Directors: John (Llewellyn) Moxey, Jeremy Summers
Blue Underground

A Christopher Lee/Klaus Kinski/Margaret Lee/Edgar Wallace/Harry Alan Towers double feature! Blue Underground continues its good work in getting out tasty, gaudy 1960s movie ephemera with this single disc, two movie Blu-ray release of CIRCUS OF FEAR and FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS. Both written and produced by legendary schlockmeister Harry Alan Towers (and very loosely based on the works of author Edgar Wallace), 1966’s CIRCUS OF FEAR, directed by John (Llewellyn) Moxey, stars Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Suzy Kendall, Cecil Parker, Victor Maddern and Maurice Kauffman, while 1967’s FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (released on disc for the first time here in the U.S.), directed by Jeremy Summers, stars Bob Cummings, Margaret Lee, Rupert Davies, Klaus Kinski, Maria Rohm, Maria Perschy, Sieghardt Rupp, Roy Chiao, Brian Donlevy, Dan Duryea, Christopher Lee and George Raft. Extras are a tad slim here—there’s a ported-over 2003 commentary track with Moxey for CIRCUS OF FEAR, along with trailers and photo galleries for both movies—but the 2k remastered HD Blu transfers from the original uncut negatives are a big, big draw for fans of these genres, this time period in moviemaking, and for these stars.

London, Tower Bridge, 1965. As a boat anchors below on the murky Thames, a group of hardcases boosts a loaded armored van, with the inside help of guard Mason (Victor Maddern, BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, CARRY ON REGARDLESS). Rappelling down a rope to the boat, the thieves make their getaway, but not before Mason blows his cool and shoots the other fleeing guard. Mason gets a temporary reprieve, however, when the heist’s mysterious mastermind calls the gang’s hideout and instructs Mason to bring the big boss’ share of the swag to an old farm outside Windsor. Naturally, Mason is bumped off via a throwing knife when he delivers the loot. Scotland Yard Inspector Elliott (Leo Genn, THE BLOODY JUDGE, LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN), tipped off to Mason’s destination, heads to Windsor, where he teams up with former protege, Detective-Sergeant Manley (Lawrence James, JACKANORY, WHO, ME?). There, the two officers discover the old farm also serves as the winter quarters for Barberini’s Worldwide Circus, run by, who else, Barberini (Anthony Newlands, HYSTERIA, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN). Once there—and once Mason’s body is discovered—Inspector Elliott has no shortage of suspects for both the murder and the heist. South African ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache, COAST OF SKELETONS, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU) is patiently waiting for the killer of his father to show up at the circus. Why? Because he believes the killer is the father of beautiful lion trainer-in-training, Natasha (Suzy Kendall, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, TORSO). Natasha’s uncle, the black-hooded, decidedly unpleasant Gregor (Christopher Lee, HORROR OF DRACULA, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), refuses to remove his mask, due to a lion mauling several years ago. Equally disagreeable Mario (Maurice Kaufmann, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, FRIGHT), the circus knife thrower, is murderously jealous of his fiancé, the sexy Gina (Margaret Lee, SECRET AGENT SUPER DRAGON, KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE), who’s cheating on him left and right—maybe even with the murderer/heist master. Obnoxious little person “Mr. Big” (Skip Martin, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) is blackmailing Gregor...about something, while bookkeeper/would-be clown Eddie (Eddi Arent, THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON, SPY TODAY, DIE TOMORROW) invites silent death threats from everyone with his inane gags and magic tricks. Add to that list of suspects the lone surviving gang member Manfred (Klaus Kinski, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, KILLER'S CARNIVAL) stalking around the circus, trying to find Mason’s share of the money, and imperious Police Superintendent Sir John (Cecil Parker, A STUDY IN TERROR, A MAN COULD GET KILLED) breathing down Elliott’s neck for a speedy resolution to the heist, and it’s no wonder all Inspector Elliott can do is quizzically smile as the bodies begin to pile up.

