdly silent fights, obviously rubber weaponry, an overload of colour filters and scenes that go on interminably for no good reason. The open-heart surgery is a particular longueur.

Franco reins in his sleazier impulses this time, which makes it the lesser of his two films. The focus is now firmly back on Smith and Fu Manchu, although Rosalba Neri makes a striking impression as a drug lord henchwoman with a penchant for pin stripes and a fez. It is unfortunate that the strong woman is left a shrieking damsel to be saved in the waterlogged climax. More stock footage of a Dam breaking is also filched from Campbell's Kingdom, which means Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker make unknowing cameos in this final film.

Lee intones that he will return at the climax, but poor box office and critical reception finally killed the doctor in a way his arch nemesis never could. Fu Manchu had one last hurrah in the execrable Peter Sellers vehicle The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Extras:

More contextualised racism than you could shake a stick at; all five films come with an introduction from Vic Pratt, whose "reading a ransom demand to camera" style only adds to the fun. Knowledgeable and light-hearted. All come with image gallery, trailers, and commentaries (with the exception of Castle of Fu Manchu). All from 4K scans.

BEHP archival interviews are provided with Don Sharp, Ernest Steward and Jeremy Summers.

Archival short interview with Christopher Lee in Ireland.

Christopher Frayling examines the history and reputation of Sax Rohmer, packed with interesting stories regarding race in '40s Hollywood and a vexed Sax Rohmer when his books were banned by the Nazis.

Super 8 version of The Face of Fu Manchu.

Two Versions of The Brides of Fu Manchu: the original UK theatrical version (94 mins) and the original US theatrical version with unique prologue (95 mins).

A Guardian NFT interview with Christopher Lee that is worth the price of the set alone.

Kim Newman discusses Sax Rohmer and the Fu Manchu novels.

Jonathan Rigby discusses the early career of Christopher Lee.

A short interview with first assistant director Anthony Waye remembering Harry Alan Towers and Fu Manchu.

Because you cannot have too much stuff, a Children’s Film Foundation movie The Ghost of Monk’s Island (1966, 93 mins), directed by Jeremy Summers, is also thrown in.

Two versions of The Blood of Fu Manchu and the alternative 'Kiss Me to Death' title. Strictly cosmetic.

Stephen Thrower discusses the relationship between Jesús Franco and Harry Alan Towers.

Clapper loader Ray Andrew remembers Harry Alan Towers and Fu Manchu in a short interview.

Two silent versions are also thrown in: The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu: ‘The Fiery Hand’ (1923) and The Further Mysteries of Dr. Fu-Manchu: ‘The Coughing Horror’ (1924,) the original silent serial starring Harry Agar Lyons, presented with an optional new score by the band Peninsula.

The Castle of Fu Manchu also has the original title sequence and an alternative Istanbul title.

Rosalba Neri talks about working on The Castle of Fu Manchu in the short interview.

To wrap up the package is an interview with Harry Alan Towers, the producer and driving force behind the films discussing his lively adventures in the film business.

If you're still greedy for more, there is also a 120-page book featuring essays on the Fu Manchu cycle by Tim Lucas, a look at the career of producer/screenwriter Harry Alan Towers, an examination of the work of Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, new writing on The Ghost of Monk’s Island and the Stoll Pictures’ Fu Manchu silent serials, archival newspaper articles on the films, extracts from the films’ pressbooks, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits.

Quite frankly this is a comprehensive set of informative and illustrative extras for a series of films that are ramshackle at best and downright shoddy in places. The racist nature of the films is not ignored and covered extensively in the talking heads; the meat of the boxset is in the bounty of ancillary information contained within this treasure trove of colonial nonsense.

The Fu Manchu Cycle, 1965-1969 is on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Films.