Saturday, December 8, 2012

Warner Archive Roundup

A look at some cult classics and forgotten gems recently made available through Warner Archive (www.warnerarchive.com).

(UK - 1965)

Having already played the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, Sir Henry Baskerville, Sherlock Holmes, and most importantly, Dracula among other assorted heroes, villains, and red herrings, 43-year-old Christopher Lee was well into his prime as a leading horror icon when he starred in the first of five Fu Manchu thrillers for prolific producer Harry Alan Towers.  Franchise kickoff THE FACE OF FU MANCHU is generally regarded as the best, and while it doesn't overtly copy them, there's certainly an argument to be made that it's at least somewhat inspired by the huge success of the James Bond series despite its 1920s period setting.  The nefarious supervillain Fu Manchu (Lee) fakes his own execution to throw his Scotland Yard arch-nemesis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green, a terrific character actor who could rival Lee in the "bellowing pomposity" department) off his trail, leaving him free to abduct Professor Muller (Walter Rilla) and his daughter Maria (Karin Dor) in order to force Muller to develop a powerful poppy-based toxin that could wipe out the world.  Smith teams up with pathologist Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) and Muller's associate Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) to thwart Fu Manchu's diabolical scheme.  Written by Towers under the pseudonym "Peter Welbeck" and well-directed by Don Sharp, FACE is an enjoyable if unspectacular thriller, a bit ploddingly paced but with some scattered effective moments.  Green carries most of the film and while Lee is an imposing presence, his performance is a bit dull and he's not in it as much as you'd think (there's a reason Lee's done so many movies--he only spent a few days on most of them).  Considering the time in which it was made, it's played surprisingly straight with very little in the way of campy silliness, though some of the Asian eye makeup and stereotypes (Nayland Smith has a meek female servant named "Lotus"?) haven't aged particularly well.  Warner Archive's DVD looks quite nice at 2.40:1.  The film was a huge hit at the box office and, in accordance with Fu Manchu's promise at the end ("The world shall hear from me again!"), would lead to Towers producing four sequels, with Lee, Marion-Crawford, and Tsai Chin (as Fu Manchu's evil daughter Lin Tang) returning for all of them.  (Unrated, 96 mins)

(UK - 1967)

THE FACE OF FU MANCHU was followed in 1966 by the more lively THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU, which Warner released on DVD in 2008 as part of a "Horror Double Feature" set with the 1966 late-night TV cult favorite CHAMBER OF HORRORS.  That DVD is now out of print, so it's odd that Warner Archive didn't re-release BRIDES to go along with FACE and 1967's THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU. Picking up right where FACE left off, BRIDES essentially follows the same template, with Fu Manchu (Lee settled into the role and plays it with considerably more gusto in BRIDES) planning to rule the world through some convoluted plot involving the requisite abducted professor and his fetching daughter, a bunch of brainwashed young women, and radio signals, and once again being pursued by Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer replaced Nigel Green) and his sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford), and promising "The world shall hear from me again!" when his plans are thwarted and his stronghold explodes.

In VENGEANCE, the third and most violent entry in the series, Fu Manchu isn't trying to take over the world. Instead, he and daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) are assembling a crew of powerful criminals from all over the globe to establish a super-syndicate to bring down Nayland Smith (Wilmer). Of course, this still involves him abducting yet another doctor--this time a surgeon (Wolfgang Kieling)--and his daughter (Suzanne Roquette). Fu Manchu forces the surgeon to transform a convicted murderer into a double of Nayland Smith, who's promptly kidnapped and shipped off to Shanghai while his double takes his place in London. It doesn't take long for Dr. Petrie (Marion-Crawford) to notice that his BFF doesn't seem quite right, and sure enough, the double kills Nayland Smith's Asian housekeeper Jasmin (apparently "Lotus" moved on to a better job), and goes on trial for murder. Producer Harry Alan Towers, again scripting as "Peter Welbeck," errs in having Lee, Wilmer, and the delirious central plot take a backseat to uninteresting supporting characters, like various gangsters (Horst Frank and Peter Carsten), an FBI agent (Noel Trevarthan), a Shanghai detective (Tony Ferrer) and a sultry nightclub singer (Maria Rohm, Towers' wife). Towers seems to have spent most of the budget on Lee (who's absent for long stretches) and some location shooting in Hong Kong, but other than some occasional attractive exteriors, Towers and director Jeremy Summers don't really take advantage of it visually. VENGEANCE, presented by Warner Archive at 1.66:1 anamorphic, looks a bit cheaper than its predecessors and the film's best aspect is the impressively majestic score by Malcolm Lockyer, which has a real Basil Poledouris kind of grandiosity to it. SPOILER ALERT: Fu Manchu's stronghold blows up at the end and he promises that the world shall hear from him again. After this, the series took a total nosedive, crashing and burning once Towers moved the operation to Spain and brought the zoom-happy Jess Franco onboard to direct Lee and Richard Greene as Nayland Smith in the dismal THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) and the unwatchable MST3K staple THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969), neither of which were handled by Warner Bros but were released on DVD by Blue Underground if you're so masochistically inclined. (Unrated, 91 mins)

