Whew! I just got finished watching Blue Underground's mammoth Christopher Lee Collection, and I stand before you an exhausted man. BU, in all of their wonderfulness, picked four of Lee's more obscure films from the vaults for this set, given 'em the true Blue Underground treatment (which guarantees audio-visual goodness), stuffed 'em with extras, and give us one hell of a value. While some people may question the selection of movies in the box, they prove to be an amazingly entertaining quartet, and a must for any Lee fan.
The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968, 94 Minutes, Color)--Lee reprises his role as the mad mandarin Fu Manchu in the fourth movie starring Lee and produced by Harry Alan Towers. Fu Manchu is up to his old tricks, this time rediscovering the world's deadliest poison (from a garter snake, no less) that led to the destruction of many lives in ancient South America. Manchu wants the poison to be given to his ten worst enemies on the lips of ten women. Of course, one of these enemies is Fu Manchu's arch nemesis, Nayland Smith (Richard Greene), who is in a race against time to find an antidote before the next full moon. Standing in his way is dozens of costumed thugs, Fu Manchu's sadistic daughter, and Sancho Lopez. That's right, being South America, we have the leader of a motley crew of banditos to contend with. You know it's pure cinematic gold when this guy near the top of the villain totem pole.
The Yellow Terror returns for the last time in The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969, 94 Minutes, Color) with a Vonnegut novel plot device in tow. Fu Manchu has found the chemical compound that will freeze the seas solid...unless the world bends to his will! He gives a display of his power by sinking an ocean liner (in a startlingly surreal blue-filtered sequence) in the Caribbean. This gets the attention of our hero, Nayland Smith, who traces Manchu to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and to the governor's castle. Throw in a subplot involving an opium dealer, a beautifully destructive sequence where Fu Manchu causes a dam to burst, and director Jess Franco as a police detective, and the series goes out with quite a bang, literally!
While far from fan favorites (The Castle Of Fu Manchu was even mocked in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000), the two Fu Manchu films just WORK. Despite the obviously racist content, Lee's performance as the criminal mastermind is still quite good. Jess Franco's frantic camerawork and use of garish color lend themselves perfectly to the pulpish world created by Sax Rohmer, and give the feel of a living comic strip. In today's day and age, the super villain ideas conveyed by these movies seem old and cliche, but they're MEANT to be. If you can turn your brain off for a couple of hours, there's plenty of enjoyment (and a little bit of skin) to be had.
Next up is Circus Of Fear (1966, 91 Minutes, Color) with a minimal role by Klaus Kinski to back up Lee's stint as Gregor, a hooded lion tamer. Gregor hides his face behind a black hood (It reminded me of David Soul's Covered Man spiel back in the sixties) to conceal scars remaining from an accident years before. A robber from an intricate armored car-jacking wanders into the circus with the money, and is slain by a black-gloved killer wielding throwing knives. Gregor happens to come into possession of the money, which he uses to pay off the blackmailing Mr. Big. That black-gloved goon keeps on killing though, and we're soon thrown into a lighthearted pseudo-giallo, with fistfuls of red herrings and plot twists.
Easily one of the two best of the set, Circus of Fear featured some amazing direction by John Moxey. The opening robbery scene is pure genius, with a wristwatch shot acting as a segue between the perfectly coordinated robbers. Lee's booming voice sporting a Russian accent, is as much a reminder of who we're dealing with despite the mask. There's virtually no sex or gore to be had which, coupled with the goofy slapstick and WA-WAH-WAAAAHHHHH comedy bits make for a fun, lighthearted romp.
The Bloody Judge (1970, 104 Minutes, Color) is the capstone to this amazing set. Lee is cast as the Judge George Jeffreys, on an inquisition spree amidst a political upheaval in 17th century England. He sentences supposed witches to sadistic punishments (which Jess Franco shoots leeringly, assuring that you squirm at least a bit) and horrid executions, carried out by his twisted disciples. This group, which include a guy named Satchel(?) and one of the creepiest executioners ever, even have a calligraphic letter "J" emblazoned on their chest like demented superheroes. However, even a depraved witch hunter needs a little love now and again, and he falls for the sister of one of his recently convicted women.
Exclusive to the set, and worth the price of admission alone, The Bloody Judge gives us a more "typical" Christopher Lee role. It's never slow, with incredibly strong performances by all involved. Also, with the royal coup plot underlying the film, we're treated to some mind-boggling battle sequences, with cannons and horseback soldiers duking it out brutally. BU's release has a bucket load of cut footage, which makes this one depraved little movie. The violence against women is constant, with beatings, hand-lopping, tongue-ripping, stretching on the rack, and overall dreadfulness. It gets pretty tough to watch sometimes, made even creepier due to the semi-biographical nature of the movie. It's not I Spit On Your Grave, but it's pretty graphic and exploitative nonetheless. The only downside to some of the added footage is that it was never re-dubbed in English, so some of the intercut scenes are in German with English subtitles. It's not a huge deal, but it can be a bit jarring.
Blue Underground has a deal with the devil. That's the ONLY way I can explain how they make old movies look THIS good. All four are presented in anamorphic widescreen, with amazingly vibrant colors and incredibly sharp pictures. Sure, there was a fair amount of print damage present (The Bloody Judge had a couple big lines during some scenes) and there was some artifacting in the blue sky in the Fu Manchu features, but the overall presentation was spot-on perfect. The opening scene of Circus Of Fear was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with only fashions and automobiles to remind us that it was filmed in 1966. Audio is a crystal-clear mono mix, with virtually no hiss or background noise. I detected no distortion, and the amazing scores that the films had were nicely leveled, neither overwhelming nor underwhelming.
Now, what makes this set TRULY shine is its amazing extras. The three Franco-directed films each feature a fairly beefy documentary with scads of interviews and fun anecdotes. It's a pleasure to see Christopher Lee talk about his films, for he genuinely gets into his characters: he talks about Judge Jeffreys as if they were childhood friends. Jess Franco's cigarette-waving monologues are also a hoot, as are all of the interviews with co-stars. Sometimes documentaries can be long-winded and boring, but these were captivating and left you wanting more. We're also given, across all four discs, deleted scenes, trailers, still galleries, audio commentary, and a few essays on the Fu Manchu movies. There's hours of stuff beyond the initial movies, and it's all incredibly worthwhile.
Blue Underground has done another world-class job with this set. If you're a Christopher Lee fan, or even just a movie lover, you owe it to yourself to get this set. The sixty-dollar suggested retail price is peanuts for the sheer amount of enjoyment you will get out of this set. Unfortunately, it's limited to a mere 7,500 pieces, so haul ass to your nearest retailer or log onto www.blue-underground.com and pick it up!