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The evil mastermind Fu Manchu plots his latest scheme to basically freeze over the Earth's oceans with his diabolical new device. Opposing him is his arch-nemesis, Interpol's very British Dr. Nayland Smith. Written by
It boggles the mind that anyone could possibly defend this movie as some sort of lost classic or claim that people only say it's bad because it was on "Mystery Science Theater". When *two* lengthy scenes in a movie consist largely of footage borrowed from better movies, and when both of those scenes could be removed without anyone noticing the break, you know that the director's aim was to exert himself as little as possible to get the required length of film in the can. Anyone here with a burning zeal to uphold the reputation of THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU against its boorish detractors is almost certainly exerting more effort on the movie's behalf than Jess Franco ever did.
Nevertheless, the film is not among the all-time worst. Roger Ebert is correct when he says, "There's probably a level of competence beneath which bad directors cannot fall....they've got to come up with something that can at least be advertised as a motion picture, released and forgotten." It can be safely conjectured that this was just what Jess Franco wanted. The dialogue is passable, the acting (what little is needed) is serviceable, and occasionally the editing actually drums up something like tension.
So if no one aspect of THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU is really *that* bad, why is watching the whole film such a chore? A bad movie can be difficult to watch, but an *aggressively* mediocre one can be worse. When Roger Corman cranked out his listless, paint-by-numbers adventures and fantasy movies, at least he had the excuses of working with zero budget, a cast of third-stringers, and shooting schedules permitting him maybe a week's use of a sound stage. I'm guessing that Franco's budget was scarcely greater, but he had a decent cast and enough freedom for location shooting in more than one country. Yet he produced a movie as uninspired and perfunctory as Corman did at his worst. What was Franco thinking?
The plot seems almost to go out of its way to abandon consistency. Fu Manchu kidnaps Prof. Heracles and then his doctor because he needs help to make the magic freezing crystals in quantity (crystals, by the way, which also perform the totally unrelated duty of a knockout gas), but then even though we see Heracles at the end refuse to help Fu Manchu, his refusal doesn't even slow Fu Manchu down, who initiates his freezing plan without apparent need for Heracles's assistance. We *had* seen Fu Manchu demanding a ransom earlier one (without bothering to name terms) but any idea of actually collecting on the ransom never comes up. Fortunately for the world Nayland-Smith shows up to foil his plot to freeze the ocean, although Franco can't be bothered to show us how he foils it. We see him beating up some flunkies and trying to contact London by radio, then suddenly there's a loud report and soon Fu Manchu is watching helplessly as everything blows up around him. I'm used to villain's fortresses improbably blowing up because the hero fires one well-placed shot or smashes one control panel, but THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU gives us the only case of a villain's fortress exploding merely because the hero makes a long-distance phone call.
It's not as though Franco didn't have enough screen time to fill these plot holes. It's just that he decided to fill that time with lengthy establishing shots, walking, and creeping around dark corridors and tunnels. He also directs his actors to speak as slowly as possible and pause whenever possible. They have excuses, I suppose. Fu Manchu is "inscrutable", being an offensive Oriental stereotype, and Omar Pasha is probably stoned out of his mind on opium half the time. The police chief in Istanbul simply doesn't care and spends a good deal of his screen time sulking and telling people not to bother him. And why should he bother doing his job? He's played by Jess Franco, after all.
With so little actually happening in THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU, we have to be content with watching the scenery. There are some beautiful background shots in the film, to be sure. Mostly, though, Franco traps us in Fu Manchu's lair. The quarter-hours slip by as the "action" takes us from one room or chamber to another and another, none of them very well lit, while Christopher Lee sits and looks smug, or stands up and looks smug, or even speaks while looking smug. Eventually a lot of people die and Fu Manchu disappears into the billowing fake smoke. Dry ice, Rosco fog, and blood, indeed.
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