CIRCUS OF FEAR was the last of three Edgar Wallace-inspired projects from notorious globe-hopping, never-met-a-tax-shelter-he-didn’t-love writer/producer, Harry Alan Towers. A highly successful radio and television program producer and syndicator in the 1940s and 1950s, Towers advanced to moviemaking in 1962 when, with West German financing, he wrote and produced DEATH DRUMS ALONG THE RIVER (SANDERS), based on Edgar Wallace’s famous adventure novel, Sanders of the River. It’s not surprising that West German money would point novice producer Towers in the direction of Wallace, considering movies based on the prolific author’s works were enjoying a considerable fad in Germany at the time. Thanks to Danish company Rialto Film’s production of the smash hit THE FROG WITH THE MASK in 1959, any movie released in Germany that merely featured Wallace’s name in the advertising, regardless of whether or not the script was actually based on one of his books, stood a better-than-average chance of turning a profit, such was Wallace’s “brand appeal” in Germany in the early 1960s. Indeed, the rash of Wallace-based crime movies from Rialto (they owned most of the movie rights to his novels), as well as all the knock-off titles capitalizing on the Wallace craze, helped form a new subgenre in German cinema—the Kriminalroman, or krimi—that, like American noir, soon established its own recognizable tropes and conventions and stock company actors (CIRCUS’ Kinski, Drache, Lee and Arent were all big stars of the genre) that helped keep the genre going for the next decade. Typical elements like a pre-credit “teaser” featuring a murder or action scene, a masked killer, a group of suspects getting picked off one by one at a remote setting (Agatha Christie, of course), a uptick in violence portrayed on the screen, a jaunty, irreverent investigator and his comic relief sidekick, and lots of stock footage of England and specifically London, quickly became the norm for well as a few basic building blocks for early Italian giallo thrillers.

CIRCUS OF FEAR certainly didn’t set the cinematic world on fire when it was released back in 1966-1967. Shot in saturated color, it was unfortunately released in Germany in the less-attractive (to ticket buyers, at least) black and white format, due to a deal between its distributor, Constantin Film, and Rialto, which didn’t want CIRCUS OF FEAR to compete with their first Edgar Wallace thriller shot in color, THE HUNCHBACK OF SOHO. In the States, almost a year later, CIRCUS OF FEAR showed up in black and white, too, now renamed the more sensationalistic PSYCHO-CIRCUS, and cut to a mere 65 minutes (losing almost a half hour of material) for the bottom of one of American International Picture’s drive-in double bills. Over the years, probably because of its lurid title(s) and the presence of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, CIRCUS OF FEAR somehow gained the reputation of being a horror movie, surprising newcomers when they discover it’s actually a strange hybrid of heist/circus/and murder mystery elements.

And on that level, CIRCUS OF FEAR works pretty well. Towers may be sneered at, then and now, by critics and historians who look askance at his pulpy exploitation exercises, but fair play: his movies are always at the least watchable. They usually look good, with fairly decent production values for such cheap Bs; they move quickly; something’s always happening in his screenplays (usually written under his pseudonym, “Peter Welbeck”), and if the dramatics are sometimes (or perhaps often) superficial, and the situations frequently overwrought and coincidental, it doesn’t stop most of his movies from entertaining you on a basic level that gets the job done. CIRCUS OF FEAR’s opening heist—a little too easy, a little too bloodless—isn’t much by today’s movie standards, being of more interest to fans of British movies for the remarkable sight of a largely deserted Tower Road and the as yet un-remodeled wharf district (composer Johnny Douglas’ brassy, fun jazz theme over the credits helps big time, too). But you admire it more when you learn HORROR HOTEL director John Llewellyn Moxey (one of the 1970s best TV directors...and still going strong at 91-yrs-old!: the brilliant TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER, A TASTE OF EVIL, WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE?, FOSTER AND LAURIE, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY, SMASH-UP ON INTERSTATE 5) shot the scene all in one day (they must have been running). By the time Leo Genn arrives on the scene to inspect the body of the shot guard, delivering the movie’s best line with a surprisingly light, mildly put-out sigh of irritation—“Must these things always happen on the weekend?”—we’re fairly certainly that no matter how CIRCUS OF FEAR shakes out, we’re going to be kept amused and diverted for the next hour and a half (better than the heist is the following car chase, shot in a fairly lively manner for the time, including “wild” moments with real traffic, just prior to director Peter Yates forever changing that action set piece convention with ROBBERY and then BULLITT).

