Writer Sax Rohmer’s (Arthur Sarsfield Ward) 1913 pulp creation of evil Chinese super villain Fu Manchu was captivating enough for American B-movie producers in the 1930s and 1940s, with the role being essayed by such actors as Warner Oland, Henry Brandon and of course Boris Karloff in MGM’s horror spectacle MASK OF FU MANCHU (1935). In the 1960s, after Christopher Lee became an international superstar for his portrayal of several classic screen monsters, it only seemed natural that he should follow in Karloff’s footsteps and play Fu for what was to be the most successful screen incarnation of the character. The notorious British-born film financier Harry Alan Towers was in the producer’s chair (he would also pen the screenplays under his pseudonym “Peter Welbeck”) for three entries released in the States by Warner Bros/Seven Arts (the final two Fu films were directed by Jess Franco and released by independent companies). While the second of these, BRIDES OF FU MANCHU, was already released on DVD (paired with 1966’s CHAMBER OF HORRORS), chapters 1 and 3 — 1965’s THE FACE OF FU MANCHU and 1967’s THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU — now make their way to disc, courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.
For numerous crimes and atrocities he committed, Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) is sentenced to death by beheading in his homeland of China in front of his captor, Scotland Yard’s Commissioner Nayland Smith (Nigel Green, COUNTESS DRACULA). Later in London, Smith’s intuition that Fu Manchu is not really dead is all too true, as it seems an actor altered to look like him was executed in his place. Fu has now managed to assemble a crime empire underground, leading to the River Thames, with his ever loyal daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) by his side and aiding him in his relentless dirty work.
Fu Manchu has abducted brilliant scientist Professor Muller (Walter Rilla, THE GAMMA PEOPLE), as well as his beautiful daughter Maria (Karin Dor, THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM) as Muller will has the skill to distill a deadly potion from the seeds of the Tibetan black bull poppy. Of course, Fu plans to use the resulting concoction to take over the world. Smith, along with his friend and sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) and Muller’s assistant Carl (Joachim Fuchsberger, DEAD EYES OF LONDON) is on the trail of the master criminal, but he’s already used the deadly distilment as a plague to wipe out a small English town (as he promised to over an interrupted broadcast on BBC radio), as well as the army troops brought in to protect it.
A British/German co-production, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU was shot largely on location in Ireland and directed by the dependable, Austrian-born Don Sharp, who had already helmed two well-appreciated features for Hammer Films (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES). With production values high, the 1920s period setting is convincingly fashioned and the cast of British and German actors work well together (only some Anglo-looking background players passed off as Chinese thugs put a bit of a damper on things, and this would be a constant dilemma throughout the series run). Sharp is able to move along the mix of Bond-like espionage, vintage automobile chases scenes, violent stranglings and torturous horrors at a steady pace, and he did a good enough job to be hired to do the worthy follow-up, BRIDES OF FU MANCHU, though this one is considered to be the best of the series by most fans and film historians.
Lee adds another great villainous role to his catalog, and with three hours of fairly believable applied eye make-up to perform under, it’s another famous baddie (even more cold and unflinching than Count Dracula) that he would be immortalized for, though some say he was way too tall for the part (the actor himself was once quoted as saying, “Don’t be misled into thinking there are no tall Chinese, because there are”). Green is terrific — a definitive Nayland Smith, and he didn’t have too many roles as good as this one throughout his short career (he died of a sleeping pill overdose in 1972). Keeping with the continuity of the series, Tsai Chin and Howard Marion-Crawford would continue to reprise their characters for the four sequels to follow, and so-called Yellow Peril’s conveniently placed end-title promise that “The world shall hear from me again” was fulfilled at least that many times.
