The Castle of Fu Manchu
U.K. - Europe / 1969
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring
Christopher Lee
Tsai Chin
Rosalba Neri
Color / 94 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD 
(R0 - NTSC)
Blue Underground
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
2
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
SNEAK PREVIEW | DVD Release Date: Sept. 30, 2003
JESUS!
No, not an oath invoking the deity or even my reaction to this terrible movie. It's a cry of admonition aimed at the director, Jesus "Jess" Franco, who destroyed Fu Manchu as thoroughly as the crime lord's mortal enemy, Nayland Smith, ever hoped to. The Castle of Fu Manchu, with horror icon Christopher Lee again reprising the title role, was a total stink-bomb everywhere it played, and for good reason. Its predecessor, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), wasn't very good either, but at least that film was odd enough and cheesy enough to be mildly entertaining. Castle just smells. It's cheap, shoddy and dull, wasteful of a decent cast as well as the viewer's time.
Fu Manchu's plan this time is to freeze the earth's oceans unless the major powers accept his dictatorial rule. (You'd think that after failing so often this so-called criminal genius would finally get a clue and set slightly more modest goals.) To demonstrate his power Fu creates an iceberg in the path of a passenger liner sailing in the Caribbean. The ship strikes the unexpected obstacle and sinks with great loss of life. Per his usual M.O., Fu broadcasts a radio message to the world claiming responsibility for the incident and threatening bigger disasters to come unless his demands are met. This time, however, the crime lord's ambitions have outpaced his ability to follow through his freezing process isn't quite perfected yet. In the course of sinking the liner the machinery in his secret base overheats and blows up, wrecking everything. Fu is forced to relocate while he works out the kinks in his scheme.
    Phase One of Plan B involves procuring a new headquarters. In a plot thread that wastes a lot of screen time to little effect, Fu's daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) enlists the aid of an Istanbul gangster, Omar Pasha (Jose Manuel Martin), to mount a raid on a castle overlooking the Black Sea, which is occupied by a provincial governor. Omar Pasha's henchmen including his prized cross-dressing female assassin, Lisa (Lady Frankenstein's Rosalba Neri) take care of the dirty work, eliminating the castle guards. (The sadistic Lin Tang gets the honor of beheading the befuddled governor.) Fu Manchu then promptly double-crosses Omar's gang, his own flunkies wiping them out with the exception of Lisa, who intrigues him. ("She fights like a man.") Fu and company move into their new digs and set up shop; Lisa is ensconced below in the Dungeon of Multicolored Lighting Gels.
    On to Phase Two. Fu needs help perfecting his freezing technique. It seems some kind of chemical compound derived from opium (!) is used to make the special crystals essential for the insta-freeze process. Prof. Heracles (Gustavo Re), the altruistic scientist whose theories made the ice weapon possible, has been kidnapped to get the proper formula. Problem is, Heracles is rapidly dying from a defective heart. Thus Fu has the professor's physician, German heart specialist Dr. Kessler (Günther Stoll), abducted along with Kessler's attractive nurse, Ingrid (Maria Perschy). Kessler is ordered to perform a heart transplant on Heracles, keeping him alive long enough to get the needed information. If he refuses, Ingrid will be tortured to death. While all this is going on, Fu's nemesis Nayland Smith (again played by Richard Greene) has tracked the supervillain to Istanbul, where a local police captain (director Franco himself, in a fez) points him in the direction of Omar Pasha. Omar wants revenge against Fu for being betrayed and to free Lisa from the Chinaman's clutches. The gangster and the Scotland Yard commissioner team up to take Fu down.
    Reviled as one of the all-time worst movies ever screened on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Castle of Fu Manchu was the death knell of the Fu series thank God the sixth contracted film never materialized. It wasn't released in the States until 1972, three years after it played in Europe, and then only at the bottom of the cheesiest drive-in double bills. Sloppily assembled and tediously dull, the film is a prime example of too little money for what was hoped to be accomplished. (I'd bet the lion's share of the budget went for Christopher Lee's hotel bills.) All the major special effects sequences consist of footage lifted from other movies... Scenes from a previous Lee-Fu film, The Brides of Fu Manchu, pads the opening; lengthy color-tinted clips from the black and white A Night To Remember (1958) represent the sinking of the ocean liner. (Yep, that's the H.M.S. Titanic slipping beneath the waves of the Caribbean. A dam-breaking/flood sequence is also culled from elsewhere but I don't know from which film.) When Fu's castle is destroyed at the finale they cram in ludicrous snippets of volcanoes erupting, even a bridge being blown up, that don't match the principal footage in the slightest. It positively 'Ed-Woodian' in its ham-handed ineptitude.
    Strangely enough, after injecting a dose of sleaze into his previous Fu Manchu entry
if you're gonna throw women in a dungeon, might as well get 'em naked, I say Franco pulls back with this one. No topless chicks in chains here, a real shame considering Italian cult fave Rosalba Neri is on hand.( As brief as her scenes are, Neri's butch gangster gal is one of the few bright spots in the movie.) There's no gore, either. In its uncut state Castle is a mild PG at best. Franco must've been bored to death making it. He seems content to simply point the camera at the actors while they do their thing, then go ape-shit with the zoom lens. (Close-up shot of Lee's face. Dialog. Zoom out from Lee's face. Dialog. Zoom back in. Repeat.) One pointless sequence, which seems to go on forever, consists of nothing but panning shots back and forth across Fu's antiquated lab equipment.
    This is arguably the worst film Christopher Lee ever appeared in, and he's been in more than his fair share of turkeys. The execrable dialog he's forced to recite here probably set his teeth on edge. Obviously, there must've been a nice golf course near the location. As the flick's hero, Nayland Smith, the over-the-hill Richard Greene, who'd once been the dashing Robin Hood of '50s TV, makes Roger Moore look like Jet Li. So what saves Castle of Fu Manchu, if only barely, from 1-point Stinker status? Well, there's the exotic Ms. Neri (even if she doesn't take her clothes off, goddammit) and some amusingly clumsy action scenes. My favorite involves some of the castle guards, who, despite a gun battle raging close nearby, continue to obliviously pace their sentry rounds as if nothing is happening. (Which, unfortunately, is the case with 90% of this movie.)

The DVD presentation of Castle of Fu Manchu is far more lavish than the film itself merits. Comparable to Blue Underground's edition of Blood of Fu Manchu, the disc contains the most complete, best-looking version of the flick ever made available for home video. The transfer was struck from the original negative and looks remarkably good. In its original aspect ratio (1.66:1) the film is more visually coherent than its fullframe incarnations; one can actually tell what's going on (sort of, I guess) in the flooded tunnels during the climax. The digital mono audio mix is clean.
    As for extras, the Castle DVD likewise features
the trailer, an image gallery, talent bios, a continuation of Tim Lucas' liner notes, and the same background essay on the Fu character (The Facts of Fu Manchu) as found on the Blood disc. A 14-minute documentary, The Fall of Fu Manchu, picks up where the featurette on Blood left off. Director Jess Franco who's quite the raconteur in these interviews tells some humorous anecdotes about how he was hired by Harry Alan Towers to continue the franchise and his working relationship, spanning a number of films, with Christopher Lee. For his part Lee laments that any Fu films beyond the first (1965's The Face of Fu Manchu) were ever even made. "But," he dryly adds, "one has to earn a living." (The Castle of Fu Manchu is sold individually, as part of Blue Underground's 4-disc Christopher Lee Collection, and also in a "Fu Manchu Tu-Fer".) 9/22/03
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