Latarnia presents CASTILIAN CRIMSON
The Spanish Horror Film






Director: Jesus Franco
Screenplay: Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers)
Photography: Manuel Marino
Music: Daniel White (West German & Spanish versions have music by Hans-Martin Majewski and Gert Wilden)
Cast: Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Richard Greene, Howard Marion Crawford, Maria Rohm, Carl Jansen, Ricardo Palacios, Shirley Eaton
Co-production of Spain, West Germany, USA and Great Britain
Running time: 94 minutes

2 REVIEWS: Robert Monell and Francesco Cesari

"The world will hear from me again!"

And indeed it did in this Spanish, West German, US, UK co-production organized by the wily writer-producer Harry Alan Towers. Phil Hardy's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HORROR FILM identifies this as "the fifth and final title of Lee's Fu Manchu series" but it now appears that the Franco-Towers effort THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU holds that dubious distinction.

Tower's story is set in London and the South American hideout of Dr Fu Manchu, who, aided by his daughter, torture enthusiast, Lin Tang, sets in motion a plan to conquer the world by infecting 10 beautiful kidnapped women with deadly snake venom and then sending them out to administer the "kiss of death" to various international VIPs, including the intrepid super-sleuth, Nayland Smith (Richard Greene). In the meantime an Indiana Jones style adventurer is hacking his way into the Brazilian jungles only to be detained by a local official and then, along with the grotesque bandit Sancho Lopez (Franco regular Ricardo Palacios) winds up a prisoner in the well appointed cave of our villain. Nayland Smith arrives in the jungle, blinded and dying from the death kiss, and, of course, with the help of his loyal factotum, Dr Petrie (Howard Marion Smith) and a helpful nurse (Maria Rohm, then wife of producer Towers) manages to locate and destroy Fu Manchu's hidden refuge while routing the super villain who vows "the world will... ."

Let's examine the BLUE UNDERGROUND deluxe edition, one of four discs in THE CHRISTOPHER LEE COLLECTION, starting with the keepcase cover art. Arrestingly designed with Lee's imposing Fu Manchu in full costume, black hat, trademark hanging moustache, golden smock, peering out at us from under his prosthetic Chinese eyes, against a background of period stone carvings illuminated with crimson hues. The insert booklet is illustrated with a replica of the poster for the US release version, KILL AND KILL "Lucious Lips--LETHAL In their biting sting of death!" depicting a sensuous beauty puckering up to kiss... a leering skeleton! The liner notes are by Tim Lucas and he has done a superlative job of outlining the background of Sax Rohmer, the historical, literary and film progression of the Fu Manchu character from THE INSIDIOUS DR FU MANCHU, published in 1913, though the subsequent silent and sound serials and feature films based on Rohmer's stories and novels. The notes are highly informative and eminently readable, really enhancing the viewing experience both for Rohmer and Jess Franco novices and longtime fans.

