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Latarnia presents CASTILIAN CRIMSON
The Spanish Horror Film

EL CASTILLO DE FU-MANCHU

THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU

1967

           

Director: Jesus Franco
Screenplay: Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers), Manfred Barthel, V. Marinucci, Jesus Balcazar
Photography: Manuel Marino
Music: Carlo Camilleri, Malcolm Shelby (West German version has music by Carlo Camilleri and Gert Wilden)
Cast: Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Richard Greene, Howard Marion Crawford, Maria Perschy, Gunther Stoll, Rosalba Neri
Co-production of Spain, West Germany, Italy and Great Britain
Running time: 94 minutes
Eastmancolor

 

2 REVIEWS: Robert Monell and Francesco Cesari


"This is Fu Manchu. Once again, the world is at my mercy." -- Dr. Fu Manchu

It begins with Fu Manchu directing from his secret control room the sinking of a luxury liner in tropical waters by means of a device which turns water into ice and, in the arch-villain's own words, "safety into Peril!" This is represented by intercutting the sinking of the Titanic via footage from Roy Ward Baker's 1958 A NIGHT TO REMEMBER with color footage from (according to some sources) an earlier Harry Alan Tower's Fu Manchu opus, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU. The color footage of the control-room scene depicting the struggle of Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, in his final appearance as the character), daughter-in-crime, Lin Tang (Tsai Chin, looking somewhat more enthused about her murderous antics than in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU) and a henchman over a "safety" switch, of course, obviously clashes with the tinted B & W footage and one wonders if writer-producer Tower's cared if its intended audience would even notice.

The basic plot to take over the world by dominating shipping lanes is reasonable enough but the action quickly and permanently veers into a subplot involving the kidnapping of Dr Heracles (the inventor of the icing process) and his friends, Dr Kessler (Gunther Stoll) and Dr Ingrid Koch (the lovely Maria Perschy). Most of the narrative is set in Istanbul with local mover and shakers Omar Pasha (Jose Manuel Martin), his factotum, Lisa, (Rosalba Neri, wearing her stunning mane under a fez and hiding her body underneath men's clothing), the spy, Melnick, and the concerned Inspector Ahmet (Jess Franco himself, also topped off with a smart red fez), either working for or against Fu Manchu's plot. There's lots of rather tedious exposition and Scotland Yard's Sir Dennis Nayland Smith (Richard Greene) and his loyal assistant Dr Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford) seem pretty much side-lined and clueless up until the very last few scenes. It is amusing to watch an early scene of Nayland-Smith deducing that Dr's Kessler and Koch have been kidnapped by spotting a lit cigarette on the edge of a polished wooden table.

This film works as an illustration of Ado Kyrou's exhortation: "I urge you: learn to look at 'bad' films, they are so often sublime." I usually prefer to laugh "with" films rather than "at" them. Nonetheless, I find it hard to not break into a satisfied smile as I watch Fu Manchu standing in Barcelona, atop a Gaudi tower, directing the destruction of a dam. What's amusing here is that the dam cracking and drowning the workers below is obviously footage from another film with completely different grading and color. It's a sort of involuntary surrealism resulting from the desperation of near-broke and ruthless filmmakers ready and willing to trick the hard earned cash from the grip of devoted fans of the original Sax Rohmer stories and the previous Fu Manchu films. One has to laugh or feel insulted.

Filming began in September 1968 and I would be surprised if there was a finished script at that point. The exotic locale is Istanbul. Unfortunately, the very first introductory shots of the ancient city (remember, this is supposedly the 1920s) show 1960's era Chevrolets and BMWs parked on the docks in the foreground. It's impossible NOT to notice these glaring anachronisms and one wonders what the filmmakers were thinking. Couldn't they have adjusted the camera a few degrees to the right or left? Why didn't the supervising editor catch it and use alternate takes? WERE there acceptable alternate takes available? Probably not.

