Fungi With The Kaiju Eye
Mushroom Clouds and
Mushroom Men - The Fantastic
Cinema Of Ishiro Honda
by Peter H. Brothers
CreateSpace Books ISBN: 9781492790358
I’ve been wanting to acquire and read a copy of Peter H. Brothers’ book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men - The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda for quite a while now and I’m kinda glad I held off for so long because the one I was gifted by a very special friend on my birthday proudly states on its cover that it’s a “Revised and Expanded Edition” so, yeah, I’m glad I didn’t have a prior copy from before this new edition was launched.
Now, I have to say that overall it’s a really great book and really held up to my expectations in most departments but there are also a couple of criticisms I could level at it too and, since they’re mostly minor and don’t affect my overall positive reception of the book, I’ll just get my main problem with it out of the way first so I can concentrate on the good stuff for the rest of the review.
Which is... it’s full of typos and I don’t know why. Especially since it’s a revised and expanded edition. It feels like nobody actually bothered to proofread this because, frankly, it’s over 400 pages long (and it’s coffee table tome sized with very few pictures) and so, in all this density of very welcome text, there are maybe 3 to 4 typos per double paged spread once it gets going. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me but that’s my only real glaring problem with it and the rest is all good.
My only other slight concern was that it turns out that it doesn’t actually cover all of the films that Ishiro Honda directed. Which I thought was a puzzling omission until I started reading it and realised just how much in depth research and coverage there is here on the films that are included. I’ll side with the author on this one in that, the book is a bit of a doorstop as it is and to try and cover all of Honda’s creative output in the same fashion as what’s been done here would have been... well... an almost impractical task. And, as I read further, I have to say I appreciated and applauded the author’s decision to limit himself to just the horror, fantasy and science-fiction films of Ishiro Honda.
So in the opening of the book, Brothers talks a little bit about Honda’s movie making colleagues and friends. So people like the producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya (I read a good book about him many years ago) and also his great friend Akira Kurosawa, who regular readers of this blog will know is my favourite director. After Honda found himself retired from directing after his last picture, Terror Of MechaGodzilla, Kurosawa would often employ him as his assistant director on his films in their twilight years and even, on occasion, during their early careers (Honda was also assistant director on Kurosawa’s wonderful Stray Dog, for example). Apparently, Honda had a late start graduating to directing features because of his career in the war but, it turns out that Kurosawa was also a good friend to Honda’s wife when her husband was on one of his many tours of duty for the Japanese military in the 1940s.
The writer also says some interesting things about Honda’s signature style of directing including something I’d never really thought of before but which rings absolutely true now I reflect on the many movies I’ve seen by this director... that they don’t focus primarily on one heroic character and, instead, they always come across more as ensemble pieces with a number of important characters all getting their own screen time. In the second section here, the writer fills us in on Honda’s life both before and also after the films under the spotlight in this tome, leading up to the point where the book splits up into several more chapters, each split into mini sections highlighting each of the director’s fantasy films in more detail. Much more detail, as it turns out.
So the films covered in this book, not necessarily under these variant titles but I’ve basically chosen the title choices I know of from various DVD and Blu Ray releases as a trade off for familiarity so the average movie goer can see what’s explored here, are... Godzilla (reviewed here), Beast-Human Snowman (reviewed here), Rodan, The Mysterians, The H Man (reviewed here), Varan, The Battle In Outer Space (reviewed here), The Human Vapour, Mothra (reviewed here), Gorath, King Kong VS Godzilla (reviewed here), Mantango - Attack Of The Mushroom People, Atragon, Mothra VS Godzilla (reviewed here), Space Monster Dogorah, Ghidorah - The Three Headed Monster (reviewed here), Frankenstein Conquers The World, Invasion Of The Astro Monster (reviewed here), War Of The Gargantuas, King Kong Escapes (reviewed here), Destroy All Monsters, Latitude Zero, Godzilla’s Revenge, Yog - Monster From Space and Terror of MechaGodzilla.
So starting with Godzilla, we get the origins of the character as an attempt to cash in on the success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (which in itself was a late cash in on the original King Kong) and with Honda coming on board after another director refused the assignment, retooling it to align with his world view and becoming a reflection on the perils of nuclear power (inspired by the Lucky Dragon 5 fishing boat incident still very much in the Japanese consciousness) and, of course, accidentally kick-starting the kaiju eiga cycle in Japan. And each film is looked at in detail with each long section going roughly to the same formula. Brothers starts off with a brief overview of the film and also a summary, then he’ll talk a little about the cinematography, then he’ll go into all the effects work done on the picture, and then he’ll go into a detailed account of the score on each film (a great many of these were scored by the great Akira Ifukube, of course), then he’ll talk about the various actors and how they perform in their roles in the movie and then he’ll talk about the critical and box office reception of each film, sometimes bringing in the various incidents and elements which would lead to the next assignment in Honda’s string of fantastic cinema.
And, of course, he’ll highlight how Honda’s style and approach would both change and sometimes adhere to his original ideas over the years, not to mention telling some great stories that I’d never heard of before (or forgotten) along the way. Such as the incident during the shooting of Godzilla when the guy in the suit got electrocuted in a water tank and had to be giving resuscitation in order to get his heart beating again. And again when the suit actor drowned on King Kong Vs Godzilla and had to similarly be brought back to life. Or the time when Ifukube felt betrayed and angered by Honda for cow-towing to producer pressure and moving the placement of a musical cue where he didn’t want it on Godzilla Vs Mothra. He’ll also highlight any problems Honda might have had with various actors and actresses over the years and there are some interesting incidents, both good and bad, with some of the American stars he got to be in his films to sell them overseas over the years... so you’ll get a little insight into people like Rhodes Reason, Nick Adams, Russ Tamblyn and Joseph Cotton as the volume progresses.
And, overall, yeah... great book. This must have been an exhausting one to write and put together and you can see that a huge amount of research has gone into this one. I’m really pleased to have had the opportunity to finally read Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men - The Fantastic Cinema Of Ishiro Honda and I would wholeheartedly recommend this to fans and followers of either the director or the kinds of Japanese fantasy films of which Honda was one of the absolute masters (and arguably the originator of... at least in terms of the proliferation of kaiju eiga which came after his first go round). If you like these kinds of movies then do yourself a favour and give this one a read... very illuminating and entertaining, to boot.
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
Sunday, 28 March 2021
I Spy No Spy
USA 1942 Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Universal Blu Ray Zone A
So next up from Universal’s 'Invisible franchise' was their attempt to aid the war effort in 1942 with the Invisible Agent. This one takes the grandson of the original Griffin character, who has changed his name to Frank Raymond (played by Jon Hall) in order to avoid association with the actions of the original character (which I guess dates the original movie back generations... although I’m really not sure how, time wise, The Invisible Man Returns (reviewed here) could place this relation as a grandson.
The film starts off with quite a dark tone in America, when some German and Japanese allies led by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as SS Man Conrad Stauffer (who you’ll remember from both The Invisible Man Returns and The Ghost Of Frankenstein reviewed here) and Peter Lorre as the Japanese Baron Ikito (I guess it takes an Austrian to play a credible Japanese man?), try to get the formula to invisibility at the start off the film but Frank manages to barely escape with his life, after they nearly cut his fingers off in one of the paper cutting machines he has in his stationer’s shop. After Frank’s ‘cover’ is blown, the US army asks Frank for the invisibility formula but he refuses. The next thing we know we have footage and newspaper reportage of the attack on Pearl Harbour and Frank changes his mind. agreeing to let the US army make one of their secret agents invisible, on the condition that it’s him instead of a member of the military, so nobody else gets hurt by he formula (which is an interesting point in terms of the dangers of the formula because, this is the only point in the film which these dangers are addressed... I’ll mention that again a little later).
