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Christopher Lee's career in films spans some four or five decades by now. Filmgoers, especially fans of Hammer horror, widely consider him to be one of the acting greats. Lee's appearance in the Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy certainly hasn't hurt his reputation any. I can't recall seeing him turn in a poor performance in any film, no matter how low the budget, how bad the script, or how incompetent the filmmaker. Jess Franco's "The Blood of Fu Manchu" serves as an excellent example of a pitiful film made better by the presence of the immensely talented Christopher Lee. Sadly, the words "pitiful" and "Jess Franco" often go together like ice cream and cones. He's made a few good films over the decades, "Faceless" and "Vampyros Lesbos" among them, but far too often he churns out the worst sort of schlocky dreck. Not that I care, actually, since I'll watch almost any bad film at least once, but it's extremely difficult to stomach the idea of Christopher Lee appearing in a Jess Franco film. The only reason I can think of why Lee agreed to do the picture is that he desperately needed the paycheck. He apparently needed more than one since he also did another Fu Manchu film with Franco.
Fu Manchu, it turns out, is a master criminal operating on a global scale. He's always coming up with some wacky plot to topple a government, kill world leaders, or do battle with his archnemesis Nayland Smith (Richard Greene). Sometimes he combines all three into one foolproof plan for world domination. In "The Blood of Fu Manchu," our villain figures out a way to turn a bevy of beautiful women into carriers of a deadly ancient poison. Fu Manchu, with the help of his ruthless daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), then plans on sending these girls to every leader in the western world so that a single kiss will deliver the venomous payload. Oddly, we don't see any western leaders topple over dead. The only person to suffer the detrimental effects of Manchu's plot is Nayland Smith who, even more oddly, doesn't die immediately but instead goes blind. So much for the effectiveness of the poison, eh? Nayland's aide de camp Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion) offers up an explanation: in a few rare cases, a person poisoned with this venom goes blind first and then dies later. Whew! Thank goodness for small favors! Now we know that Nayland Smith has a narrow window of time to track down Fu Manchu and find the antidote.
Happily, Nayland Smith hasn't been sitting around doing nothing while Fu Manchu plotted to kill him. He knows an archeologist named Carl (Gotz George) who stumbled over the location of the cave where Manchu is hiding. An ambush in the jungle nearly claims Carl's life, but he escapes in time to hook up with a local village doctor named Ursula Wagner (Maria Rohm) and thus launch a vendetta against Manchu. As Nayland Smith begins the arduous journey to the jungle and his rendezvous with Fu Manchu, Carl and Ursula run into a few problems. The primary obstacle is a bandit chieftain named Sancho Lopez (Ricardo Palacios) and his band of merry misfits. These thugs terrorize the countryside in search of plunder, killing and maiming anyone who gets in their way. Lopez tries to terrorize Wagner's daughter, but she convinces him to join in the hunt for Fu Manchu. Problem is, Manchu's minions capture Lopez and turn him to the dark side of the force with the help of torture. The obligatory battle between good and evil at the conclusion is hardly a surprise. I could go on but there really isn't any point in doing so. "The Blood of Fu Manchu" is an incredibly cheesy picture suffering under a plethora of problems.
The only reason to watch this film is to see Lee disappear into the role of Fu Manchu. Well, that and the good effort Tsai Chin puts into playing Manchu's icy daughter. The primary problem I had with the film revolves around the Sancho Lopez character. He seems superfluous, there only to help pad out the run time. Moreover, he's one of the most irritating secondary characters in the history of B budget cinema. The character is grossly overweight, which seems strange for a bandit leader who must move quickly through the countryside if he wishes to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Also, how can he defend his position as gang leader when someone fights him for it? What's he gonna do, fall on them? It gets worse. He's decked out in this ridiculous ensemble that includes a supercheesy hat and what looks like cap pistols for side arms. He looks like an evil Chris Farley. And that laugh! Oh brother! I could fill whole pages about this guy's massively annoying laugh. I suspect it's supposed to sound rather evil and threatening, but since he seems to laugh nearly every second of his screen time it comes off as grating--like fingernails on a chalkboard grating. With so much attention focused on the antics of Sancho Lopez, it's easy to forget that nothing really happens in the film, or that when it does happen it occurs amidst very cheap set pieces. Look at those flimsy cell bars!
There are more extras on the disc than you would think. The DVD version offers trailers, stills, an easter egg, and a text article about the original Fu Manchu stories penned by author Sax Rohmer (which definitely sound more interesting than this film). Surprisingly, the disc also contains short interviews with Jess Franco, Tsai Chin, and Christopher Lee. The excellent picture transfer and care taken with the extras makes me think this film has a cult following. If so, I apologize to the fans, but I don't see the magic here. I'll stick with Lee's better gigs and Franco's better pictures.