Letterboxed at 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced, presented in Dolby Digital mono audio and supported by a dazzling array of extras, this movie now looks and sounds better than it probably did during its initial theatrical engagments. The letterboxing actually appears a bit wider than the stated ratio and is sometimes tight on the top, but it allows more image than any and all previous home video incarnations. I actually prefer the shorter KISS AND KILL version since it's more tightly edited and emphasizes the Indiana Jones aspects of the story. It just plays faster and smoother. It would have been a nice extra to have that alternate available for viewing. Video quality is mostly razor sharp (except when reproducing Manuel Merino's out of focus shots), richly colored and vividly detailed. Ambient sounds are equally crisp and clear and always separated from the excellent score by longtime Franco collaborator, Daniel White. Note the clip-clop of horses hooves during the scenes of dealing with the mauraders attack on the jungle village. The tropical foilage now is rendered with lustrous greens and we are treated to such details as a splashily colored butterfly catching our eye in the undergrowth. Unfortunately, the Brazilian locales are not really used to full advantage by Franco and DP Merino who probably didn't have time to explore more intriuging locations. The waterfall is a nice touch but it's not enough to create a sense of an awesome, exotic environment. Fu Manchu's lair looks phony from the get-go, with plastic looking rocks, the requiste gong and the jerry built cells where hostages, mostly female,are kept dangling wearing as little as possible. The scenes set in London are totally unconvincing and despite the presence of an antique auto, we never get the sense we are in the 1920s. The only performers who don't appear either comatose or distracted is the always cantankerously charming Howard Marion Crawford and the ridiculously over-the-top Palacios. Marion is at least is given a few priceless one-liners. Lee looks like he's uncomfortable in his make up (which he confirms in the accompaning documentary, THE RISE OF FU MANCHU) and is either unwilling or unable to project a consistently menacing demeanor, he often appears tired and just wanting it all to be over. I really find it difficult to forgive the almost total waste of the charming Ms Chin, whose grim Lin Tang is only allowed a single memorable scene where she sadisitically laughs on the throne of her father. It's a nice composition and there are others, but not enough of them. Franco and co. manage to really blow the all-important set-up where the captured women are infected with deadly venon. A pouty victim is confronted with what appears to be a pathetic garden snake which is pressed against her neck. One feels slightly sorry for the obviously frightened little viper. One of the more effective looking scenes appears now as a still, showing a bare-breasted Rohm chained and threatened by a huge, really mean looking serpent. One is greatful that at least a still was located from this long sought-after scene which obviously didn't make it into the final edit. But why? One would have to ask Mr Tower's, who in the documentary bascially gives the impression that speed of production, profits and expediency were his only aesthetic guidelines. Most illuminating and interesting are the perceptive comments by Lee and Tsai Chin. Lee is obviously still frustrated that Tower's scripts didn't incorporate more of Rohmer's original ideas from the books and instead were rather rushed flights of budget minded fantasy. The utterly endearing, intelligent Ms Chin is on hand to recount her frustration that she was not allowed to explore the erotic potential of the Lin Tang character. Her infectious humor and droll observations are the high point of the superb documentary. Harry Towers apparently wouldn't listen to anyone and Franco did what he was able under the circumstances. Franco talks of the influence of serials and comic books but those elements are only fitfully exploited in the tatty mise en scene. For instance, the final showdown is represented by Nayland Smith suddenly appearing in the cave holding a laughable, antique looking weapon, shooting off a few rounds which ignite unconvincing munitions explosions, a plastic rock falling on and crushing another hapless snake as Lee and Ms Chin quickly exit frame left... or is it frame right? Actually, the International trailer is more effectively paced, exciting and entertaining than the feature itself. Also included among the extras are eye opening photo and still galleries including production shots of Franco and his obviously merry crew in the wilds of Brazil, the US trailer, "The Facts of Fu Manchu", and talent bios. Another pleasant suprise is the appearance Sumuru herself, the elusive Shirley Eaton, who is on hand to express resentment at Towers for including her in this dubious enterprise via confusing, yet stylish, outtakes from the markedly superior Franco-Tower's Rohmer adventure, THE GIRL FROM RIO.

This definitive presentation of an obviously mediocre Fu Manchu opus and fairly impersonal Jess Franco episode does finally give us the "Unrated European Version" with all the female nudity intact. The sado-erotic scenes set in the bandit's camp and Fu Manchu's dungeons now carry a Jess Franco charge and were probably the only oppurtunity for Uncle Jess to express himself. The film, though, isn't bad enough to be really fun schlock (cf Franco's other Fu Manchu adaptation, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU, which is a rather delirious plunge into the European B movie pool of Involuntary Surrealism. Tower's earlier Fu Manchu forays are classics in comparison and one wishes that one of them could have been included as a selection here. Still, considering the superlative transfer of pristine elements and highly informative extras this disc will be a must for fans of both the Fu Manchu character and Christopher Lee. Serious Jess Franco fans will be amply rewarded, though, by another disc in this set, the awesome restoration of the impressive BLOODY JUDGE.

Reviewed by Robert Monell, copyright 2003


“It's frivolous to make a movie about a marriage crisis while, on the other hand, it's extremely serious to make one about the zillionth Fu Manchu plan to conquer the world!” (Jesus Franco)

Simply considering the plot, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU seems to be a film perfectly in line with Franco's “poetics”. Fu Manchu set up an army of girls whose lips spread death in every corner of the world through a kiss which at first blinds and then, after six weeks, kills. The girls kill against their will, since their will has been erased by the scientist. Love that poisons and eventually kills along with unwilling (sometimes hypnotized) female killers are recurring themes in Franco's filmography: for example in LA COMTESSE NOIRE (1973) or in MIL SEXOS TIENE LA NOCHE (1982). Besides, the theme of vampirism is clearly evoked by the image of the little snakes which, by biting the girls on their necks, inject the disease, making them healthy carriers of the poison.
Around these narrative motifs, without a doubt typical of the director, revolve more conventional situations and characters, even if they are put together in quite an unusual manner. For example, the classic contrast between hero and villain is split into two, since, on the one hand, next to the ever-present Scotland Yard investigator Denis Nayland-Smith (Richard Greene), we find the explorer Carl Jensen (Götz George) better suited to move in the Amazonian forest in which Fu Manchu has created his hiding place. On the other hand, among the villains we find, besides the protagonist, the South-American bandit Sancho Lopez (Ricardo Palacios).