So next thing you know he’s flown to London and then being parachute dropped into the heart of Nazi Germany to find a reliable informant, high ranking lady Maria Sorenson, who is played by Hungarian actress Ilona Massey... who looks wonderful in this and who actually receives top billing above Jon Hall in the cast list.
And it’s a fun romp of heroic wartime propaganda as Frank Raymond infiltrates the Germans to discover their plan to bomb New York, has a comedy routine as an invisible third for dinner when Maria dines with a high ranking member of the SS and ultimately flies with her back to the UK after bombing the nazi planes and generally succeeding in his mission behind enemy lines, on most counts. The film also has a scene with Peter Lorre where his special ‘surgeon’ is played by his once Mr. Moto co-star and number one son himself, Keye Luke. It’s unusual and interesting for me to see Luke playing what amounts to a ‘sinister by proxy’, villainous role in the story.
And, for the time and even, in some instances, for contemporary times, the special effects are quite well done. When Frank parachutes into enemy territory after his plane is shot at by the Germans, he strips off his clothing in mid air so it’s just the parachute and harness left at the end of the sequence, still securely fastened around his invisible body and... well... it certainly looks pretty convincing still, even on Blu Ray. Ditto for a scene where an informant hands him a glass of coffee and he takes it and drinks it down invisibly with no cuts to the shot. It looks amazing although, later, when the informant is pictured on his own, I noticed his hands went a bit transparent in one area of the shot so there’s a clue there to the photographic process used, I guess.
It’s also the first time, I think (I may be wrong), when the invisible hero uses cold cream and spreads it over his face in shot so you can slowly see his features materialise. I used to see David McCallum do this more or less every week in the 1970s on his The Invisible Man TV show, I’m sure, but for 1942, the sequence is no less well done and must have been pretty effective to audiences seeing this on first release. It’s nice stuff.
Another interesting thing that strikes me about the film... and I’m sure that this is true of a lot of the films made at the time about a similar subject... is the mixed nature of the tone. It’s trying to be light and comical but the darkness inherent in the World War II situation is also felt and portrayed in a kind of, ‘matter of fact’ way which almost undercuts the atrocities that it’s not shirking at dealing with. For instance, one of Frank’s informants is ‘questioned’ by the Nazis and then asked to sign a declaration saying that when they released him they had treated him well. He can’t however, sign it like they ask because they’ve already broken all his fingers.
Similarly, the demise of two of the main villains is fairly bleak. When it’s clear that Stauffer and Ikito have failed in their mission (and have grown to show a lot less respect for each other than when they were first introduced into the plot), Ikito shows Stauffer what it’s like to ‘die with honour’ by stabbing him to death and then, in a poetic moment of the dark propaganda machine in action, tears Stauffer’s swastika from him arm and wipes his bloody knife on it before committing seppuku himself in another grim moment.
What is interesting in terms of the continuity with the rest of the series... or lack of it in this case... is that the process whereby the invisibility chemical slowly, over a number of days, causes madness in the subject, while hinted at tangentially in the early part of the film, is completely forgotten as it would be inconvenient to the plot. Frank never once looks like his thinking is compromised and he stays an ‘invisible hero’ throughout the course of the picture. I can’t remember if this plot point is brought back for the next movie but, yeah, it’s pretty much dumped here.
Other than that, though, I don’t have much more to say about Invisible Agent, other than Hans Salter is listed as musical director and some of the cues recognisable from The Wolfman (reviewed here) and Return Of The Invisible Man make their way into this, freshly recorded in different orchestrations (it seemed to me), as part of he score. But Invisible Agent is fun, the good guy gets the girl (who would also turn up in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman) and a blow is struck against Nazi Germany... in Hollywoodland at least. It still holds up today in sequences where you wouldn’t expect it to (such as many of the special effects scenes) and it’s something I’d recommend to most cinephiles interested in this period and genre of American cinematic history.
Thursday, 25 March 2021
The Female Bunch
USA 1971 Directed by Al Adamson
Severin Blu Ray Zone A
Warning: Some spoilers I guess but,
you know, it’s an Al Adamson movie!
Last year I talked about ‘Blu Ray boutique label extraordinaire’ Severin’s labour of love boxed set, Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection, when I reviewed the accompanying new documentary film, Blood And Flesh - The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (review is right here). Well, it’s finally time for me to crack open this, sadly out of print, box set of thirty two Adamson feature films with the first movie in the set (doubled up on a disc with the aforementioned documentary)... The Female Bunch. For the record, I’m going to review all of these movies in the order that they’ve been put together in the set (as opposed to both the release date order and, indeed, the production order... which is also an entirely different and more fluid thing).
The film starts off with the following warning from Severin: The Female Bunch was scanned and restored from several faded 35mm release prints of varying physical condition. The negative is believed lost. Every effort was made to use the least damaged sections of each print to ensure the best possible image quality throughout.
And they’re probably right to do that because, although it’s a nice, clean transfer, it looks like it’s in terrible shape but, frankly, with a film like this, that quality kind of adds to the whole grindhouse charm of the thing. When Tarantino and Rodriguez did their Grindhouse double bill movie, they decided to add a distressed look to their movies... here Severin get the effect for free, from the various prints actually having suffered from a heck of a lot of wear and tear. What they don’t do is give you a word of warning about how bad the movie is but, that’s okay, I was kind of expecting it anyway and, you know, it’s kind of a ‘so bad it’s good’ movie anyway.
The film starts of with a man and a woman in an open top car driving along a desert road, pursued by a bunch of women on horses (yeah, that’ll be The Female Bunch then) and a gal shooting at them from a light aircraft. Their tyres get shot out and they make a run for it, finding a cave to hide in but not before the guy is shot, receiving an energy sapping wound just below one of his shoulders. The girl removes his shirt to get a look at the wound and screws it up into a disposable bundle. She then takes off her shirt to wrap around him which, to be fair, is what all the young ladies in these kinds of movies seem get around to doing anyway. Might as well get it out there early, I guess.
Anyway, as she stands in the cave in her underwear, the guy asks her “How did you get involved in this mess?” Which is a phrase that suddenly loops around on the soundtrack about six times as the camera zooms in on her face. After almost a minute of this, maybe, I kinda got the idea that this is a framing device and indicates a flash back as the girl, Sandy (played by Nesa Renet) lapses into voice over and tells how a string of hard luck and a failed romance with a night club singer played by Don Epperson ended up with her being discovered by her friend Libby (played by Adamson’s long standing muse Regina Carrol), half passed out on her bed after taking a bunch of pills in an effort to kill herself.
So Libby does what any good pal would do... she takes her blindfolded to a ranch in the hills so she can take an initiation test of being buried in a coffin, so her half psychotic friends, The Female Bunch, can take her on as one of their own... a bunch of women who live in freedom on their ‘no men allowed’ ranch , living off the drug money that their boss, Grace (played by Jennifer Bishop) uses for their expenses. Frankly, these are an antagonistic and unsympathetic bunch and just why the heck Libby hangs out with them is anybody’s guess. And there they live at their ranch, terrorising a local Mexican while, at the same time, tripping over to the border most nights to party it up at the local Mexican bar and having ‘sexual relations’ with various guys (asides from their man-hating boss, who prefers the lady flesh).
It’s here that one of the girls gets it on with one of the film’s two, very well known actors. Russ Tamblyn plays Bill, who is given a map to how to get to the ranch and this particular girl’s room so they can get it on again later in the week. However, with Grace’s ‘no men allowed’ policy, when the two are caught, The Female Bunch rough up Tamblyn and brand his forehead with a cross.
