Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

Although neither title here is considered the cream of the crop when it comes to the most desired of Christopher Lee's movies, Blue Underground's double feature tribute to the late actor and international cinema icon (“at his sinister best”) is still a marvelous package. Here are the final two entries in a popular 1960s horror/espionage film series from producer Harry Alan Towers (both written by him under his "Peter Welbeck" pen name) and cult director Jess Franco (who makes cameos in both films), and based on the legendary literary villain created by Sax Rohmer. Even if you dive into these films with reservations based on negative fanboy feedback, no doubt there’s some fun to be had here, and they look outstanding on Blu-ray!

Presented here are THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU and its immediate sequel, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU. Harry Alan Towers' "Fu Manchu" series starring Christopher Lee started in 1965 with THE FACE OF FU MANCHU followed by BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966) and VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)—all British productions released quite prosperously through Warner Brothers/Seven Arts. When it came to the fourth installment, Towers called upon Spanish exploitation maverick Jess Franco to direct, rather than the usual proficient Englishman he was employing. Towers is quoted as telling Franco that he successfully "killed" Fu Manchu and most fans and critics appall these two entries. But as Tim Lucas once stated in his liner notes for the films (when they were first released on DVD in 2003 as part of “The Christopher Lee Collection”), "Blue Underground's new, integral, digital remasterings make these films easier to appreciate than before." This writer is in total agreement with that statement (even moreso now that they’re on Blu-ray), but I guess the viewer will have to decide for himself.

THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (released in the U.S. by Commonwealth United/AIP as KISS AND KILL and also known as AGAINST ALL ODDS and KISS OF DEATH) has the totally evil Asian crime lord Fu Manchu (Lee) and his equally corrupt daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) hiding out in their cavern headquarters in the Amazon jungle. In another attempt at world domination, ten beautiful women are kidnapped and are injected with a poisonous venom that will enable them to kill men with a simple kiss on the lips. First up is his arch enemy in London, Nayland Smith (Richard Greene, TALES FROM THE CRYPT) who falls victim to the deadly kiss but instead of dying turns temporarily blind. With the help of the loyal Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford, CARRY ON REGARDLESS), Smith heads for the jungle in search of an antidote and to hopefully destroy Fu Manchu once and for all. Also on the upright side of things are a handsome archeologist/adventurer Carl Jansen (Götz George, MAN CALLED GRINGO) and pretty nurse Ursula Wagner (Towers’ wife Maria Rohm, THE BLOODY JUDGE) whose uncle was viciously done in by Fu’s cronies.

Shot largely on location in Brazil and Spain, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU has plenty of action and scenic locations on display (comparable to the first three entries), and there's also a posse of Mexican bandits lead by Sancho Lopez, played by rotund Spanish character Ricardo Palacios—a frequent co-star of Paul Naschy—who resembles an unshaven and dark-skinned Chris Farley—but he’s an absolute scene-stealer here. These sequences somewhat resemble a 1960s spaghetti western, and that’s actually a good thing. Greene (taking over the role from Nigel Green and Douglas Wilmer in the previous films) is well cast, but unfortunately has little to do. GOLDFINGER actress Shirley Eaton appears briefly in a throwaway sequence that she apparently never got paid for; it seems Franco inserted some footage of her from THE GIRL FROM RIO, and the actress didn’t find out about it until many years later. Of the film, Lee said in the book The Films of Christopher Lee by Robert W. Pohle Jr. and Douglas C. Hart, “I can only say this again—I believe this was the third or fourth one—you can take a marvelous character, a marvelous series of stories, and turn the thing into a travesty of what it is intended to be”. Apparently, Lee had become just as disenchanted with playing Fu Manchu as he was with Dracula, but for fans of the actor, he’s still a delight to watch and again makes the roll his own.

