Film Review: The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)

Also known as: Sax Rohmer’s The Castle of Fu Manchu (full title), Assignment Istanbul, Fu Manchu’s Castle, The Torture Chamber of Fu Manchu (alternate titles), Le château de Fu Manchu (France)
Release Date: May 30th, 1969 (Germany)
Directed by: Jess Franco
Written by: Manfred Barthel
Based on: characters by Sax Rohmer
Music by: Carlos Camilleri, Malcomb Shelby
Cast: Christopher Lee, Richard Greene, Howard Marion-Crawford, Gunther Stoll, Rosalba Neri, Maria Perschy, Jose Manuel Martin

Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas, Terra-Filmkunst, Italian International Films, 92 Minutes

Review:

“The formula. With this I can control all things – and all men.” – Fu Manchu

I love Christopher Lee but I have never liked his Fu Manchu movies. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen all five of them and this is the only one I’ve seen more than once and that’s simply because it is featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is the fifth and final film and it is said to be the worst one. From my experience with some of the others, none of them are good. But this one, in particular, is dreadfully boring and pretty hard to follow.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure if it’s hard to follow due to it being a clusterfuck of bad, nonsensical writing or because it was a real challenge to pay attention and not doze off to sleep or find myself daydreaming for spans of twenty minutes. I’d say that it’s all of the above.

Christopher Lee can usually carry movies, even bad ones. While he is the brightest spot, by far, in this picture, it’s not enough to draw you in or make you care. I think that even Lee was bored with these movies by this point. I don’t want to say that he dialed it in but this was probably just a paycheck and a way to work for a few weeks between Hammer or Amicus productions.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Fu Manchu character anyway, so I don’t have the same sort of enthusiasm for these movies as I do the DraculaFrankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Mummy and other classic horror and literary characters he’s made movies about.

This film is a complete waste of time unless you are an MST3K completist and haven’t yet seen the episode with this mind numbing dud.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: the other Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee but none of them are very good.

Film Review: Agent for H.A.R.M. (1966)

Release Date: January 5th, 1966 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Gerd Oswald
Written by: Blair Robertson
Music by: Gene Kauer, Douglas M. Lackey
Cast: Peter Mark Richman, Carl Esmond, Barbara Bouchet, Martin Kosleck, Wendell Corey, Robert Quarry

Universal Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“This could’ve been you, and don’t you forget it! Better go back to the judo range.” – Adam Chance

This is a bad and bizarre movie but it was also riffed in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so that probably goes without saying.

Agent of H.A.R.M. was released in the mid-’60s when there were a slew of spy films coming out due to the success of the James Bond franchise. This one also adds in some crazy sci-fi elements, which was also popular at the time.

The threat in this film is a special gun that shoots spores. When these spores come into contact with flesh, it turns them into fungus, which basically transforms its victims into mushroom goo. I can’t believe I just typed those two sentences but that’s the MacGuffin in this sci-fi spy turkey.

Originally, this was developed to be a television pilot but Universal ended up deciding that it would be best to be released as an actual motion picture on a double bill with Wild Wild Winter, which was a beach party movie that left the beach behind for the slopes. So this wasn’t really a logical pairing but studios didn’t care when they were just trying to make a dime back off of a dollar thrown away.

I didn’t find this as terrible as most of the reviews I’ve read on it. It certainly isn’t good but it’s also far from the worst thing to make it on an episode of MST3K.

I also didn’t get too bored watching it but I’m also fascinated by batshit crazy sci-fi plots and I’ve got a soft spot for ’60s spy films regardless of their quality.

In the end, if you are into weird shit like this, it’s worth a look. If you’re an MST3K fan and haven’t watched this one, it won’t drive you to madness.

Rating: 3.5/10
Pairs well with: other ’60s spy movies with a weird sci-fi twist.