I’d just like to say that, for a lady who has a ‘no men allowed’ on the ranch policy, it seems somewhat strange that she has a stable hand/drug stash security guy who lives on the ranch with them, in the guise of Lon Chaney Jr in the last film he ever shot. Not the last film he was in that was released (that would be Adamson’s Dracula VS Frankenstein, which I reviewed quite a while ago here) but the last film he actually shot, six months after that one (he died in 1973). This makes no sense of the ‘no men’ policy whatsoever, of course, because the last time I checked, Lon Chaney Jr was definitely a man but, oh well, artistic licence I guess. It’s a sad performance because he has a raspy voice and that’s because of the radiation treatment he was having for his throat cancer. Of course, after hearing an anecdote from one of the crew on an accompanying extra about how the film was shot in a ‘Dry State’ and how he would have to go out every day to another county to bring back Chaney Jr’s quart of vodka that he drank every day, I can’t but help think that the excessive amounts of alcohol may also have something to do with how his voice sounds in this one but... yeah, throat cancer and it’s very sad.
Grace maybe starts to question Chaney Jr’s ‘definitely a man’ status too at some point because, after he hassles her for sex once too often, she hits him on the head with a hammer and has a horse drag him into the desert to die. Then she goes on a bit of a killing spree because, Mr. Tamblyn is understandably upset with having a big cross branded onto his forehead. He gets a friend to drop him at the ranch (the same guy who is shot at the start of the movie and inspires this whole extended flashback of a story) and tries to ‘revenge rape’ Grace. For his trouble he gets a pitchfork in the back and his friend, when he comes to pick him up, gets tied up and left in a barn while the girls decide what to do with him.
Then, with almost no foreshadowing whatsoever, Sandy decides to leave the group of psychotic ladies, releases him and they do a runner, finally catching up to the story and ending the flashback, leading into the last five minutes of the movie which I won’t spoil here for you but which features the return of another character from earlier in the film in a kind of ‘deus ex machina’ rescue moment.
And the film is pretty interesting. There’s lots of naked boobage revealing a variety of different nipple types (if that’s what you’re into) and a bizarre propensity by the director, I felt, to shoot everyone just a bit too close up. There’s lots of rolling around in the hay and, even though it’s certainly not as explicit as most modern movies, it does feel genuinely grubby and sleazy as the movie plays out. The tone of it is a little like watching Russ Meyer’s revered classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (reviewed by me here) but with a lot more women and, somehow it's a lot less better shot. Also, I’ve complained that the art of using a zoom lens properly is something which has really gone out of style in modern motion pictures. Let me assure you though, if more directors used a zoom lens as often and as badly as Al Adamson does in this picture, then its no wonder people would want to bury the technique.
There are some bizarre things in here that are fair;y questionable. One of the girls shoots another up with heroine (or something stronger), for example and then, instead of it dulling her senses, they have trippy lesbian sex. I know it must be trippy because the director uses one of those lenses (I’ll call it a fly’s eye lens because I don’t know what I’m talking about) where the girls are in the same image in little shots combined all around the screen. So, yeah, it’s trippy and wild, man.
Another thing of note and, alas, ridicule is the ‘day for night’ sequences when the girls visit the Mexican saloon. Much as I hate those filters, I have to say that the second time they go to the place it seems like the film crew just forgot to put the filters on the camera. Oh no, wait... they did for that shot, but not for that shot... no it’s gone again. Night and day change pretty quickly in Mexico it seems (every few seconds in some cases).
The soundtrack on the film, by a guy called Jaime Mendoza-Nava, is not very good. It plays like a bad, mid-sixties American Western score and, for all I know, it might well have been one. But it does add to the bizarre atmosphere of the flick in some way... just not in a way to effectively raise the level of the imagery, is my take home from that.
Something of note is that the majority of the film was shot two years before it was released, in the Summer/Fall of 1969, at the infamous Spahn Ranch. So, yeah, it was while the Manson Family were occupying it and there’s a chilling story on an accompanying extra by one of the film crew about, well, a very lucky escape they think they possibly had with the young ladies who killed Sharon Tate. Pretty heavy stuff. One interesting piece of trivia from one of the actresses, Leslie McRay, on a bonus feature, is that she was actually the poster girl for the iconic shot of a girl with a lizard superimposed onto her for one of the many posters for Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (movie reviewed here). I always assumed it was Florinda Bolkan who was on that poster but, no, it was this young lady... so that’s an interesting bit of trivia I’ve never been able to pick up from anywhere else.
All in all I’d have to say that, while I found a lot to ridicule in The Female Bunch, I did have a pretty good time with it and it certainly won’t be the last time I watch this one. I can only recommend this wonderful set and I’m so glad I talked myself into investing the cash. That’s one down, 31 left to go.
Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Great Monster Duel:
Gamera VS Barugon
aka Daikaijû kettô:
Gamera tai Barugon
aka War Of The Monsters
Japan 1966 Directed by Shigeo Tanaka
Gamera Complete Collection
Blu Ray Zone B
Six months after the release of the initial, very successful movie Gamera- The Giant Monster, the studio released the direct sequel, Great Monster Duel: Gamera VS Barugon (or marketed just as Gamera VS Barugon in various places, for some reason... ignoring the fact that the longer title is what is on the actual print of the film). This is part of the recent and very special Arrow Films boxed set, Gamera The Complete Collection* and, I had seen none of these before this release. Like the first film in the series, it’s an absolute humdinger of a movie.
Despite young director Noriaki Yuasa’s ‘left of field’ success with the first one, Daiei decided they wanted a more experienced director here, since they were going to give this one an 'A picture' budget and it would also be the first in the series shot in colour... so established and respected director Shigeo Tanaka was given the job. However, Yuasa was retained to oversee all the special effects sequences which... well, more on those a little later.
This was a more adult film than the original and, also, not what the series would become... though it really helps, in my opinion, not to have a bunch of kids running around in this thing. Starting with a narrative recap and footage from the previous film, with the monochromatic excerpts tinted slightly blue, the narrative comes back in several key places during the film to explain what is going on and is used as a kind of short cut to keep the action moving. It works well.
Now I’ve called this review Gamera Shy because... well, he’s barely in the film. Instead we have another monster, Barugon (not to be confused with Baragon from the Toho kaiju movies), who takes up the lion’s share of the kaiju footage in this movie. The film, however, starts off by picking up from the ending of the last movie. While the space capsule imprisoning Gamera is on its way to Mars, a meteorite hits said capsule and Gamera flies back to Earth to attack a damn. We have five minutes of great kaiju chaos here and then... nothing much monster related for a good long while. This sequence is presumably a strong kaiju carnage sequence to keep the audience expectations at bay while the strong story and characterisation from an amazing group of actors takes place.
Instead, we have the story of a guy going in search of a cave in a forbidden jungle area, where his older brother hid a giant opal during the war. One of his brother’s fellow army men from that time betrays both him and his other helper and he is left for dead as the human villain of the piece returns to Kobe with the opal. However, as he has been treating his athlete’s foot with infrared rays, he carelessly leaves the red light on and the opal is in it’s path while he is off playing Mah Jong. Trouble ensues as the opal is transformed into Barugon, who attacks the city of Kobe with his ‘freeze tongue’ and the ‘rainbow ray’ he fires from his Gojira-like back plates. Gamera comes to fight Barugon but, if you remember the freeze bombs the humans used on Gamera in a sequence in the previous movie, he’s susceptible to cold and so, even though he punches a big hole in Barugon’s face which gushes oodles of blue blood, Gamera is easily defeated by Barugon’s freeze tongue and left for dead for all but the last ten minutes of the story, when he thaws out and comes to the rescue.
I really liked this movie. Normally I might find it dull that the monster action sequences are few and far between but the direction and shot design here is amazing. The director utilises elements like highly saturated colours so you’d have, say, a large area of bright red in the background on the left, a mid shot of full colour, and a smaller but hefty amount of oversaturated green on the right to balance everything out. He also uses lots of things to split up the shots and I especially liked some of the stuff in the cave scenes where he literally has the three characters walking about in two thirds of the screen in a jagged aperture made by the frame of the cave while the rest of the screen is just black. There’s loads of stunning stuff here in the non-kaiju content of the film to really excite the eye. There’s even a moment where, on the appearance of a ‘civilised’ character in a village of natives, the camera suddenly zooms in on his face from extreme long shot very quickly in the space of a second to highlight his introduction. There’s nice stuff like this happening all through the movie. Also, never mind the kaiju stuff... there’s a really well choreographed fist fight between two or three human characters much later in the film.