The delicate bubble of Fantastique is burst from the get-go. Director Franco was able to employ some delicious emerald and crimson color-gel lighting to illuminate the tatty lab sets and underground chambers which fill with water at the end. This does indeed provide some sort of comic book/serial ambience which the director discusses in the accompanying documentary, THE FALL OF FU MANCHU. The climax is a riot of ineptly edited stock footage: explosions from B & W war movies, shots of characters hurrying out of the exploding castle and Lin Tang, followed by Fu Manchu, rushing out of the shot, not once, but twice. Ed Wood, you are avenged!

We haven't even mentioned the "heart transplant" scene and it's probably best not to. Every detail, from the costumes to the sets, seems completely unconvincing, false. This falsity, though, can be compelling when guided by an aesthetic trickster with the talent of Jess Franco. Unfortunately, the results are highly erratic and its obvious that Franco had very limited control over the final product. Lee looks totally exhausted here and even more uncomfortable in his Asian makeup than in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU. Rosalba Neri's polymorphous-perverse spy pretty much steals the show and attention tends to fade when she is offscreen. Franco's THE GIRL FROM RIO (also written and produced by Towers) and 1987's SLAVES OF CRIME (sans Towers) were more visually striking attempts to approximate Sax Rohmer and both had a compelling erotic atmosphere as a bonus added extra, something CASTLE totally lacks. Listen closely to producer Tower's comments about Jess Franco's direction. Towers once said something to the effect that Franco couldn't direct traffic, describing the director as a musician whom traded his trombone for a zoom lens. It will be up to the individual viewer to judge whom to blame for this highly entertaining fiasco.

BLUE UNDERGROUND has provided another colorful transfer from mostly pristine original materials of the longest (94m) version of this film yet to appear on home video. The 1.66:1 letterboxing and Dolby Digital Mono sound transform this admittedly modest effort into a highly watchable curio. Extras include a theatrical trailer, poster and still gallery, "The Facts of Dr. Fu Manchu", talent bios and VIDEO WATCHDOG Tim Lucas finishes off his thorough and highly informative liner notes on the history of the Fu Manchu phenomenon.

Reviewed by Robert Monell, copyright 2003


Although it was shot a short time later, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU is a totally different film from THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, both in its merits and faults.

The faults. The subject is far from Franco's taste because of the very little space that was accorded to female figures and, more in general, to the erotic aspect. Moreover, the plot lacks a convincing development. There is a puzzling disproportion between the terrifying blackmail of Fu Manchu, who, having found the formula to turn the ocean water into ice, threatens to upset the planetary ecosystem, and the extreme easiness with which Nayland-Smith gets into the castle and destroys the scientist's laboratory. The very final quarter of an hour is in fact the weakest part of the film.

The main merit of such a subject is the beautiful and evocative setting. In this new adventure Fu Manchu hides in a castle on the Bosphorus, so that Franco can once more film his beloved Istanbul – the outskirts of the city, to be more exact – after the excellent results obtained in RESIDENCIA PARA ESPIAS (1966). To tell the truth, the castle in Franco’s film is Antoni Gaudì’s famous Güell Park in Barcelona, but, if we do not get too outraged by such a breach of verisimilitude (what one should never do when dealing with any of Franco’s films) one has to admit that the magnificent staircases, the preciously decorated colonnades amid which Fu Manchu’s throne is set, the mysterious dungeons similar to a maze and, all around these, the Turkish landscape create that fairy tale feeling that was missing in the former film. In other words, in this film the character of Fu Manchu is once more enveloped in an oriental atmosphere, thanks also to the costumes and the make-up.

In order to appreciate THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU one must try to watch it on the screen the same way in which Franco watched it from behind the camera, that is, accepting to ignore the whole while concentrating on the single details. On the whole the film displays a paratactical structure: a free succession of short scenes in which the pleasure of observing doesn’t given in to the frequently prosaic needs of the exposition as was the case in the former film.

The formal model is then the typical one of the comics but courageously – or incautiously depending on the viewpoint – adapted to the narrative context of the catastrophic movies, where the correct and tight sequence of events might seem an unexceptionable proviso. One simply does not trifle with mankind’s destiny! Or maybe yes? What is the director’s own thinking is probably revealed by the character played by himself, Inspector Hamid, the head of the local police, who does not give a damn when he hears on the radio Fu Manchu’s announcement of his intention to destroy the Bosphorus within a few hours and even criticizes Dr. Petrie's exaggerate worries.

