“You have no will, no mind of your own,” intones the dastardly villain in The Brides of Fu Manchu, one-half of a horripilating double feature available today. Fu, I hear yu. I gave up brick-and-mortar DVD shopping years ago, but when Warner Home Video or Universal Home Entertainment announce that they’re making their vintage horror and sci-fi movies available only through Best Buy, off I go. The studios know that kids weaned on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (goodbye, Uncle Forry) will as grown-up consumers do anything to get their hands on essential ephemera from their childhoods, even rummage through a—gasp!—Best Buy, where it’s never a sure thing that the titles will be in stock, or, just as bad, correctly categorized. (People, if the packaging says “horror” or “sci-fi,” how about putting it there, and not under “action-adventure” or “drama”?)
How sweet it is, though, to finally, finally hold in your hot little hands a favorite like the Warner-supplied When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, which this past summer slipped onto the market in an uncut, Holy Grail version, where the vivacious cavewomen fleeing the stop-motion saurians are topless in a couple of scenes, more than compensating for the historical inaccuracy. Who could wait for that? But if you had the patience, the film (twinned on DVD with a lesser Hammer picture, Moon Zero Two) did show up for online purchase, as have The Brides of Fu Manchu and Chamber of Horrors, double trouble I found more resistible. Produced in 1966, the features haven’t aged as well as their titillating posters, but the letterboxed transfers, while lacking supplements of any kind, are presentable.
For completion’s sake, Brides, the second of a series of films starring Christopher Lee as the Oriental criminal mastermind, should be paired with its predecessor, 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu, the only one of the five movies still MIA on DVD. Face and Brides are the easiest to differentiate, as they have some inkling of style and a few bucks behind them; the rest are bargain-budget lunch specials. Long before there was political correctness there was Sax Rohmer’s yellow peril genius, threatening the West with extinction, a pulp boogeyman played to the hilt by Boris Karloff in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu and a career ender for Peter Sellers in the alleged 1980 comedy The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.
Brides lacks the production gloss and baroque tortures of the controversial Karloff picture (only recently restored) and Lee, while making a strong visual impression in his emerald robe, has only a single note to play, barking out orders and death sentences in the same clipped staccato as he kidnaps the daughters of 12 world leaders to advance his plot to level London with a ray gun. (My favorite: “As you were the leader of the rebellion, you shall be the first to go to the snakes!”) That’s still a half-note more than his adversary, Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer, a TV Sherlock Holmes of that era), or the Chinese actors doing Fu’s bidding, including Burt Kwouk (Kato from the Pink Panther movies) and Tsai Chin, of The Joy Luck Club and Grey’s Anatomy, who played Fu’s treacherous daughter Lin Tang and stuck it out with Lee for the quintet. She was the one I remembered, but I’ve since tangled with more duplicitous Asian ladies in real life.
Brides does have a funny scene where the scantily clad femmes, taken to the lost Temple of Karnak, unleash cans of paddy-cake whupass on their tormentors. Upping the sex-and-sadism quotient is the period piece Chamber of Horrors, which applies a pair of juvenile gimmicks to some leeringly adult content. The film originated as the pilot for what I imagine was a Wild Wild West-type TV show, House of Wax, that cast Cesare Danova (the mayor in National Lampoon’s Animal House), My Fair Lady co-star Wilfrid Hyde-White, and “Tun-Tun,” a Hispanic dwarf (why not?) as wax museum proprietors/amateur detectives solving offbeat crimes in a backlot Baltimore. But it literally got out of hand: The villain, played with lip-smacking relish by Patrick O’Neal, is an implied necrophile who hides out in a brothel and cuts off his own mitt to escape the police, then attaches various implements to the stump to avenge himself on the law (including a pre-M*A*S*H Wayne Rogers).
Today you could air this unchanged after Two and a Half Men, but standards and practices objected, and the project was shipped off to the movies. It inherited some marquee guest stars—supermodel Suzy Parker, film noir slattern Marie Windsor, and Tony Curtis as a sporting house patron who attends to the ladies with a “full house”—and added “the horror horn” and “the fear flasher,” nothing more than a blaring sound over a red strobing effect, to goose the not-so-scary moments. (Any teenage guy who panicked at their intrusion while on a date must have died from embarrassment.) To hold an audience’s attention now the horror horn and fear flasher would have to be going full-tilt after a few minutes, as if a five-alarm fire were in progress; in the more staid 1966 it took about a half-hour for it to sound. It’s the racy stuff, peeking out from under the TV blandness, that held my attention.
Fear flasher Scott Malchus promises a review of this week’s other WB horror set, pairing It! with The Shuttered Room, later this week. Meanwhile, as Fu Manchu says, “the world shall hear from me again!”