Now let’s talk about those effects sequences. Superb. Some of the best kaiju scenes I’ve ever seen. Noriaki Yuasa is a quick study and he does some stuff here which more than gives the Toho Godzilla films a run for their money. Even the sound design is better on this one. Gamera’s roar is pretty much like an extended tyre screech and, although Yuasa uses that stupid ricochet sound effect again (see my review of Gamera - The Giant Monster here), he only uses it once so it’s not nearly as irritating as it was before.
And then there’s the thing which absolutely stopped me in my tracks and made my mouth drop open. In one sequence, where Barugon is facing off against military tanks, the tanks are basically firing something which look just like the laser blasts from George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie. The blasts are being fired all over the place and it’s looking just as good as ILMs original effects for the Lucas films. Only it’s 11 years before Star Wars even happened. I’ve not seen the likes of these kinds of effects anywhere before 1977 and I didn’t realise they existed before then. If readers could post in the comments section below if they’ve ever seen effects like these, pre-Star Wars, in any other movies... I’d really like to know about it. I was absolutely bowled over by how sophisticated the effects work is here for a 1966 movie. Unbelievable.
So there you have it... that’s the second film in this mighty boxed set from Arrow that’s impressed me. Great Monster Duel - Gamera VS Barugon is a remarkable piece of work and I was so pleased to see this. The Arrow set also has the trimmed US cut of the movie, War Of The Monsters, included as an extra but, from what I understand, I don’t really need to watch that one as it has no alternate footage, apparently. I’m really looking forward to seeing what direction the series goes in from here and now, thanks to Arrow, I can.
*I believe this has since been reissued by Arrow, split into two separate sets.
Monday, 22 March 2021
by Maurice Limat
Black Coat Press
Warning: Some spoilers.
I believe Maurice Limat wrote over 500 novellas. And, so far, this omnibus edition is the only one that I can find in an English translation. Limat wrote thirteen Mephista novellas starting in 1969 and this edition, put together by the always wonderful Black Coat Press, collects together the first three of these, each novella coming in at around 80 pages each (fourteen novellas if you count the last one he wrote, sold to a different publisher, where the names of the characters were hastily changed once the well had dried up).
I wanted to read the Mephista stories because... well, that wonderfully devilish name coupled with that new cover, which depicts her as a Barbara Steele type character (in fact, Limat name checks Steele and a few other femme fatale actresses over the course of these books) is obviously too tempting for most men to resist. Actually though, I suspect one of the central characters who is a semi regular in the novels, that of the horror film and TV actress Edwige Hossegor, is quite possibly based on popular giallo and sex comedy actress Edwige Feneche, although I can find absolutely no evidence to support my theory... asides from the fact that, far from the Steele like creature depicted on the cover of this edition, I think the portrayal of both her and Olga Mervil (a character who is a younger look alike and who is introduced as the latest incarnation of Mephista from the second novel onwards) on the original French editions of these novels do bear a certain resemblance to Feneche. Or maybe I’m just imagining it?
Either way, as I started reading I found out that these are also a series of spin offs of another Maurice Limat character who he had been writing on and off called Teddy Verano. Starting off in more or less straight detective stories, Verano eventually became known (by reputation to the other characters in the various books) as the ‘ghost detective’ because he began to specialise in cases which involved the supernatural... of which, of course, the Mephista stories are a prime example of.
The first of the books, Mephista, deals with a demonic entity murdering admirers of Edwige Hossegor whenever she goes into a coma. It’s probably the best of the three and is quite intriguing although, the ‘solution’ to the mystery is a little over the top, as is the case in the other novellas. The revelation in this case being where it’s discovered by Teddy that an evil mastermind has invented a mental photomachine which can find anyone on the planet wherever they are, borrow their soul (Edwige’s on-screen character Mephista) while sending them into a temporary coma and imbuing a large clay figure with an obedient variant of that soul so it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing. That thing being the demonic spirit of Mephista. Since the villain is obsessed with the actress but in no way enamoured or in love with her, I couldn’t quite picture the motivation of why the character was doing all this but, by the end of the novel, he is put in a mental asylum and Edwige returns to her film set.
The second novella reprinted here, Mephista VS Mephista, deals with Hossegor’s replacement when the psychic sensitivity of the actress means she needs to take a break from filming horror films. Enter Olga Mervil, an aspiring and starving actress who signs a pact with Satan to become ‘the new Mephista’ and, in real life, that’s exactly what she becomes, the living spirit of Mephista, getting ready to seal the deal on her new found fame and celebrity by sacrificing her innocent, virginal best friend in a blood sacrifice ritual. A ritual which Teddy stops but with an uncertain ending where it’s not known if Olga burned up in the fire which engulfed the secret ceremony... or escaped.
In the third novella, Mephista And The Scarlet Clown, it becomes clear she did indeed escape but has joined a travelling carnival of sideshow freaks, her hideously burned face kept hidden behind a mask in her new guise as she, like the rest of the deadly circus, await the scarlet clown’s promise that his photographs of the faces of fresh corpses, if taken at the right time, will mean his living flesh masks of the dying can re-transform the troupe into ‘beautiful people’ once more.
Yeah, okay, so the stories aren’t all that far fetched when compared to quite a lot of pulps but the mixture of grim detective, ultra modern movie and TV studio technology coupled with some big leaps into the realm of supernatural, do give them a vaguely ridiculous feel. Also, though, a very entertaining feel too and, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed these and would dearly like to read the others in the series.
That being said, they do have their problems in terms of the English translation aspect. I don’t know who Michael Shreve is but I’m guessing that English is not his first language. Asides from words being missed out of sentences fairly often, he sometimes uses completely wrong words on occasion. For example, when a man’s flat is burnt up by the clay robot version of Mephista self destructing in order to escape capture, he more than once says the tenant can no longer stay in the house because the fire rendered it inhabitable. I think he must mean uninhabitable, right? Another bizarre error is when he translates one of the popular actresses of the day as being Rachel Welch. Yeah, I think you mean Raquel sir?
In spite of this, the Mephista collection is a really nice, pulpy read and I just wish I could read the rest of them in English. I’m guessing, though, that’s not on the cards because one of the supplemental sections of the book actually gives short summaries of the events of the other 10/11 stories in the series so, yeah, it’s a shame that Black Coat don’t seem to be in a hurry to put out any more of them, to be honest. I would dearly love to read both those and various other Teddy Verano adventures so, well... who knows? Maybe some other enterprising publisher will release English translations of these some day.
Sunday, 21 March 2021
Of Closets and Cellars
11 Years of NUTS4R2 -
Criterion And Severin
Okay then, today marks 11 years to the day from when I published my first post on this blog and thanks very much to all of you who read here. I thought I’d use this post to highlight one of my favourite things to do when I have a spare five minutes in lockdown. An addictive You Tube experience if ever there was one...
If you’re into movies and you want a steady stream of, mostly, inspiring videos lasting roughly between 2 and 6 minutes each, two of my favourite ‘go to’ boutique labels, Criterion Collection and Severin Films, have produced an interesting set of ‘quick watches’ which, between them, are sure to please most avid cinephiles.
The Criterion Closet videos started being produced by Criterion in 2016 and they are a fascinating look at the people behind the movies, showing them getting excited about films while, simultaneously, trying to hold their greed in check.
The basic premise is simple. Take a well known director, actor, musician, famous film critic or some other interesting celebrity, arm them with a Criterion branded tote bag and then let them loose in the stock cupboard to take as many freebies as they feel they can get away with before their conscience gets the better of them. The one thing they have to do, to earn their freebies, is talk a little bit to the camera and tell us why they picked each one, how it inspired them and to share any other little anecdotes they might have picked up along the way (especially interesting if they’ve worked with the director of one of their picks, for instance).