One of the points which the detractors always insist on is that this film includes excerpts taken from other films: some colour sequences from THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966) and above all, at the beginning, some black & white sequences from A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958 ), a well-known film about the sinking of the Titanic. This one was definitely not the last time that Franco so boldly appropriated sequences from films made by others (but – it’s worth remembering – not out of laziness but simply because he could not personally shoot whatever he liked due to budget restrictions). Still, in the specific formal context of this film the inserts do not seem so out of place, both thanks to the effective montage and because they too belong to the logic of a freely and sometimes a bit casually “assembled” film.

The model of the comics in its more parodic aspects appears as particularly evident in the fighting scenes, where Fu Manchu’s soldiers, baleful but frail, even sickly-looking, fall to the ground one after the other like skittles. More substantial is the similarity with strip cartoons on a purely visual level, due to the static disposition of both people and things, some typical shots and the restlessness of the camera. Besides, in the interior shots Franco systematically alters the colours, with the aim to achieve monochromatic or dichromatic effects (his matching green with lilac is quite remarkable), what he resorted to again and again in his films, from JUSTINE (1969) up to recent VAMPIRE BLUES (1999).

The director’s attention is focused on whatever is incidental to the action but essential to the creation of a universe of forms and colours. The film is a riot of glass test tubes and stills containing colourful, boiling liquids which Fu Manchu contemplates with an almost carnal pleasure. By zooming in on the actors more pervasively than in the former films Franco can increase the intensity of their faces and, in particular, the protagonist’s cruelty and that of his even more evil daughter. The close-up on Fu Manchu's mouth close the microphone is more striking than the ultimatum he is announcing.

The fragmentary structure of the film makes it difficult to extract long episodes, but at least two scenes deserve to be more closely examined. The first one is another, clever reference to the vampire iconography. Fu Manchu's soldiers have abducted a famous surgeon, Dr Kessler (Günther Stoll), and his blonde assistant Ingrid (Maria Perschy), whose frozen bodies are then transported to the castle hidden into two coffins. When the doctor and his assistant wake up in the dungeons of the castle, they remove the covers and rise from the coffins as if they were two real vampires, with their eyes wide open for the cold and their face sprinkled with ice. The scene is made even more bizarre by the fact that the two pseudo-vampires belong to the family of the heroes and that she wears a suit and he jacket and tie.

The same two characters take part in the second scene. Dr. Kessler is forced by Fu Manchu to perform a heart transplant operation. If he refuses, the poor and pretty Ingrid will be killed. Franco constructs this scene by putting together and balancing a series of details through a well calculated montage. The operating room set in the vaulted space hewn from the rocks is shown in its entirety only once, before the surgeon enters. Against the sound-background of wood-wind instruments’ music and clock’s ticking, Franco's eye rests on the drops of anesthetic, the surgical gloves, the bistoury on the moment when it is used to cut open the patient’s chest, the surgeon’s and his assistant’s eyes, the short, light blows of the hammer on the scalpel and – what is the most incisive of the details – the ring of surgical scissors surrounding the area where the operation is being performed. The measured rhythm of the montage and the iconographic force of each single element give a ritual character to this scene, as if it was a sort of ceremonial to which the antiseptic ambience of the operating room adds a surrealist mood. But this is not all. The surgical operation is successful, and when at last the surgeon, exhausted, leans against the wall and lowers his surgical mask, his pretty assistant gets slowly near him and plants a loving and devoted kiss on his cheek. In an instant, without one single line of dialogue and thanks only to the exact dosage of the time sequences and acting, Franco carries us from the chilling tension of the surgical operation to the emotional release of the loving kiss, proving to have that talent for synthesis which belongs only to true artists.

On the whole, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU signals the moment when Franco began to feel that conventional cinema were a limitation to his own imagination and, at the same time, it is the proof that he already possessed the means to move on to a totally visionary and oneiric cinema, as he would do soon after and far better with VENUS IN FURS (1969).

Reviewed by Francesco Cesari, copyright 2003