Director: John Moxey
Director: Jess Franco
Director: Jess Franco
Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

Although none of the titles here are considered the cream of the crop when it comes to the most desired of Christopher Lee's movies, Blue Underground's box-set tribute to the actor is a marvelous package. Revisiting films in letterboxed and remastered editions after years of cropped fifth-rate VHS transfers or unwatchable bootlegs really makes a world of difference--and that certainly is the case here. Incidentally, this collection could have easily been called "The Harry Alan Towers Collection" as all were produced by him, and most were written by him (under his "Peter Welbeck" pen name). Hell, if it wasn't for CIRCUS OF FEAR, this could have been "The Jess Franco Collection," but this pleasing tribute to the actor in question is still fitting and comes easily recommended.

Chronologically, the first title in this collection is 1966's CIRCUS OF FEAR. Despite the title and Lee getting top billed, this is not a horror movie, but rather a slick mystery/thriller in the style of the German Edgar Wallace films (the film was partly German-financed, and often passed off as a Wallace entry). It starts off lively with a pre-credit sequence involving a gang of thugs heisting a quarter of a million dollars from an armored truck on London Bridge. Things get botched as a security guard is accidentally killed. Most of the criminals end up arrested, but one is to deliver the money to his boss but is killed by an unseen assailant. The money eventually ends up in the confines of a traveling circus, and the police investigate and question an assortment of likely suspects as more murders ensue.

The "big top" has always been an interesting enough setting for 60s British suspense films (CIRCUS OF HORRORS, BERSERK), and CIRCUS OF FEAR also has that advantage. Lee's role of a face-mangled lion tamer is seen mostly under a black hood, and he is not the lead actor by far. It is an ensemble cast of mostly British and German character players including Anthony Newlands, Maurice Kaufmann, Heinz Drache, Victor Maddern and Cecil Parker. Klaus Kinski (also in a small role) is one of the shady criminals, and dwarf actor Skip Martin (HORROR HOSPITAL) plays a blackmailer called "Mr. Big." Suzy Kendall and Margaret Lee add the sex appeal, and all the murderous knife throwing makes for a lot of red herrings amongst the large cast. The best performance is by Leo Genn who gives us an intelligent, thoughtful and unpretentious police inspector heading the investigation.

A number of unofficial budget DVDs of CIRCUS OF FEAR are already available, but avoid them like the plague. Blue Underground's DVD is the official, definitive version and looks terrific. It's finally shown in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement and the colors are for once intense and the picture nice and bright rather than dark. The Dolby Digital mono track sounds terrific. Blue Underground's release is the fully uncut version, as some prints run shorter (AIP's U.S. theatrical version, titled PSYCHO CIRCUS, ran only 65 minutes and was screened in black and white!).

Included is an audio commentary with director John (Llewellyn) Moxey that's moderated by David Gregory. The genial Moxey recalls the shooting at Bray Studios, adds some fun anecdotes about the actors and circus animals, and talks about other films in his career, while Gregory keeps things moving along with good questions. Also included are four theatrical trailers (two in color and two in black & white), a nice poster and still gallery, and talent bios on Lee and Kinski.

Next up 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 released quite prosperously through Warner Brothers. When it came to the fourth installment, Towers called upon Spanish exploitation maverick Jess Franco to direct, rather than the usual proficient Englishman. 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 states in the liner notes, "Blue Underground's new, integral, digital remasterings make these films easier to appreciate than before." This writer is in total agreement with that statement, but I guess the viewer will have to decide for himself.

THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (released in the U.S. as KISS AND KILL and was also known as AGAINST ALL ODDS and KISS OF DEATH) has the totally evil Fu Manchu (Lee) and his equally corrupt daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) 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) 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), Nayland heads for the jungle in search of an antidote and to hopefully destroy Fu Manchu once and for all. Plenty of action and scenic locations are on display here, and there's also a posse of Mexican bandits (lead by a rotund Ricardo Palacios, who resembles an unshaven Chris Farley) making for scenes that resemble a 60s spaghetti western. Greene (taking over the role from Nigel Green and Douglas Wilmer in the previous films) is well cast, but unfortunately has little to do.

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. 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), depicting Fu and company destroying an ocean liner (I bet you didn't know that Fu Manchu was responsible for sinking the Titanic?). The Asian mastermind wants to turn major bodies of water into ice, so he kidnaps a doctor (Günther Stoll) and his beautiful assistant (Maria Perschy) to perform heart surgery on a dying professor 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) and his men's suit-wearing assassin played by Rosalba Neri (aka Sara Bay). 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 with one of the least revered films of all time.