Since Criterion started doing this, they’ve produced (at time of writing), 81 of these little video gems, starting with video editor Jonathan Keogh and ending with, so far, actor Matthew Modine. And along the way you’ll meet some really interesting people who have deigned to accept an invitation into the Criterion Closet over the past few years... some of them who are, alas, no longer with us. So if you go to this link and check out the full playlist of videos on the right hand side of the screen, you’ll get a choice of viewing the collected musings of diverse artists such as Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, Adrian Utley (from Portishead), The Brothers Quay, Philip Kaufman, Richard Ayoade, Volker Schlöndorff, Mike Leigh, Edgar Wright, Michael Cera, Gaspar Noé, Ben Wheatley, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Karina, Agnès Varda, Isabelle Huppert, Claire Denis, Ethan Hawke, Richard E Grant, Paul Dano, Kim Cattrall and John Waters...to name but a few (or, you know, to name but 23).
And what you’ll find is the amazing amount of enthusiasm they have for films of all different kinds, from directors as diverse as Kurosawa, Godard, Bergman, Fellini, Romero, Kubrick, Tarkovsky and... even some film about the Beastie Boys?
Meanwhile, in January 2020 (a bad year to start this), in admiration of Criterion’s new gimmick, which presumably boosts sales when people take recommendations from celebrities they see helping themselves to random cinematic pleasures, the wonderful label Severin decided they’d do their own version of it and introduced us to... the Severin Cellar.
Now they’ve only managed to shoot eight episodes so far (although one has just been deleted for reasons I really don’t want to get into right now but, it turns out, these days everybody is guilty at the drop of a hat) but, if you click this link you will, again, see all of their episodes listed on the right of the screen. These explorations of guilty pleasures, where various luminaries go through Severin’s catalogue of beautifully restored grindhouse classics of sleaze, horror and sexploitation... go a little further than Criterion and include very quick clips relevant to what each guest decides to start talking about but, be warned, because of the nature of the wonderful range of Severin’s films, not all the clips will be ‘safe for work’. Many of these names may not be as familiar to many movie goers, with the likes of Joe Begos and Shock Waves entering the cellar (is this really a cellar or, you know, just a room hiding behind phonetic alliteration?) but they are all as equally entertaining, inspiring and informative as their Criterion counterparts... so these little videos are well worth a watch. There’s even one director who has been in both the Criterion Closet and the Severin Cellar and, watching those two in quick succession shows off the different slices of filmic knowledge stored in this gentleman’s noggin... take a look.
So, if you’ve nothing to do of an afternoon during lockdown and want to get enthusiastic about film all over again, then the Criterion Closet and Severin Cellar videos on their respective You Tube channels are something to investigate. Alas, I wish I’d downloaded one of them before it was taken down as it was my favourite in the Severin series but, you never know, there’s a chance it might resurface again depending on certain investigations at some point, I would think (or hope... I hope he's not guilty).
Anyway, maybe you’ll find something inspiring within that lot and, once again, thanks very much for reading. I’ve got quite a few reviews planned for the blog coming soon including a fair number of reviews of Norman J. Warren and, courtesy of a rather nice box set put out by Severin, a long list of Al Adamson films too so, hopefully something for all tastes over the coming year or two on NUTS4R2. All the best.
Thursday, 18 March 2021
The Castle Of Fu Manchu
UK/West Germany 1969
Directed by Jess Franco
Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
Okay, so I said that, as much as I love Jess Franco, after seeing his previous effort in The Fu Manchu Cycle, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this one and, frankly, I was right to be thinking that. That being said, The Castle Of Fu Manchu is actually slightly better than The Blood Of Fu Manchu (reviewed here).
Once again we have the regular cast of Christopher Lee as the titular character, Tsai Chin as his daughter and Howard Marion-Crawford as Nayland Smith’s assistant Dr. Petrie. Marion-Crawford died shortly after filming this one and, frankly, he does kind of look on his last legs here (check out Stephen Thrower’s extra feature on the previous disc in the series to get a quite credible explanation of just why the performances in the two Jess Franco films look a little half-hearted and phoned in). Returning from the last film we have Richard Greene in his second go round at Nayland Smith and, I’m happy to say, he has a lot more to do here too. Not a huge deal but, you know... more.
I knew this was a troubled production as soon as I started watching this one when I realised that pretty much the entire pre-credits sequence was edited footage from two completely different movies. One of them being from the climactic scenes of the earlier film The Brides Of Fu Manchu (reviewed here) and the other I somehow managed to correctly identify (although I’ve never actually seen the film itself) as being from the black & white 1958 movie A Night To Remember, with the Titanic doubling as a ship destroyed by what I think must be Fu Manchu’s deadly ice weapon... although the true nature of the device with which he threatens the world seems to be deliberately unclear, at least in scientific terms. For some reason, the footage mixed in from A Night To Remember is dyed blue, possibly because the producers were maybe trying to distract the audience to thinking they were using some kind of night footage, perhaps? I’m not so sure it’s... well it’s pretty obvious and just looks completely out of place and, also, way more interesting than a lot of the rest of this film.
So yeah, budgetary problems which would make sense seeing that Fu Manchu decides to destroy a big dam with the weapon as another demonstration but a) there seems to be no explanation of how the dam is in any way affected by the mechanism that causes its destruction, the writers don’t seem to give a damn, so to speak and b) because the actual footage of the dam bursting is tracked in from a film I’d not heard of before called Campbell’s Kingdom. Which explains why, if you look carefully, you can see Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker running around in one or two shots (which is what prompted me to investigate because, I was pretty sure they just weren’t around as background extras in a scene).
Also, once again, Fu Manchu threatens the world with some bizarrely indescribable destruction unless ‘the world obeys him completely’ but... and this now seems to be a theme in series... it’s still not really made clear what he actually wants. Just that he wants it... or else.
And in this film especially, everybody seems to be either discovering a necessary clue a fair few times... such as Smith figuring out the source of the opium required is in Panama, then making the revelation again later and then somehow figuring out they need opium which, yeah, they also already knew... or in the case of Fu Manchu himself, asking for information he already has. Such as when somebody tells him that he has Nayland Smith in the building just across the water and they will give him over to him if he releases a certain prisoner... and then Fu Manchu interrogates him as to where Nayland Smith is and, you know, he gives him the exact same information again, like everyone is just going around in circles. I can only suspect that the script was changing here at an alarming rate and scenes were maybe shot and then different ones also shot as an alternative and then, maybe, with not enough money to finish the shoot, all the versions of scenes or logical deductions were just edited into the same picture to pad it, hence the further need for tracking in footage from other films too. I have no idea but it’s as good a guess as any, I suppose.
So, yeah, cheap and cheerful but way better than the previous film, although that’s obviously not saying much. However, there are some nice things to watch out for. For instance, Rosalba Neri wearing a fez... that’s got to be worth the price of admission alone. And, yes, she looks ridiculous but, you know, enjoy it while we have it. Also, although this is certainly not Franco at his best as a director (and not too far from his worst), he does manage to get in some more creative shot designs as in some of his other, more lionised films and there’s some lovely lighting used in Fu Manchu’s castle where he pitches a lot of purple against green and sometimes red. This film looks very nice in some sequences but, in this case, a good looking film does not add up to it being more than the sum of its dire parts, alas.
Actually, one of the more ‘creation through necessity’ Franco moments comes when Christopher Lee is spliced into the footage watching the destruction of the damn. Some of it is from master shots of something which actually belongs to the scene and other stuff in close up is spliced in from what is obviously an entirely different studio setting, possibly where Lee’s wearing a different costume too. It actually put me in mind of some of those earlier Russian propaganda films by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein, where he would deliberately take a character out of context for the close ups. So that was kind of interesting. It’s also nice to see, again, Franco turning up in one of his own movies (at least he’s not focus pulling with his spare arm while still in the shot on this one, I presume) in an uncredited but in no way minor part. I always enjoy seeing him pop up like this so, if you’re a Franco fan, you might definitely want to check this one out.
