Having read a few other blogs about Christopher Lee’s stint as Fu Manchu, I was aware that the movies supposedly declined in quality as the series went on… but I still wasn’t prepared for the jarring stylistic shift and steep drop in filmmaking competence that occurred when Jesús “Jess” Franco took over directorial duties.
While the previous entries were a loose “trilogy” of enjoyable, Bond-on-a-budget spy-adventures, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) plays like a third-rate Sergio-Leone-esque Spaghetti Western, into which the eponymous villain (and his white-bread nemesis, Nayland Smith) has been reluctantly inserted. Franco seems far more interested in indulging the “wacky” antics of a sleazy, shit-heel bandit named ‘Sancho Lopez’, than in fleshing out the title character’s latest plot for world domination (which, for the record, involves dosing up a bunch of pretty ladies with slow-acting venom, which is then passed on to their unsuspecting targets via the lips). At one point it really seemed as if the director was trying to sell Lopez and his rape-happy band of scumbags as the “loveable anti-heroes” of the story… which, needless to say, would have been a real deal-breaker for me. Thankfully, Fu Manchu’s Thugs eventually staged an ambush to decimate the bandits’ repellent ranks, and take their lecherous leader captive. Hurrah?
Obviously “two wrongs don’t make a right”, and I’m aware that Fu Manchu is a homicidal maniac with a fetish for torturing women… but there was something particularly sickening about the light-hearted way that the bandits were depicted (especially when Lopez was allowed to laugh directly at the camera, as if to implicate the viewer in his “hilarious” crimes), that made me glad to see them dealt a little rough justice, regardless of the dealer’s identity. I was also pleased that Lopez didn’t live to cackle another day, meeting a swift, vaguely poetic (and hopefully very painful) death, after receiving the “kiss of death” from one of Fu Manchu’s female assassins (played by Frances Khan)… who then went on to give the superfluous Smith a life-saving blood-transfusion-vaccination, so yay for her!
Franco’s second attempt, The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), was a slight improvement, in the sense that it returns to the pulpy plot formula of the earlier entries… though the direction and editing still left a great deal to be desired. The whole thing kicks off with a scene in which Fu Manchu uses a deadly new doomsday-device to sink a large passenger ship with an iceberg… which would have been a lot more impressive if the whole thing hadn’t been clumsily cobbled together using footage from other, better known films! The shots of Fu Manchu operating (and accidentally overloading) the machine were cannibalised from The Brides of Fu Manchu (complete with an uncredited Burt Kwouk cameo), while the shots of the ship sinking were taken from A Night to Remember (1958), a black-and-white classic depicting the Titanic disaster. Seriously! WTF!?
My spirits rose a little when the character of ‘Lisa’ (Rosalba Neri) first-appeared on-screen, dressed up like Istanbul’s answer to Annie Hall… but sadly, that goodwill didn’t last very long. She was introduced as the knife-wielding lieutenant of a Turkish crime-lord that Fu Manchu was hoping to ally with (or exploit, really)… and she had several bad-ass action scenes in the first half of the story… but then, after Fu Manchu flip-flops and has her locked up in the castle’s dungeon, she seems to change character completely and get very, very forgetful. First she forgets where the castle’s exits are, and “escapes” into the dungeons (d’oh!)… then she forgets how to fight for herself when Smith arrives to “save” her… and then, most egregiously of all, when she finally tastes fresh, free air again, she somehow forgets seeing her boss being executed a few scenes earlier, and goes running back into the flooded tunnels beneath the castle to rescue him, only to die a stupid, pointless death! Gah! Maybe you could argue that Fu Manchu hypnotised her during her time in captivity, reducing her to the idiotic dead-weight she became in the second half of the movie… but I’d rather just blame it on crappy writing and directing.
As for Tsai Chin’s role in these movies… ‘Lin Tang’ did have a few chances to shine (such as when she lead the ambush on Lopez’s camp in Blood, or executed Lisa’s boss in Castle), but she was still stuck in her father’s shadow, obediently trailing around after him as he recklessly pushed everyone to breaking point, and blanked her cautionary questions. Tch! If she had any sense, she would have run off with Lisa, so they could start their own kick-ass, cross-dressing crime network together! Fun!
Oh, and Poulet Tu had an uncredited cameo as ‘Lotus’ in Blood, but her main contribution to the story was to let in the woman who poisons her employer, so she didn’t really earn herself any brownie points there!