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The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968,Spain/UK/Germany/USA)

13/04/2012

Director: Jess Franco           Starring: Christopher Lee, Richard Green, Howard Marion-Crawford, Gotz George, Tsai Chin

Jess Franco is a name I’ve always associated with tawdry sexploitation titles like Sadomania but as it turns out he has a resplendently vast back catalogue of work (much of it directed under various pseudonyms) of cheap and cheerful schlock horror as well. It’s no great surprise though that his name takes second billing on the DVD issue of this peculiar 1968 film to that of the star of the piece, none other than the mighty Sir Christopher Lee (pre knighthood), who plays the lead role of the titular villain. Just what sort of crazy mindset concluded that Lee would be the ideal choice for the inscrutable Chinese master criminal is (and I suspect will forever remain) a complete mystery to me but it was this very peculiarity which sparked my curiousity about the film, even if this was his fourth outing as the moustachioed madman!

Ensconced in his secret lair, deep within the jungle of South America, Fu Manchu (Lee) plots the assassination of his most powerful enemies using a unique method for their doom – the ancient and deadly Kiss Of Death! He immunises his female slaves against the poison of the deadly black cobra and then concentrates the venom in their systems so that their kisses carry enough of the poison to kill a man (in six weeks, after they go blind first). One of his targets is his nemesis, Holmsian hero Denis Nayland Smith (Greene), who is struck blind in the attack and so wastes no time in seeking out Fu Manchu in his hiding place so that he might discover an antidote to the poison coursing through his system.

There’s no point in trying to avoid it, so I’ll tackle the thorny issue of how severely racist the film is straight off the bat. Christopher Lee plays a Chinese character. In fake ‘tache and “slanty eye” make up. Thankfully there was some semblance of sanity involved that stopped everyone short of a “herro evelybody” comedy Chinese accent not to mention actual blacking up, but there’s no real escaping the fact that really there should have been an Asian actor in the role. Granted, Lee actually does a pretty good job, all things considered, and proves to be a convincing villain (although not so much a convincing Chinaman) carrying it all off with an amazing air of dignity and poise, an astonishing feat under the circumstances but really, even in 1968, there’s not a good enough excuse to justify that kind of casting. At least the filmmakers had the decency to cast a Chinese woman in the role of Fu Manchu’s daughter but Tsai Chin’s presence, while refreshing in its own right, also serves to highlight just how not Chinese Lee is. And all this before you actually bore down to the centrally racist precepts of Sax Rhomer’s Fu Manchu stories upon which this somewhat incongruous cast hangs!

Unbelievably, only one of these people is really Chinese. Can you tell which?

If you can get past all that (and to be honest, barring the obvious “yellow peril” overtones which have nothing to do with the filmmakers and everything to do with the original stories there doesn’t seem to be anything malicious in the racism, it’s just a lack of good judgement combined with a desire for a bankable star) and actually get into the film then you are in for a peculiar mixture of adventure romp, thriller, horror, sexploitation and, eh, spaghetti western (honestly) as the freshly blinded Nayland Smith and his sidekick Dr. Petrie (Marion-Crawford) comb the rain forest for the lost city in which Fu Manchu has holed up.

It’s a giddy ninety minutes or so of jungle exploration, bandit raids, nipples, chained women in various states of undress (the UK version has a fifteen certificate after scenes of women being tortured were cut – I don’t think the lost scenes have cost anything in terms of story development), a peculiar and somewhat pointless side plot about a trumped up murder charge and a game of chess, ninja assassins, ancient Mayan/Incan/Aztec poison and Christopher Lee in a moustache and silk pyjamas. The dialogue is generally pretty atrocious, the acting not much better (bizarrely, against all odds, Lee is just about the only person who makes it to the end credits with his dignity in tact) and the story feels unnecessarily convoluted. BUT. For some reason I can’t quite bring myself to hate it.

The snake wrangler certainly seemed to be enjoying his work.

Somehow, in spite of everything. there’s something oddly enjoyable about the whole thing, some undefinable element that salavages it from being total trash by raising it slightly into kitschy, entertaining trash instead. Whether intentional or not (I suspect it is) you find yourself rooting for Fu as his pointlessly intricate plan for world domination comes crashing down around his ears at the hands of his greatest opponent. It may be brash, tasteless nonsense, but it’s fun brash, tasteless nonsense.

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