Although THE FACE OF FU MANCHU reportedly didn’t make back all its costs (factor in the money they must have spent on an over-the-top publicity campaign), the quickly made sequel was in order with Don Sharp again in the director’s chair. That was then followed by the next film covered here, THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU, but replacing Sharp was television director Jeremy Summers who had already done a few features (including the forgotten Gerry and the Pacemakers vehicle FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY). With producer Towers handing the reins over the final two Jess Franco-directed Fu’s, Summers’ name become synonymous with other Towers exploitation pics, including FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (again with Lee), HOUSE OF 1,000 DOLLS (with Vincent Price) and EVE (with Lee and Celeste Yarnell). With VENGEANCE, the director does a capable job of delivering an entertaining though formula film that works perfect on a Saturday afternoon.
Fu Manchu (Lee) and his daughter (Chin) are alive and well, and up to no good again in China. Fu has abducted brilliant plastic surgeon Dr. Lieberson (Wolfgang Kieling, TORN CURTAIN) and his beautiful daughter (Suzanne Roquette, THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS) for good measure. Lieberson is forced to transform a brainwashed Chinese thug into the spitting image of arch nemesis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS); Fu’s thugs kidnap the real Smith while he’s on holiday, and replace him with the altered thug, leaving best friend Dr. Petrie (Marion-Crawford) perplexed by his sudden stone-cold nature. The imposter Smith murders his housekeeper and is put on trial, all part of Fu’s plans to discredit his nemesis (and he plans to do the same with authorities all over the world). With the real Smith held prisoner at the palace, an American FBI man (Noel Trevarthan, IT!) and a local police inspector (Tony Ferrer, COVER GIRL MODELS) team up to uncover Fu’s lair and clear Smith’s good name.
THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU is a formula film in that Towers has been using the basic plotline from the start of the series. A brilliant fellow and his nubile daughter are kidnapped and forced into doing things they don’t want to do, Fu plans on taking over the world from his hiding place, and the Holmes/Watson clones of Smith and Petrie arrive in time to storm the palace/lair (against the always easy to defeat band of black-garbed knife-wielding thugs), assumingly putting an end to their Mandarin warlord foe. But it’s a formula that works if you just enjoy it for what it is, as this one has the grand presence of Lee (again in one of his most sinister roles) as well as the nice production values seen in the first two films, with the violence upped a bit more (there’s more torture and even a street brawl — martial arts style). This one was shot in both Ireland and Hong Kong where they made use of the Shaw Brothers majestic studios, here doubling as Fu’s massive palace.
The great German character actor Horst Frank appears as a smirking and misogynistic criminal who travels to Fu with the promise that he’ll be lead by him in a new worldwide crime syndicate (Frank is familiar from giallos such as THE CAT O’NINE TAILS and THE DEAD ARE ALIVE, as well as numerous spaghetti westerns). The excellent TV “Sherlock Holmes” actor Wilmer had already played Nayland Smith in BRIDES, and he still fits comfortably in the role, having good on-screen chemistry with Marion-Crawford. Maria Rohm (the wife of producer Towers, and soon to be in a handful of Franco films including THE BLOODY JUDGE and COUNT DRACULA), plays a nightclub singer (her two numbers are re-synced by Samantha Jones) who becomes a prisoner at Fu's headquarters, but her character is pretty disposable. Eddie Byrne (from Hammer’s THE MUMMY) appears as a crooked ship’s captain.
As stated, Warner Home Video issued BRIDES OF FU MANCHU on DVD paired with CHAMBER OF HORRORS as part of their (unfortunately) short-lived “Horror Double Feature” series, which only saw one other release. Although the company had all three of their Fu Manchu titles out on VHS, the Warner Archive Collection releases of FACE and VENGEANCE marks the first time they’ve been available on DVD (manufactured-on-demand) in this country. Both features are presented anamorphic widescreen, and even though both transfers display occasional dirt and debris on the print source, they both look quite nice with sharp detail throughout. FACE comes in a 2.40:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, staying true to its Techniscope photography, with the original Technicolors replicated nicely if visibly muted in some scenes. VENGEANCE is 1.66:1 anamorphic, and the colors look distinctly rich and vivid. Both titles have adequate mono English audio tracks, with VENGEANCE having several brief passages of noticeable scratchiness. There are no extras on the disc, though the main menus for both titles at least display their appropriate cover art. (George R. Reis)
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