Film Review: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Release Date: May 22nd, 1969 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Bert Batt
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Thorley Walters

Hammer Film Productions, Warner Bros., Seven Arts, 98 Minutes, 101 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“I have become the victim of everything that Frankenstein and I ever advocated. My brain is in someone else’s body.” – Professor Richter

It’s been a really long time since I have seen this chapter in the Hammer Films’ Frankenstein series. This is the fifth one out of the six movies starring Peter Cushing and it’s my favorite one after the original.

Even though I really like this installment, it has its ups and downs but the film really plays out like a good drama with horror and sci-fi elements thrown in.

This has some of the best acting in the series and the inclusion of Veronica Carlson was a strong positive for me. She is one of the more talented Hammer scream queens and really takes over the screen in the scenes where she is featured. It also doesn’t hurt that she is absolutely stunning in that old school, classic beauty sort of way.

I also thought that the rest of the cast was pretty damn good for a Hammer picture that came out towards the end of their two decade run as kings of horror.

Peter Cushing is absolutely dastardly in this one and while that does a fine job of building suspense, tension and the desire to see him get his comeuppance, it did feel uncharacteristic for his version of Baron Frankenstein. We’ve come to know him over the four films before this one and he’s always operated fairly consistently. Sure, he’s done evil shit before but he just has an extra edge to him here. He isn’t driven by his science and obsession over his work. Instead, he seems to be driven by the fact that he enjoys being a complete bastard. His dive into deeper evil is punctuated by him raping Veronica Carlson’s character and frankly, that’s the most uncharacteristic thing that he does in the film. He never cared about the ladies before but that changed with this movie. For the first time, it made him truly unlikable. I guess it makes him more of a pure villain but I always liked to think that there was still some way to save his soul and that he was just a victim of his own mania.

I love that the “monster” in this maintains his intelligence and isn’t just a dumb, hulking brute. It’s about time that Baron Frankenstein’s experiments reach a higher level. And I’m glad that this ignored the absolute weirdness of the previous film that saw the mad doctor trapping souls.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed benefited most by having the series’ best director, Terence Fisher, return. This felt like a true sequel to the original more than any of the other films and in some ways, it was probably another soft reboot, as the continuity in this film series doesn’t seem to matter from film to film.

This is solid, classic Hammer. This is a prime example of why they were masters of the horror genre from the mid-’50s through the mid-’70s.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer Frankenstein films, as well as the Hammer Dracula and Mummy series.

Film Review: The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)

Also known as: The 1000 Eyes of Su-Muru (review title), Sax Rohmer’s The Million Eyes of Su-Muru (UK long title), Sumuru (UK alternate title)
Release Date: May 17th, 1967
Directed by: Lindsay Shonteff
Written by: Kevin Kavanagh
Based on: a story by Peter Welbeck, the Sumuru novels by Sax Rohmer
Music by: John Scott
Cast: George Nader, Frankie Avalon, Shirley Eaton, Wilfred Hyde-White, Klaus Kinski

Sumuru Films, American International Pictures, Warner-Pathe, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I have a million eyes… for I am Sumuru!” – Sumuru

This seems like it had the makings of something that could have, at the very least, been an enjoyable spy romp. It was anything but.

The Million Eyes of Sumuru is a pretty dreadful and boring movie. It was featured in the original first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 when it was still on local television in Minneapolis. But even with the riffing of Joel and the ‘Bots, this was really damn hard to sit through. There’s probably a reason why they didn’t resurrect this for the show once it went national on Comedy Central.

I mean, this is a film with Frankie Avalon and Klaus Kinski in it; two guys I never imagined would wind up in the same motion picture or even find themselves in the same room together.

This also stars George Nader, Wilfred Hyde-White and one of the most memorable Bond girls of all-time, Goldfinger‘s Shirley Eaton. You know, the girl that was actually turned to gold.

I’m just not sure what this film was going for, other than trying to tap into to ’60s movie spy craze that was created by the success of the James Bond franchise. This almost feels like poorly crafted parody that is devoid of any sort of intentional humor. There are things you can certainly laugh at but that was not the intent of the production.

