It's the first of Jess Franco's two Fu Manchu movies. Its reviews are toxic, but I thought it wasn't that bad. It's still a pointless mess, though.
What's good about it is its visuals. In certain ways (although not all), the film looks great. Most important is the setting. They shot it in Brazil. You've got tropical jungles, misty mountains and the most amazing governor's palace. This is exactly the kind of atmosphere I was saying I'd wanted more of from their Shanghai shooting last time with the Shaw brothers, except even more so. I loved that opening sequence with the jungle sounds.
I also quite liked Jess Franco's shooting style. It's possible for a horrible director to be able to frame interesting shots and it seems that Franco has a distinctive style. He's renowned for having directed nearly two hundred films (and counting) and there's a roughness about him that reminds me of Takashi Miike. It's the energy you get from shooting a ton of footage in next to no time. He'll crash zoom into the hero because he doesn't want to move the camera and do another take of the scene just for the sake of a conventional close-up, then zoom back out again as the scene continues. He'll find distinctive camera angles. He does close-ups so extreme that they're almost claustrophobic. I liked this a lot. Franco's certainly a million miles away from the dull cod-Hammer style that we'd been having earlier in the series.
Then there's the exploitation. I presume I watched the foreign cut of this film, since it seems a bit sleazy even before we get to the actual nudity. It's not the nipple count, but the general tone. Franco is a dirty old man. Look at the peek-a-boo outfits of Fu Manchu's beautiful prisoners. Look at that one girl's transparent green dress... okay, you were doing that anyway. Wow. You can't say that's not adding something to the movie.
Turning to other matters, for once Fu Manchu's henchmen are efficient, even impressive. Otherwise nothing else about this film is good.
The nearest you'll get to a point of interest is in the performances. It would be wrong to say that these are bad actors. It's not as simple as that. No one's horrible, while oddly the people who are technically giving the worst performances are also some of the most interesting to watch. Howard Marion-Crawford and Tsai Chin are excellent, although underused. Marion-Crawford in particular gets his best material to date and made me laugh with his Englishman Abroad routine. "No tea." Christopher Lee has clearly stopped caring and thinks the series has become a load of rubbish (which is fair), although it's also possible that his woodenness in that big opening sequence is partly due to Franco's rushed shooting style. He's still failing with the worst of Harry Alan Towers's declamatory dialogue, though. "The moon is full. The moon of life."
Of the guest stars, Gotz George is the token German and a waste of space. Maria Rohm is giving the film's best performance when she's listening to other people, but occasionally leaves a lot to be desired when it's her turn to speak. (Yes, it's the same Maria Rohm we saw two films ago in the series. Still married to Harry Alan Towers.) Shirley Eaton pops up, shortly before her retirement from the industry. Most interesting of all though is Ricardo Palacios as Sancho Lopez, who takes a one-dimensional stock bandit and turns him into this fat, jolly, self-obsessed thug who's full of personality and kind of fascinating. He's great to watch, but only for about five minutes. After that, you start to realise that he's acting on his own. I didn't believe he was really talking to Maria Rohm during their big scene together, for instance. He's good opposite Fu Manchu, but otherwise he's just an annoying oaf who's not finding the drama in his scenes and doing nothing for the story.
Oh, and they've got a new Nayland Smith. He's Richard Greene, who played Robin Hood on TV in the 1950s. He's okay, although the youngest-looking Nayland Smith I'd seen so far, but he's sidelined.
The story, though. Sweet heavens, the story. I don't blame Jess Franco, although he clearly wasn't helping. No, this is Harry Alan Towers's anti-triumph. It's not horrible, but it has no forward momentum and instead can be summarised as people doing stuff in Brazil for an hour and a half. Fu Manchu has a plan for evil, but it has almost nothing to do with anything that happens. Nayland Smith gets shoved out of the story. Gotz George fails to take his place. Palacios does bandit things. Almost nothing happens and the whole thing's so pointless that I failed to notice that a chunk of the film has apparently been stolen from another Franco-Towers film, The Girl from Rio. I don't mean that they merely stole the plot, but that they've actually spliced in quite a long scene from it. Why? Don't ask me. Maybe it's just that Franco and/or Towers were hacks?
Oh, and the plot device is effectively magic. They'd have had a better film if they'd admitted this and turned Fu Manchu into an Oriental magician. You see, it seems that the Incas had a snake that can bite a woman without any harm to her at all, but then any man she kisses will go blind and die. Nayland Smith though will go blind and yet, without explanation, be capable of flying from London to South America and then of travelling into the jungle. Curious. All the other men snuffed it. We later discover that this poison kills its victims at midnight. Look out also for the immediate 100% curative powers of what looks like about a teaspoon of blood.
Franco also deserves further brickbats. He's slapping together footage without worrying about whether it makes a story or not. Note for instance the scene where Marion-Crawford fumbles his line and rescues himself half a second later, but Franco just puts it in the film. He's also taking no interest at all in action scenes, which I swear must have taken all of half an hour to shoot. A couple of vague wide shots and lots of extreme close-ups. That's enough, isn't it? You can edit something out of that. It won't be visually clear, but the audience should get the idea.
This film is not good. Towers was taking the piss by this point and it's a pretty sad effort, all things considered, but it does manage (if you're not watching the British cut) to be vaguely lurid trash. Franco's sleaze helps the film. Note the way in which for no reason at all, Maria Rohm's top becomes skimpier for the finale, while more dodgily there are at least three offscreen rapes. Brazil also looks magnificent. I love Brazil. Nevertheless this is a film that most people hate and it's not hard to see why. I liked it a lot more than is sensible and even I found it a bit dull.
"Cold tea, no horses. I wonder why I go abroad."