Of course the heist and the car chase are nothing more than big red herrings in a movie filled with them, and that’s a big part of CIRCUS OF FEAR’s appeal: just going along with its deliberately confusing, misleading storyline, while enjoying the skilled director and the better-than-average cast working hard to make less-than-sterling material into something palatable. Nothing in CIRCUS OF FEAR’s plot is going to surprise anyone who’s remotely familiar with the standard movie murder mystery format, but its mix of circus elements and Christie knock ‘em off/whodunit framework is relatively unique compared to the genre’s ubiquitous manor house in the English countryside (the Billy Smart circus footage is stock, used before in CIRCUS OF HORRORS, but we have some fun new stuff, too, including that fistfight between Drache and Kauffman in the elephant ring, with the freaked-out elephants shrilly trumpeting, ready to stomp the actors’ guts out—which director Moxey in his commentary track states almost happened). Moxey, with cinematographer Ernest Steward (DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE, CARRY ON SERGEANT) keeps his camera anonymous and square, which is fine because the swift pacing keeps our attention.

Christopher Lee, then a known second-tier international star due to his iconic Hammer outings, plays most CIRCUS OF FEAR with a black hood over his head. It’s not a drawback, as one might first assume; his intense eyes and mellifluous, sinister voice more than do the work for our imagination when we think what those lion scars look like. Too bad, then, when he takes the mask off, the story demands he look perfectly fine—it’s a weird letdown, and suddenly the imposing Lee seems...rather ordinary. Spooky Klaus Kinski never seems ordinary on the big screen; he’s such a magnetic presence that mere shots of him skulking around are intriguing enough (and when he actually interacts with other actors, the effect is electric, such as his asking Newlands for work at his circus—the single most surly job interview ever). Unfortunately, it looks like he was only hired for a few days work here, so he’s not very well integrated into the story. The rest of the cast do their parts well: Margaret Lee is appropriately sexy (Moxey’s POV camerawork of the killer caressing Lee’s leg and lighting the cigarette in her pouty mouth are nice highlights for the actress); beautiful Kendall, unfortunately clothed, is just okay as the naive Natasha; Victor Maddern is perfectly cast as the shifty armored car guard; handsome, tense Maurice Kaufmann plays jealous lover just right, and unfamiliar Drache and Arent, huge krimis stars in Germany, are competent enough, I suppose (although I didn’t laugh once at Arent). However, CIRCUS OF FEAR really belongs to Leo Genn, whose priceless, open mocking of the material is frequently hilarious. Almost breaking the fourth wall by just missing staring straight into the camera, Genn’s incredulous, almost flabbergasted reactions to the lines he’s made to read and the ridiculous dramatic situations he finds himself in, keeps CIRCUS OF FEAR consistently light and amusing, and far more self-aware than one might expect for an otherwise straightforward genre exercise. He’s a delight.

CIRCUS OF FEAR was previously released on standard DVD in the The Christopher Lee Collection back in 2003. Blue Underground’s new 2K 1080p HD anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray transfer is nearly flawless. Fine image detail is significant, while colors are bold and eye-popping (while still maintaining that somewhat chalky, tempera paint 1960s color cinematography patina). Blacks are deep, contrast is nicely modulated, and imperfections such as scratches and dirt are barely noticed. It looks like it could have been shot yesterday. The English DTS-HD mono audio track is re-recorded at a healthy level, with all dialogue heard clean as a whistle. English subtitles are included. The only extras on this two movie disc are for CIRCUS OF FEAR. First up is a commentary track with director John Moxey and Blue Underground’s David Gregory, recorded in 2002 for the 2003 disc release. Moxey is sharp as a tack and ready to talk (he clears up that controversy about Werner Jacobs supposedly directing a German version of the movie—Moxey states Jacobs was an unpaid technical advisor, and was given directorial credit as a payoff). However, big patches of silence fill this desultory track. Why isn’t more info about CIRCUS OF FEAR’s reception brought up to Moxey for his insight and reaction? It’s a wasted opportunity to hear from an important figure in 1960s and 1970s moviemaking (too bad somebody didn’t get a mic on 91-yr-old Moxey for a new commentary track for this Blu—I’ll bet he’s still on point). Rounding out the extras are four trailers: the international color and b&w trailers (“Fear...fear...fear...fear!”), each at 2:28, and the U.S. color and b&w trailers for the renamed PSYCHO-CIRCUS, at 2:02 and 2:04. An extensive and quite interesting photo, poster and still gallery, is also included.