But this isn’t so bad that it’s worth seeing because of its awfulness. It’s terribly slow, boring and tapped into my strongest primal instinct: hitting the fast forward button. But I stuck with it and fought this fight just for the sake of writing a review about this total mess of a movie.

I mean, I’m on a mission to review every single film ever featured on MST3K, so I couldn’t just skip over this. And still, it isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen on MST3K but it is way down in the murky bottom amongst some of the more abominable movies the show has made me aware of.

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: really bad spy films from the ’60s that were poor attempts at cashing in on the James Bond craze.

Film Review: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Also known as: Frankenstein’s Monster (Sweden)
Release Date: May 8th, 1964 (US)
Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: John Elder
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Don Banks
Cast: Peter Cushing, Sandor Eles, Peter Woodthorpe, Katy Wild, Duncan Lamont, Kiwi Kingston

Hammer Film Productions, Universal Pictures, The Rank Organisation, 84 Minutes

Review:

“I realized long ago that the only way to prove my theories was to make something in my laboratory that actually lived. I never told you, Hans… I succeeded once.” – Baron Frankenstein

Continuity?! Who the hell needs bloody continuity?!

This is the third film in Hammer’s long running Frankenstein film series but it completely overlooks the solid second film and only builds off of what happened in the first one. So I guess it’s like an alternate “part two”.

While that’s pretty common in horror franchises these days, it’s a little strange that they ignored the second film, which I thought was pretty good and had a really satisfying ending that set up a formula for future sequels.

In this chapter, Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein searches for his creation from the first picture. He ends up finding the monster frozen in ice. The monster is then defrosted and brought back to life.

The film goes back and shows the creation of the monster but these flashbacks are new scenes and different from how they appeared in the original picture. So really, this kind of omits the context of the first film in a similar way to how Evil Dead 2 retells the events of The Evil Dead in its own condensed way.

Despite all that confusion, as I’m a stickler for continuity, I still like this chapter in the franchise. But if Peter Cushing is playing Baron Frankenstein, I’m probably going to like the film. Luckily, none of them are really bad.

This one was distributed in the United States by Universal Pictures, which gave the Hammer team the ability to make the monster look more like Universal’s classic design from the Boris Karloff movies. Weirdly, they made the creature’s head way too boxy in their attempt at creating the look of the Karloff creature. For most people it probably looks bad but it is at least a memorable version of the monster unlike the versions we got in parts two, four and five.

While this one isn’t directed by Hammer’s maestro behind the camera, Terence Fisher, it still has the same sort of spirit and tone. Freddie Francis did an acceptable job in place of the great Fisher.

The Evil of Frankenstein is a pretty strong outing by Hammer, even though it’s not one of the best in their long filmography. I still enjoy it for what it is and it kept the series interesting and fresh. And as always, Cushing was dynamite.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer Frankenstein films, as well as the Hammer Dracula and Mummy series.

Film Review: The Living Skeleton (1968)

Also known as: Kyûketsu dokuro-sen (original title)
Release Date: November 9th, 1968 (Japan)
Directed by: Hiroshi Matsuno
Written by: Kikuma Shimoiizaka, Kyūzō Kobayashi
Music by: Noboru Nishiyama
Cast: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, Masumi Okada, Nobuo Kaneko, Kō Nishimura

Shochiku, 80 Minutes

Review:

The Living Skeleton is two things: eerie and atmospheric. It also reminds me of the darker episodes of the Japanese TV show Ultra Q, which was like a Japanese X-Files, three decades before that show even existed.

But it is darker and more haunting than that show, as this isn’t geared towards a younger audience. And in fact, the opening scene is pretty violent stuff.

The film opens with modern pirates taking over a ship off the coast of Japan. The pirates murder the crew and passengers before getting away. As the film rolls on, we see that this incident has caused a lot of spiritual unrest in the afterlife and a balance must be restored.