That being said, the film is still a bit of a mess and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to most people. Indicator have, as usual, pulled out all the stoppers on this box set Blu Ray restoration of The Fu Manchu Cycle but, while this disc has a few extras, such as The Coughing Horror, a restored half hour episode from the silent film serial sequel, The Further Mysteries Of Dr. Fu-Manchu, I noticed that this is the only disc in this set where they couldn’t find anyone to record a commentary track. Maybe it was time reasons or maybe, you know, they just couldn’t find anyone to say anything polite about the movie but it’s a shame they couldn’t get Francophile Stephen Thrower to do a commentary for this. That being said, the film is still a valuable addition to the set and I think Indicator have, once again, done themselves proud. A sturdy release of a not so sturdy sequel. Grab this box set though because, yeah, it’s precious treasure in Blu Ray form.
The Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu Cycle at NUTS4R2The Castle Of Fu Manchu
Wednesday, 17 March 2021
The Blood Of Fu Manchu
UK/West Germany 1968
Directed by Jess Franco
Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
Wow, this is a terrible movie. In my review of The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu (which you can read here), I said that at least the next one would be more interesting. Well, I was right in so far in that it does have a couple of points of interest but, honestly, these didn’t stop the film from being a truly dull affair and, for me, an even lower water mark in the series than the previous.
So, The Blood Of Fu Manchu is the fourth of the Harry Alan Towers produced cycle, restored and uncut for this truly wonderful The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965-1969 boxed edition from Indicator. Once again the film stars Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin and Howard Marion-Crawford as Fu Manchu, Lin Tang and Dr. Petrie respectively. The film also stars former Robin Hood, Richard Greene, as the latest screen incarnation of Nayland Smith and Maria Rohm, who I believe was Towers’ personal love interest at the time. She certainly appears in a fair few of both his and Jess Franco’s movies from this period. And there’s also an appearance from former Bond girl Shirley Eaton which, frankly, was spliced in without her knowledge (until years later) from one of the Sumara movies she made (possibly The Girl From Rio, directed by Franco, although that one wasn't released until the following year). In fact, the card on screen reads... “Guest starring Richard Greene as Nayland Smith and Shirley Eaton”... so if you read that the wrong way you could be forgiven for thinking that Richard Greene is actually playing Shirley Eaton himself but, alas, he doesn’t put on a blonde wig so he can start acting like a femme fatale in this one.
So, yeah, Jess Franco is a director I find very hit and miss. He often made several films a year (his total just before his death, according to the IMDB, was 207 films directed by him) and often also starred in them and, in one anecdote about him, was also pulling his own focus when he was appearing in a shot... at one point reaching around the frame for the camera controls. He often, from what I can tell, secretly diverted the budget for one film into two or three movies and, I suspect that’s what possibly happened with this one, which was filmed back to back with both the next (and final) movie in the sequence. He is, quite rightly, a legend in the world of directing and I’ve covered a few of his films here such as Countess Perverse (reviewed here), She Killed In Ecstacy (reviewed here), Female Vampire (reviewed here) and his classic, Vampyros Lesbos (reviewed here).
Now, I’ve marvelled at some of his films and the brilliant shot designs. I’ve also heard people complain about the amount of times he uses zoom shots and rack focusing in his films but, often, I’ve found that they can come off as a quite creative use of this technique when he’s got his eye in. Here, alas, the film is filled with irritating zoom shots and... yeah, most of the shot compositions did nothing for me, to be honest.
It’s a dull affair but, even the ludicrous nature of the story doesn’t make up for things. The plot is that Fu Manchu sends out his young ladies to kill his enemies with their poison lips. First the victim goes blind, as is the case with Nayland Smith at the start of the movie and then, after a number of days, said victim succumbs to death. Indeed, in some territories like the US, the film was renamed Kiss And Kill, which just goes to show how the initially successful run of films had got distributors losing confidence in the ‘Fu Manchu brand’ in such a short space of time.
And, yes, we all know of the female assassins in history who have been slowly primed to become immune to deadly poison and carry that poison in their lips to send a victim to the grave. Here, however, the method of despatch makes no sense in any way shape or form. Basically, the villain gets a certain snake to bite a girl and then, instantly, she’s somehow immune to the poison without dying from in and we see that, in less than a minute later, her kiss carries the deadly poison to another. What the actual...? And then, to pile on the insults to the negligible intelligence needed to recognise the preposterousness of such a proposition, we are told that the girl’s blood is also a vaccine for the poison. This allows Petrie to pull a last minute rescue for the now blind Nayland Smith towards the end of the picture by giving him a makeshift blood transfusion. And when I say makeshift I mean it. He just cuts a girl’s arm and then Smith’s arm and... just squishes the scars together which, more or less, serves to heal Smith in what seems like minutes.
Not only that but, there’s a subplot in the film about a kind of Mexican style bandit and his gang who are killing the good and bad guys willy nilly and... it’s just awful but it also takes up a good majority of the screen time and threatens to completely swallow up the main through line of the movie. Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith really do seem to take a back burner to the action in this one.
Being as it’s Jess Franco we’re talking about, there is actually some limited nudity in this one (which is now finally restored to the prints) but, yeah, it doesn’t really add anything to the impact of the movie, or lack thereof. The music by Daniel White is also quite terribly married to the on screen visuals and one gets the impression that it might even been written ‘away from the images’ and then just needle dropped into completely inappropriate places by Franco.
And that’s really all I’ve got on The Blood Of Fu Manchu... I like Jess Franco, I really do. But this is a truly dull and lifeless affair and it’s such a contrast to the snappy direction that Don Sharp brought to the first two movies in the cycle. As usual, Indicator pulls out most of the stops and the disc is full of extras including a talk with Franco expert Stephen Thrower, which sheds some light on certain elements of the making of the last two in the series and also a wonderful half hour episode, The Fiery Hand, from the 1923 silent film serial, The Mystery Of Dr. Fu-Manchu. But, yeah, extras aside, I couldn’t recommend this one at all. Easily one of the worst Jess Franco movies I’ve seen, I’m sad to say. Not expecting too much from The Castle Of Fu Manchu now but, yeah, that will be the subject of my next review.
The Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu Cycle at NUTS4R2The Castle Of Fu Manchu
Tuesday, 16 March 2021
The Manchu Candidate
The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu
UK/West Germany 1967
Directed by Jeremy Summers
Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is the third of the five Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers, starring Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu, Tsai Chin as his daughter Lin Chan and Howard Marion-Crawford as Dr. Petrie... and it can be found in the new Blu Ray restorations presented in Indicator’s recent, wonderfully put together boxed set. Along with these three regular actors of the series, this was also Douglas Wilmer’s second and final go around as Fu Manchu’s nemesis Sir Dennis Nayland Smith. Other notable cast members are popular actor Tony Ferrer, Maria Rohm, Horst Frank and Peter Carsten (who I spotted straight away from his roles in The Quiller Memorandum, reviewed here and Dark Of The Sun).
Also hopping aboard this one is director Jeremy Summers and this may or may not be the reason why, out of the ones I’ve rewatched in my first revisit to these since the early 1970s, this one seems the most tedious of these films to me, so far... although I can’t imagine the next two, directed by the great Jess Franco, can be anything other than interesting, no matter how bad they might have turned out. I’ll know soon enough, I guess.
This one has a plot which, in this case, centres more against the lead protagonist figure of Nayland Smith. Fu Manchu comes up with a plan to replace reputable police commissioners and important, law abiding types with surgically altered doubles who will be compelled through the powers of the mind to commit murder and die in their place, thus publically cementing his reputation as the new super criminal of the world. However, this does seem to be his secondary motivation and though he does successfully replace Nayland Smith, discredits him and sees his double publically trialled and executed for murder, you get the impression that it’s just Smith who Fu Manchu is interested in... the rest of the scheme is just icing on the cake.