Even if you never cared for or could hardly endure these two before, you still might want to give Blue Underground's DVD releases a try. The previous video versions were dark, muddy, cropped affairs, but BU presents both titles in their 1.66:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and the films have never looked this superb. The images are now crisp and well-detailed, and colors are very bold. There is some minor grain (more so on BLOOD), but these are transferred from the original negatives and are near perfect, and the English-language Dolby Digital mono tracks sound fine. In the case of BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, the DVD restores some nudity not scene in any previous U.S. video version, 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 restoration is still something to be thankful for.

The extras on both these Fu Manchu discs are another exciting asset. BLOOD OF FU MANCHU includes a featurette entitled "The Rise of Fu Manchu" 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. Shirley Eaton is also interviewed briefly, as her cameo in the film seems to be an outtake from one of the "Sumuru" movies without her knowledge--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," the featurette accompanying the CASTLE OF FU MANCHU disc. It picks up where the second one left off, and like the first featurette, is well-produced and will most likely invite repeated viewings. Both Fu Manchu discs include various trailers for the films, bios on Lee and Franco, poster and still galleries, an informative essay ("The Facts of Dr. Fu Manchu") and the aforementioned liner notes by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas, who relates some history on Fu Manchu in literature and film, including of course, Franco's contributions to the legend.

The final film in this set, THE BLOODY JUDGE, is the only one that can't be purchased separately and is only available as part of it. Made in the wake of the international success of THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL with Vincent Price, it's Franco contribution to the witch-hunting genre with Lee perfectly cast as Judge Jeffreys. The plot has Jeffreys (a true historical figure) in 1865 England as the highest judge who will send practically anyone to their death. The first to be accused is an innocent young girl named Alicia Gray (Margaret Lee) who is tortured on a rack and then burnt at the stake. After trying to save her life, her sister Mary (Maria Rohm, wife of producer Towers) falls in love with a young, handsome rebel (Hans Hass Jr.) who wants to overthrow Jeffreys despite the warnings of his concerned father, the Earl of Wessex (Leo Genn), a friend of the Bloody Judge. Torture, kidnapping, and mortal combat all come into play in this historical tale of good vs. evil and ignorant.

THE BLOODY JUDGE is perhaps one of Franco's most underrated films, especially after witnessing this definitive DVD presentation. Lee's Jeffreys is a meaty role, and you could clearly tell that he was more enthusiastic about this part than, say, his last couple of Fu Manchu outings. Franco's use of authentic gothic interiors and beautiful exteriors give the film a lavish looks, as do the battle scenes which are most impressive and so well shot. The film is more of a historical drama/adventure then a horror film, but scenes of bloody torture surely secure it in the genre. A fine international cast also includes Maria Schell, Diana Lorys and Howard Vernon.

Vernon plays a torturer named Jack Ketch, a supposed tribute to Karloff in TOWER OF LONDON who looks more like a character out of a Mel Brooks' movie. Most of his scenes were cut from the American Version, which was released with a PG rating by AIP as NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER in 1972. Many different versions exist with various running times, but for the first time, Blue Underground has assembled the longest one possible (104 minutes) with all the sensational gore and nudity intact. This also includes a rare sequence where a naked and imprisoned Maria Rohm is forced to lick the blood off another woman's body. Not only is it more complete than ever, it's presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Color and detail are very rich, and the audio is solid, with Bruno Nicolai's exceptional score blaring nicely. It is presented in English, but a few scenes which were never translated are presented in German with English subtitles.

The extras here are plentiful. A great featurette cleverly entitled "Bloody Jess" has interviews with Franco and Lee. Franco remembers a lot about the film and discusses the locations, cast, title changes, and different versions of it. Lee talks about the real Jeffreys, how he approached the character (he added a true-to-life illness never explained in the actual script), and how he was not happy about the rougher scenes which were added later without his knowledge or involvement. Lee and Franco have a mutual admiration for each other, and their interviews are edited together with nice transition.

Also included are four alternate scenes: the original German opening under the title, "Der Hexentöter von Blackmoor"; a "clothed" love scene between Maria Rohm and Hans Hass; a light transitional scene, and lastly; scenes of torture presented in a more optically obscured manner. A deleted scene (taken from a Spanish tape source) shows the extended meeting of the two young lovers, apparently omitted from most versions. There are also different trailers and TV spots for the film (including the U.S. combo with Hammer's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB), a massive still gallery which is separated by category, and talent bios on Lee and Franco. Tim Lucas again writes the liner notes, and they are essential reading to really appreciate this DVD, especially for the uninitiated. Highly recommended. (George R. Reis)