The final film in the series, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU, is often considered the worst. Shot in 1968 but not released to U.S. theaters until 1972, Lee, Chin, Green and Crawford all return in the same roles (Rohm, on the other hand, was spared from this one, unusual since she was in just about everything her husband produced at this time). Shot in Spain (substituting as Turkey), the film opens up with footage from BRIDES OF FU MANCHU, as well as blatantly embarrassing black & white stock footage (culled from 1958's A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Roy Ward Baker’s masterpiece), depicting Fu and company destroying an ocean liner (I bet you didn't know that Fu Manchu was responsible for sinking the Titanic?). The evil Asian mastermind wants to turn major bodies of water into ice, so he kidnaps a doctor (Günther Stoll, THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY) and his beautiful assistant (Maria Perschy, HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE) to perform a heart transplant on a dying professor (Gustavo Re, SUMMERTIME KILLER) who knows how to execute the plan. Since Fu takes over a castle in Istanbul, he also tries to outwit a lecherous opium dealer named Omar (José Manuel Martín, CUT-THROATS NINE) and a men's suit-wearing female assassin played by Rosalba Neri (aka Sara Bay, LADY FRANKENSTEIN). In comes Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie to once again try and put a stop to the nonsense, and although he claimed he'd be back after all the explosions and such, not surprisingly, he didn't—ending the series once and for all.

The poor reputation of THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU doesn’t really derive from decades of calling it one of the worst movies ever made (it’s far from it) but rather the material being so repetitious and tired for a series closer. Not only is there footage culled from A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (featuring an easily recognizable Burt Kwouk of “The Pink Panther” series), but during a dam bursting disaster (caused by Fu of course) they use impressive shots from the 1957 production CAMPBELL’S KINGDOM, and if you look carefully you’ll spot Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker (apparently Towers and Franco didn’t mind that they were inserting obvious 1950s set-footage into a story which was supposed to take place decades earlier)! But in the film’s defense, Lee is still imposing as the character (in the usual array of fancy satin robes and unusual hats), and the climax is definitely more exciting than the rushed wrap-up that occurs in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU.

Even if you never cared for or could hardly endure these two before, you still might want to give Blue Underground's Blu-ray double feature a try. Before BU issued them on DVD in 2003, the previous video versions were dark, muddy, cropped affairs. Blue Underground’s new Blu-ray renderings of THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU are notches above the previous DVDs. Both films are a presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD, with the transfers being crisp and well-detailed, with colors being bold and the grain looking natural in appearance. The cinematography of Franco regular Manuel Merino is complimented by these HD offerings, and even if his efforts here are rather workmanlike (and at times zoom-heavy), the close-ups definitely boast more clarity than some of the softer long and medium shots—so much so that you expect Lee’s eyelid appliances to fall off at any minute. Both film feature English-language DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks which sound fine; good fidelity and the dialogue is also rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. English SDH subtitles are included. In the case of THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU—like the previous DVD—the Blu-ray restores some nudity not scene in the previous U.S. video versions, but topless shots of star Maria Rohm (shown as publicity photos in the accompanying still gallery) are not present and probably don't exist.

The great featurettes from the two films’ 2003 DVD releases have thankfully been carried over to this Blu-ray. THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU includes a piece entitled "The Rise of Fu Manchu" (15:03) and contains interviews with director Franco, producer Towers, and stars Lee and Chin. Franco explains how he got the call from Towers to do the film, while Lee and Chin (very amusing and of course nothing like her onscreen persona) discuss their involvement (Chin regrets that there were limited roles for Asian women during those days, but seemed to have fun doing the movies. Lee was discouraged that the films strayed from their literary source but is accepting of their cult following). Shirley Eaton is also interviewed briefly, as her cameo in the film was taken from THE GIRL FROM RIO without her knowledge, and Franco and Towers sort of evade the issue. Franco, Towers, Lee and Chin again are interviewed for the appropriately titled, "The Fall of Fu Manchu" (14:00), the featurette accompanying THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU. It picks up where the second one left off, and features some interesting anecdotes, with Franco telling how when he got the call to do the first one, he thought it was his friends pulling a hoax, and also about his working relationship with Lee. THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU includes its international trailer and U.S. theatrical trailer (as KISS AND KILL) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU also has a theatrical trailer. The poster & still galleries for both films are far more extended than what was presented on the previous DVDs. (George R. Reis)