Ironically, Wilmer, who was so wooden in the previous film, actually plays the character more naturally in this one, making him a more interesting screen presence this time around (although still no great substitute for Nigel Green in the first movie, The Face Of Fu Manchu, reviewed here). Perhaps this is a quite deliberate choice because, when he is taking the role of his trance-like, unspeaking, hypnotised double, he really is quite wooden and stoic but... that’s because he’s supposed to be and it, of course, further pushes the contrast between the two iterations of the man behind the face, so to speak.
Of course, to get the plastic surgery done right, Fu Manchu needs to once again kidnap an expert in the field and threaten his daughter with torture to acquire said scientist’s cooperation so, yeah, the template for this movie doesn’t really deviate that much from the last two. Which, in a way, doesn’t do it any favours because the previous two, directed by Don Sharp, were much more creative with the shot designs and also a heck of a lot more pacier. There are the requisite amount of fisticuffs in this one but they don’t do much to soften the dullness here, to be honest.
That being said, there are some nice little details to watch out for like the fact that Smith is, at one point, on his way to set up the organisation ‘Interpol’ and, when the plastic surgeon who can somehow alter the skin pigment as well as the face of his subject (seriously folks, this film is ridiculous) is kidnapped from his practice... you get a nice look at a standing Shaw Brothers set. And there are, to be sure, the odd touches of creativity thrown into the mix here and there...
Such as the transition from a close up shot of a detail in a burning village to a shot of a fiery brazier. Or, when the good doctor is performing surgery on the face of the stocky Chinese lad who will unbelievably be transformed into Douglas Wilmer, focusing on the various, blood stained instruments being put into a container of water to aid the mind into imagining the gory details which have been deliberately left off screen.
There’s also a nice, if more traditional score to this installment by Malcolm Lockyer, who provided the music for the movie adaptation Dr. Who And The Daleks, which fits the action quite well. That being said, I would have liked Indicator, who are a very thorough company, to have had the option of putting the German print on here too, which had a replacement score by Gert Wilden... that’s got to be worth hearing (I think I may have one cue from this by him on a compilation CD of his scores from Krimi Films somewhere).
And there’s not a heck of a lot more I have to say about this one. Once again this film gives us no clue as to how Fu Manchu and Lin Chan escaped death at the end of the previous movie and, once again, the film shows them dying in a big explosion for the third time, followed by Christopher Lee’s face superimposed on the background proclaiming his usual line of, “The world has not seen the last of Fu Manchu”. Actually, the one other thing I could say is that, as you expect from this wonderful boutique label, the extras on here a pretty good and there’s a brilliant, informative talk on here about Christopher Lee’s career path leading up to and during the production of these films, which is supplied by film historian Jonathan Rigby who, frankly, is always worth listening to... and his books are definitely worth picking up too. So, yeah, The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu is certainly not the best of these films and I wouldn’t really recommend it but, I am looking forward to re-discovering just what Jess Franco did for the next two. Once again... the world has not seen the last of my Fu Manchu blog reviews!
The Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu Cycle at NUTS4R2The Castle Of Fu Manchu
Monday, 15 March 2021
The Devil Brides Out
The Brides Of Fu Manchu
UK/West Germany 1966
Directed by Don Sharp
Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
The second of the Harry Alan Towers produced Fu Manchu films, as put out in a beautiful new boxed edition from the Indicator label, The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965 - 1969, is The Brides Of Fu Manchu. Although, it has to be said, that the brides in question, who suddenly lose their free will in the presence of Lin Tang (the movie name of the daughter of Fu Manchu here), are somewhat ineffective in their use and employment and are really there merely to be hostages to get the various brides’ ‘science expert fathers’ to cooperate with the diabolical doctor.
Once again Lin Tang is played by Tsai Chin with Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu himself. The only other ‘regular’ back in this one is Howard Marion-Crawford as Nayland Smith’s faithful assistant Dr. Petrie. Alas, Nigel Green chose not to reprise his role of Smith in this one and instead Douglas Wilmer, who was known for his lead role in one of many Sherlock Holmes television shows, took over for both this film and the next one. Alas, although he’s a solid British authority figure, he doesn’t have the brutal, no nonsense charm that Green had brought to the role and his absence is sorely missed here. Green seemed to ooze gravitas where Wilmer seems just a little light weight in comparison.
Rounding out the main cast are Marie Versini as one of the scientist's daughters and Heinz Drache as her boyfriend (who is young enough to get into more fist fights). They both do a fine job although, it has to be said, even though Marie is actually French, her accent in this seems to be more of an exaggerated French accent than anything authentic... I’m wondering now if she was re-dubbed to sound more like a stereotype of UK and American expectations of such. Guess I won’t know anytime soon.
Don Sharp also returned to direct this installment and it’s therefore a quality looking production, considering the stunted budgets these things had. Once again he uses a lot of interesting angles, such as looking down onto a fight scene to give you a sense of what’s going on before cutting back to the standard shots of people hitting each other. He also seems to really favour vertical sections in this film. The first shot of the movie, after the tacked on American prologue which replays highlights from the final scenes of the last film (if you so choose that option on this new disc), is a scene where actor Rupert Davies is being taken through a tunnel by dacoits and the sides of the shot are in darkness, making a mobile phone sized shape of the corridor on-screen and framed vertically by black. When the shot changes, as he is pushed through a door and everything opens up, the columns inside the latest ‘lair of Fu Manchu’ continues to push the idea of verticals.
Indeed, the various prison cells housing the brides in this are also used by the director to emphasis the verticality of this crazy world and there’s a lovely shot where we see one character through the bars in front of the screen talking to another in a cell which dovetails onto her own on the left... so you have the background character talking from behind one set of bars to the foreground character behind her own set of bars framing all that. It all helps give the shot a huge amount of depth and perspective.
Another thing he does to push the contrast of the depth, like he did in the previous movie, is to pitch foreground objects such as the back of one actor, knocking out one part of the screen, against the rest of the shot where the real action or focus is. It’s nice stuff and really gives the films a certain look to them.
The plot is extremely similar to the previous movie, with Fu Manchu this time developing a radio transmitter than can destroy a whole city if he so wishes... although it needs to be perfected somewhat by the various scientists he kidnaps. Once again though, Fu Manchu’s biggest enemies are his propensity to announce to the world what he intends to do days before he actually does it (thus given his opponents time to prepare a way to combat it) and, also, to work to a deadline which is not doing any favours to his servants who are trying to perfect and improve the range and power of his machine. One of whom is actor Burt Kwouk, seen in countless James Bond and Inspector Clouseau movies ("Kato, you fool!"), who actually disobeys Fu Manchu at the end of this one, getting a bullet in the back from his master for his trouble which, alas for the main antagonist, accidentally brings about the demise of his somewhat vague scheme even quicker.
Like the previous movie it’s quite fast paced and, at just over an hour and a half in length, doesn’t quite get to overstay its welcome. The music is, perhaps, a bit less interesting than the last film. This time it’s the contribution of a composer I don’t know, Bruce Montgomery, who did a fair number of the ‘Doctor’ and ‘Carry On’ films in his time. It’s not exactly subtle but, I guess that wasn’t in the brief. I notice, though, that it’s conducted here by Philip Martell, who was heading up the music department for Hammer films.