Shady, sweaty New York lawyer Porter arrives in Hong Kong on a 24 hour visitor’s visa, and is immediately tailed by dangerous-looking Gert (Klaus Kinski, CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND, KILLER'S CARNIVAL). Nervous, Porter writes “Five Golden Dragons” on a piece of paper and instructs his cabbie to deliver it to Bob Mitchell (Bob Cummings, SABOTEUR, DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER), at the Hong Kong Hilton. Arriving at his hilltop apartment, Porter is strangled and thrown off the balcony by a hooded figure, as Gert silently watches below. The cabbie, responding to police inquires about the death, brings the note to Inspector Chiao (Roy Chiao, GAME OF DEATH, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM), who runs it by his superior, the Shakespeare misquoting Commissioner Sanders (Rupert Davies, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM HIS GRAVE, THE CONQUEROR WORM), who tells Chiao to go question Mitchell. Mitchell, a visiting American playboy, has no idea why Porter, whom he met for the first time only briefly in Manila, would send him the note...but he does have ideas about beautiful German sisters Ingrid (Maria Rohm, EUGENIE, SEX CHARADE) and Margret (Maria Perschy, SAX ROHMER'S THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU, HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES). When Margret sees the “Five Golden Dragons” note, she then gets ideas about Bob—specifically, to kill him before he kills her. When Bob convinces her he doesn’t know anything about the note, she tells him what it means. A former stewardess, Margret worked for the Five Golden Dragons, five men who controlled the illicit gold market: Dragon #1 (Dan Duryea, THE HILLS RAN RED, THE BAMBOO SAUCER), Dragon #2 (George Raft, SKIDOO, SEXTETTE), Dragon #3 (Brian Donlevy, THE FAT SPY, GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE), Dragon #4 (Christopher Lee, THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM, AIRPORT '77)...and Dragon #5 (???). The men don’t know each other, for security reasons, being stationed in Paris, Rome, New York, Beirut, and Hong Kong. When she fell in love, her boyfriend wanted to tell the police, but the syndicate killed him, and she fears she’s next....which she is, when she’s later found dead in Bob’s hotel bedroom. Determined to find her killer, Bob gets a tip to go to the Blue World nightclub, owned by gorgeous singer Magda (Margaret Lee, VENUS IN FUR, WHAT DID STALIN DO TO WOMEN), and managed by sinister, handsome Peterson (Sieghardt Rupp, DON'T LOOK NOW...WE'RE BEING SHOT AT!, ALL KITTIES GO FOR SWEETIES). Bob soon discovers these two are mixed up with the Golden Dragons, and he’s the next one marked for death.

Co-financed by German distributor Constantin Film, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS was another Harry Alan Towers cheapie that exploited (at least in Europe) its tenuous krimi\/Edgar Wallace connections. Rupert Davies’ character is at least named Sanders—if not exactly based on him—after the hero that appeared in quite a few Wallace stories; the German and Italian posters put Edgar Wallace’s name bigger and bolder over the tops of everyone else connected with the movie; while the presence of Kinski and Margaret Lee—a potent krimi box office combo, according to other accounts—would certainly entice potential ticket buyers who enjoyed that Wallace-branded subgenre of crime film. However, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS plays far more like one of Towers’ international spy adventures, specifically the Sax Rohmer rip-off, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, released the same year as FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS, and shot on the same soundstages (and what look to be even some of the same sets) at the Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong. Towers was infamous for taking advantage of down times or halts in filming on one feature to cobble together an additional movie so as not to waste time and money. If that happened here, information is scant on the subject, but it is interesting that director Jeremy Summers was working that same year on Towers’ THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU, in Hong Kong, with some of the same actors: the two Lees and Kinski.