The story is a mixture of a traditional ghost story and Japanese folklore tales. There are skeletons underwater, a girl possessed by her dead sister and a few other surprises throughout the film.

The effects are really good. Especially considering the time that this was made and for the fact that it was a Japanese picture with a modest budget. And while some moments look a bit hokey by today’s standards, it all still works and the chilling atmosphere wraps around you like a thick blanket on a wet, cold day.

I really enjoyed this and while a lot of the events in the film seem almost random, for those more clued in to Japanese folklore, it’s a really cool experience. The Japanese have always been extremely creative with the monsters that have cemented themselves in their culture. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject matter and they have so many ghosts, spirits and “yōkai” that are just really damn cool.

Japanese horror is a breed all its own. The classic stuff is really cool and very different than what America or Europe has pumped out for decades.

The Living Skeleton is a rather short motion picture but it does a great job of showcasing Japanese terror and fears in a variety of ways.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other Japanese fantasy horror of the ’60s and ’70s: House, Kwaidan, Onibaba and Attack of the Mushroom People, to name a few.

Film Review: Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Also known as: Les yeux sans visage (original title), House of Dr. Rasanoff (alternate title), The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (US dubbed version)
Release Date: January 11th, 1960 (France)
Directed by: Georges Franju
Written by: Georges Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet
Based on: Les yeux sans visage by Jean Redon
Music by: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel

Champs-Élysées Productions, Lux Film, Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France, 84 Minutes

Review:

“My face frightens me. My mask frightens me even more.” – Christiane Génessier

Eyes Without a Face isn’t what I would call a scary horror film, as much as I’d call it a chilling one.

It’s sad, it’s tragic, it has great atmosphere, solid cinematography and incredible performances and all that is really just the tip of the iceberg.

There is something deep and introspective in this motion picture. It’s unsettling but it’s somehow sweet in a very twisted way. Yet that sweetness comes naturally and while you should hate the antagonists of this film, you understand that the horrible things they do is out of love. That doesn’t excuse their horrible acts but for a horror film released in 1960, it makes you sympathize with evil, which wasn’t too common back then.

That being said, it’s still great to see the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end, especially since it comes at the hands of the one they loved most.

The story revolves around a surgeon and his daughter, who has had her face completely destroyed. In an effort to restore his daughter’s beauty, he has his female assistant lure in young girls only to abduct them and steal their face. A lot of the scenes are terrifying, as all the girls seem sweet and innocent, as you know that they are being pulled into something horrible.

What makes things more difficult, is that the disfigured daughter, Christiane, is also a sweet girl who exists within very tragic circumstances. She becomes aware of what’s happening and it’s a sad realization and hard to watch unfold on the screen. But Christiane’s face is obscured by an almost faceless mask for most of the film. Édith Scob was able to convey Christiane’s emotions quite well though, considering that all she had to work with were her eyes and body language.

The surgeon’s assistant is played by Alida Valli, who you will recognize from the original Suspiria, as well as the near perfect film-noir The Third Man. Valli gives a stupendous performance here as she uses her charm to trap the young girls and deliver them to the mad surgeon.

The film also has an incredibly effective and very unique score done by Maurice Jarre. It has a real contrast to the tone we see on screen, as the music is lighthearted and almost comical in certain moments. I think that it was used to make things purposely disjointed and more unsettling in specific scenes. It may seem out of place and strange at first glance but by the end of the film, it works amazingly well.

There are also a lot of really stellar shots in the film. The scene where we get a bit of the face reveal of Christiane, when she comes face to face with one of her father’s victims is incredibly powerful and creepy. Also, the scene of Christiane walking outside, after releasing the savage German Shepherds and caged doves is beautiful.

Eyes Without a Face is more of an experience than a movie. It probably won’t resonate with modern audiences as well as it did with people in 1960 but if you love a film with an interesting atmosphere and something with real emotional depth to it, then you’ll probably dig this picture.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: it’s pretty unique but I like watching this with 1962’s Carnival of Souls.