And... it’s a fine entertaining film with not much innovation in it, although I did enjoy that a minor plot point was, well, in the words of one of the characters... “For that we need the co-operation of the British Broadcasting Company.” I wonder if Nayland Smith and Petrie had to be pay them a licence fee in order for them to assist in jamming the frequency of Fu Manchu’s death machine this time around. The Brides Of Fu Manchu is all a bit of nonsense and a good, fun film. As usual for the Indicator label, the disc is loaded with extras including another nice introduction to author Sax Rohmer, this time around by that stalwart of British film criticism and horror fiction Kim Newman, who I always enjoy in these kinds of documentary extras. And that, as they say, is that. Once again, Fu Manchu heralds his own return from death as a 'voice over' message to Smith at the end of the movie. And so, like Fu Manchu, I will simply say, the world has not heard the last of NUTS4R2’s Fu Manchu reviews.
The Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu Cycle at NUTS4R2The Castle Of Fu Manchu
Sunday, 14 March 2021
Fu’s On First
The Face Of Fu Manchu
UK/West Germany 1965
Directed by Don Sharp
Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
The Face Of Fu Manchu is the first of a box set of five new Blu Rays put out by the Powerhouse/Indicator label called The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965 - 1969. It’s the first really great package for these films on home video in the UK (after countless releases on far away shores) and, like many of the Indicator releases, crammed full of extras, a booklet, postcards, posters and beautiful HD restorations of the films.
I first saw these on BBC2 in the early to mid 1970s, when they used to show around about 5.40pm. It was one of those things we watched as a family, at the time, on a black and white TV set and, I’m sure, in a ‘pan and scan experience’ (which became the bane of my life in terms of trying to watch films on television in this country in the 70s, 80s and 90s). Now, this wasn’t the first time the infamous Chinese doctor had appeared in film but the cinematic scene for his particular brand of devastating villainy was less in demand by the 1960s. There were silent film serials, three talkies for Paramount starring Warner Oland as the devil doctor (before he went off to play Charlie Chan in a whole series of movies), one with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy, and a TV series with Henry Brandon in the 1950s which didn’t really go anywhere and which, I seem to remember, was just about beginning to seem a little ‘politically incorrect’ for its time... not that they had that catch all buzz phrase to excuse censorship back then.
So when quickie exploitation producer Harry Alan Towers, who had produced some successful German Krimi, came up with the idea of bringing back the role of a running super villain into cinemas, he bought the character rights from Sax Rohmer’s widow and then came up with his own scripts (written under a nom de plume), because it was cheaper than buying the rights to the actual books.
Sax Rohmer was the popular pen name of Arthur Henry Ward who, after some initial success with the character with the first three books, after a very long pause, wrote another ten. I read these around about 15 years ago and they weren’t what I was expecting. Fu Manchu is not all about torturing and killing people (although the subject does tend to turn up)... they were more pulp adventures in the style of many of the time and I have to say I loved them. The main protagonist for a number of them was Nayland Smith, sometimes aided by Dr. Petrie... although the regular protagonists did tend to come and go and then return again as the stories were written. Asides from Fu Manchu himself, his evil daughter Fah Lo Suee was also a regular character, although she is often given a totally different name, depending on which film series you watch. In these five she is played by Tsai Chin, who starred in this full cycle alongside Christopher Lee in his ‘Chinese make-up’ as the title character. She regrets doing them now, I believe.
Howard Marion-Crawford is also in all five films as Dr. Petrie but the actor playing Sir Nayland Smith chops and changes a few times. Marion-Crawford would die fairly early in life, the same year that the last of these was released, in 1969. In this one he is assisting Nigel Green in the role of Smith, an actor who I always like although he also died early, in 1972, from an overdose (possibly accidental) of sleeping pills. He plays the role absolutely beautifully, I have to say and it’s really a shame that he didn’t go on to do more of these ones.
Completing the main cast are Joachim Fuchsberger... who acts as a kind of additional, younger Dr. Petrie supplemental figure to take on more of the physical action... and Karin Dor as the daughter of a scientist who Fu Manchu kidnaps, to perfect a killer virus to wipe out cities in England if his demands are not met. I found it interesting that, after showing his hand and announcing he will be making his demands in two days, the plot is foiled and we never get to see just exactly what his demands are. Also, be on the look out for a couple of nice cameo scenes by famous British actor James Robertson Justice... as the head of a museum which has the ‘final secrets of the black poppy potion’ that Fu Manchu needs to enable the scientist to concoct his deadly poison. I found it interesting, since I’m writing this article days after a possible vaccine to Coronavirus ‘may’ have been found*, that one of the primary concerns is keeping the poison at the correct cold temperature so it isn’t rendered useless.
Anyway, despite being very cheap but, absolutely cheerful and, perhaps, because all of the cast are playing it absolutely straight... the film was a huge success (especially in America where the publicity department had Fu Manchu For President posters made up during the elections... apparently he got a lot of write in votes and, if you pre-ordered the box set direct from Indicator as I did, you’ll get an additional reproduction poster added to the set... alas, mine arrived with a torn corner). So a new, mini franchise of diminishing returns (and possibly diminishing quality from what I’m hearing... I really can’t remember these films very well) was born and thrived at a rate of one picture per year for five years.
And it’s a real humdinger of a pacey story... beginning with the execution by beheading of Fu Manchu himself at the start, witnessed by Sir Nayland Smith. It’s a great scene and the aftermath, a static long shot of everyone leaving the square in which the execution took place, leaving Smith and the headless body in the centre of the screen while the rain and thunder starts hammering down, is when the opening credits play out, without music. Actually, the film is very sparsely scored indeed, with very few musical cues and the only thing I can think of regarding this is... orchestra time isn’t cheap and these were made on a very small budget.
The film looks great though and Sharp does some really nice stuff with some of his shot compositions. For example, there’s a great scene where Fu Manchu and his daughter are waiting to hear some news on the radio. Her head is in close up filling the left third of the screen, looking at the big radio also in close up filling the right third of the screen. Framed between them in long shot is Fu Manchu sitting on his throne. Yeah, visually interesting shots like these are why I watch movies, to be honest.
There are some curious things happening too. For instance, there are quite a lot of ‘day for night’ filters used in some sequences but, in one scene only, the screen is also washed a dark blue. It looks great but I could find no visual correlation between this and the way the rest of the night sequences in the film were handled. Also, when Fuchsberger and Green have a fist fight in a darkened room before it’s revealed that the intruder is Smith himself, there was no way I would have recognised it was Nigel Green’s character because the guy doubling for him during the fight is way fatter and looks nothing like him. Such is the easy charm of these films that I love these little glitches rather than having them spoiling the movie for me.
There are some very nice moments too. For example, I haven’t heard the term ‘pea souper’ in relation to the London fog for a very long time (even in movies), so that was nice. Also, Fuchsberger has a narrow escape when he clambers up a load of cardboard tubes in a warehouse which are tied up with string and, as two of Fu Manchu’s dacoits run up after him, he cuts the string as he jumps off and the rolls all... well... roll away from under the feet of his pursuers. Admittedly, the stunt would probably have been more dynamically staged nowadays but, it’s a nice idea and I appreciated it.
The film finishes with the supposed death of the title character, which you totally don’t believe because you always hear him just before the end of the credits of each film heralding his return... but I was a bit surprised that Smith and his allies thought it was okay to blow up a whole Tibetan monastery of people just to kill the villain and make good their escape. I see that as more than a little problematic.
All in all, The Face Of Fu Manchu is a total romp and I had an absolute blast with it. The presentation is fantastic too and, among the extras on this particular disc, is a nice piece by Sir Christopher Frayling who talks about the author, the character and the continual proliferation of the racially prejudiced undercurrent ready to latch on to the threat of The Yellow Peril... a point he makes with a bang up to date story about a student who was beaten up during the coronavirus lockdown. I’ve said before that there are quite a few absolutely brilliant Blu Ray boxed editions which have found their way onto the marketplace recently and, honestly, this is one of the best of them. If you have an interest in the character or this particular period of British movie making then it’s definitely one to pick up. Absolutely brilliant and I can’t wait to watch the next one. The review will follow shortly.
*Sorry, my scheduling of these reviews depends on various other factors and this review was supposed to go up last year.
The Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu Cycle at NUTS4R2