Franco does not like heroes that much and, in particular, in an interview he declared not to have the slightest consideration for Nayland-Smith. Therefore, the “kiss of death” which blinds him, forcing him to lie in bed for nearly the whole film, must have seemed to the director a providential idea. The character who truly opposes Fu Manchu is then Carl Jensen, much more suited to handle rifles and to fight man to man against Fu Manchu’s soldiers, dressed in black and hiding in the forest, even if this colorless Indiana Jones is an even more predictable and stereotyped hero than the phlegmatic British agent. The character of the explorer is definitely the weakest aspect of the film. No less weak would be nurse Ursula Wagner (a miscast Maria Rohm), whose Girl-Scout-like clothes and hair style however reveal quite some irony.

When handling villains Franco is much more at ease: the icy look of the stunningly beautiful Tsai Chin who plays Lin Tang, Fu Manchu's daughter, sticks on the viewer's memory better than Lee's own face, to whose character Franco gives a surprisingly modest space. As a matter of fact, the character who steals the show is Sancho Lopez, the villain who perfectly complements Fu Manchu. Far from wishing to be one day the master of the world, Sancho Lopez is a fat South-American bandit who seeks immediate pleasure, here and now. He and the variegated companions belonging to his band (among which is a little old man wearing a bow-tie) plunder a whole village, stealing from their victims whatever they can: one of them steals a pair of spectacles, another a book, another even a sacerdotal tiara, and, obviously, they all have sex with the local women. It is the triumph of the “principle of pleasure”, and the cheerfulness with which these children-villains – whose heads we see at the beginning come out one after the other from behind the fern leaves of the virgin forest – do so much mischief is so genuine that it cannot not arouse the viewer’s sympathy. The hearty and exulting laugh of this anarchic bandit, played to perfection by Ricardo Palacios, counterbalances the melancholic impassibility of Fu Manchu who keeps lots of girls imprisoned without longing to touch even one of them.
To Sancho Lopez' character is linked also the most memorable sequence of the film: the sensual dance of Yuma, one of the kiss-of-death girls, at the night feast following the foray in the town of Melia. To the exotic music of Daniel White – one of Franco's best friends and the composer of the scores of about half of his films – Yuma steps forward among the bodies of the bandits and their lovers, approaches one of the young men and kisses him on the lips. The boy drops on the ground on his back, covering his face with his hands, but his friends believe him to be drunk. At the end Yuma reaches Sancho who at first pretends to play the game but then, when the girl tries to kiss him, he shoots her in the stomach and kills her. In the widespread silence the bandit bursts into coarse laughter and orders that everybody should start dancing gaily again. Franco can hardly fail in such a scene, since the relationship between love and death is by this date already the throbbing heart of his cinema.

Another, shorter scene displays some unconventionality in the otherwise conventional structure of the film. It is the one for which Franco employed Shirley Eaton, formerly a Bond-girl in GOLDFINGER (1965) and the protagonist of FUTURE WOMEN (1968 ), another of Franco's films based on a novel by Sax Rohmer. Shirley Eaton plays the “Black Widow” who leads Fu Manchu's female army: the image of the five black-veiled women, true priestesses of Death sitting around a pentagonal table, and the close up of the angular and reptile-like face of the actress are really frightening and give to Fu Manchu's plan, for the first and the last time in the whole film, the nature of a truly tangible, imminent menace.

Except for these two scenes, in THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU Franco's fantasy seems to be still fairly bridled and lights up only every now and then: the face of a girl, the beautiful sequence showing some curled up leaves, a native old woman who predicts tragedy in vain, and also some gags of old doctor Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) acting as the comic feeder of Nayland-Smith who, apparently, cares almost exclusively for the temperature of his tea.

Reviewed by Francesco Cesari, copyright 2003