Regardless of origin, comparisons between FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS and THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU seem inevitable, since their structures and quite a few individual scenes feel so similar. Unfortunately, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS comes over as the lesser entry, mainly because the ad lib humor level of Bob Cummings’ muggings isn’t quite up to par with SUMURU’s surprisingly more accomplished George Nader. Looking at a few reviews for FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS, some critics wondered if the movie’s comedic tone was introduced (unwanted) by Cummings’ obvious ad libs. However, it’s probably safe to say Towers always intended FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS to have a spoofy undercurrent, since by 1967, James Bond parodies were rapidly outnumbering straight Bond rip-offs at international box offices. As well, according to reports, Towers initially offered the FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS lead to comedic actor Tony Randall, in the hopes of recreating the box office success of their 1966 spy spoof, OUR MAN IN MARRAKESH, aka BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD, which also co-starred Kinski and Margaret Lee. Cummings was always a good sport in his many comedies and TV series; even as recently as 1963 he showed he could take his goofy, enthusiastically “youthful” character and make it faux-hip in AIP’s smash, BEACH PARTY. And quite a few times here in FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS, he gets some good laughs, such as the camera bag bit, or on the dance floor (“It’s a little violent for my sacroiliac,”) or with some modest, off-the-cuff remarks (I particularly liked when the room boy came in to let the cops see Margret’s corpse, and Cummings offered brightly, “That’s Ken!”). However, many times he seems to be forcing his old act, coming off as smarmy rather than charming, with a true speed freak’s shifty eyes and jangly nerves blowing his cool (I wonder how he got his fixes over in Hong Kong?). His introductory scene is wretched, with his forever darting eyes and his incessant, faux-boyish gum chewing looking quite ugly and out of place in the movie. Whereas a laid-back, couldn’t-care-less Nader clearly understood what a goof THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU was, Cummings is uncomfortably scrambling like his career depended on this piffle...which indeed it did. It would be the last big screen role for the actor, before increased drug addiction and further legal problems effectively ended his career.

Leading man considerations aside, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is pretty standard mid-1960s Towers fare, with heavy travelogue production values and cameos by faded stars hung on the barest excuse for a plot. The opening has a nice, low-key Bondian feel, with some truly spectacular barely-developed Hong Kong vistas and that jazzy, blatting, John Barry-ish “whaa whaa whaa” theme music setting us up for an enjoyable spy-like romp (and how about that sick dummy plunge off the balcony, with that bloody head splatter in long shot!). The fun continues with the introduction of comedy team Rupert Davies and Roy Chiao (they have good chemistry together), and then we segue into usual Towers territory, with not one, not two, but three nightclub songs delivered all in a row (the sultry Margaret Lee sings, but the voice is credited to “Domino,” while “guest singer” Yukari Ito inexplicably shows up), and various low energy chases, fights (one, on the spectacular Tiger Pagoda, has dopey BATMAN sound effects and slide whistles, to embarrassing effect), kidnappings (Towers, that genius, stages his real-life wife Maria Rohm’s kidnapping while she’s waterskiing...and why not?), secret passageways, and criminal lairs. The whole “Five Golden Dragons” subplot turns out to be a let down (the trailer hilariously screams, “each played by a great international star!”), with Lee, Raft, Duryea, and Donlevy all looking thoroughly embarrassed to be wearing those stupid paper mache dragon heads (after they reveal themselves to each other...why the hell do they put the masks back on?), but by that late point in the movie, you really don’t care. Frankly, the most interesting aspect of the movie were the gorgeous women. Towers’ wife, Rohm, doesn’t have much to do here, but it’s too bad they couldn’t have let her be Cummings’ funny sidekick (she seems game for it). Beautiful Austrian actress Maria Perschy, who actually looks like she’s trying to essay a character here, is cut out of the movie far too soon (she would have made a good “sacrificial Bond girl”), while Margaret Lee, what else, is sexy as hell as the scheming Magda. Whether getting pawed by Rupp, or seducing Cummings (she’s palpably alluring, with smart eyes that let you know she could be doing a lot more in better movies), it’s remarkable that someone didn’t peg her for higher profile material back then. Just watching her smoke a cigarette as she coolly, cynically regards doofus Cummings, is alone worth the price of admission here.

Blue Underground’s new 2K 1080p HD anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray transfer of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS looks awfully good. Occasionally, I saw some contrast hot spots and some smeary color values on faces, but I’m going to lay that at the feet of the original cinematography, due no doubt to the hasty manner of shooting. Otherwise, color values pop and fine image detail is pretty good, with very little damage in the way of scratches and dirt. The English DTS-HD mono audio track is pin drop clean, and re-recorded at a strong level. English subtitles are included. The only extras included on this transfer are an original trailer, and an extensive photo/poster/promotional material gallery. (Paul Mavis)