(UK - 1967)

Writer/director Michael Reeves was hailed as a bold new voice in British horror when he died at just 25 from an accidental barbiturate overdose in 1969.  He had three films to his credit, including what was ultimately his last, the 1968 masterpiece WITCHFINDER GENERAL.  THE SORCERERS was his second effort, and while it's a marked improvement over his shaky 1966 debut THE SHE-BEAST, it demonstrates a young, albeit very promising, filmmaker still finding his way.  In one of his last roles, Boris Karloff is Dr. Monserrat, an elderly hypnotist who has created a powerful mind-control device with his devoted wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey).  Their unwitting guinea pig is Mike (Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy), a somber young antiques dealer (his shop is rather unfortunately named The Glory Hole) who's grown bored with the Mod scene in swinging 1960s London.  With Mike under their control via scientifically-enhanced psychic link, Dr. Monserrat and his wife can vicariously experience youth once more, but that's not enough for Estelle.  The ability to control Mike is like a drug and brings out her dark side, first with driving the young man to break into a store and steal an expensive fur coat, and escalating all the way to a cold-blooded killing spree.  Dr. Monserrat is appalled by his wife's crazed behavior and the revelation that she's an absolute monster, but he's powerless to stop her after she beats him with his cane, restrains him, and destroys the mind-control device when he threatens to deprogram Mike and go to the police.  THE SORCERERS has a lot of interesting ideas, but it's stymied somewhat by its obviously paltry budget, some very choppy editing, and some almost laughable Austin Powers-esque trippy, zoomy, strobe-lit freakout shots during Mike's mind-control procedure.  Despite its fairly short running time, it still drags a bit and is padded with lots of vintage footage of the 1967 London scene, with a few musical interludes for singer Toni Daly at the club frequented by Mike and his girlfriend (Elizabeth Ercy) and their third-wheel friend Alan (Victor Henry).  The story is probably more suited for a TWILIGHT ZONE episode than a feature film.  Reeves was well on his way, however, firing on all cylinders the next year with the bleak and disturbing WITCHFINDER GENERAL, and was prepping the Vincent Price/Christopher Lee summit THE OBLONG BOX when he died (Gordon Hessler replaced him).  There's no way of knowing where Reeves' career would've gone, but with three major cult films under his belt at the time of his passing, the possibilities were endless and he's taken on a sort-of James Dean reverence with fans of that era of British horror.  Warner Archive's edition of THE SORCERERS presents the film in 1.78:1 anamorphic, and though it's very watchable, it looks pretty battered at times.  Definitely worth seeing for Reeves or British horror completists, and Karloff is excellent, which should surprise no one.  (Unrated, 86 mins)

(Italy - 1970)

This train-robbery spaghetti western, directed by American journeyman Don Taylor (ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, DAMIEN: OMEN II) and co-written by Dario Argento, vanished for decades before being occasionally resurrected for night-owl showings on TCM.  THE FIVE MAN ARMY features an eclectic cast headlined by Peter Graves, James Daly, Bud Spencer, Nino Castelnuovo, and Tetsuro Tamba, with Eurocult fixtures like Claudio Gora, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, and Marino Mase in smaller roles. It takes a while to get going, is quite pedestrian in the first half, and features one of Ennio Morricone's most derivative, recycled scores, but once the titular motley crew get on the train, this really kicks into gear and turns into a very good genre offering. There's one amazing suspense set piece involving Tamba, and it's very impressive the way the actors (especially Daly and Castelnuovo) are obviously doing a lot of their own stunt work, under and on the train. If you get through the often-tedious first half, the second half of this thematic relative of Sergio Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER and Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is really good stuff.  Warner Archive's DVD is 1.85:1 anamorphic and looks very nice. (PG, 110 mins)

(UK - 1971)

Starting with GET CARTER, the 1970s were a time of extraordinarily mean British crime thrillers and the WHITE HEAT-inspired VILLAIN is one of the meanest.  Richard Burton is psychopathic East End crime kingpin Vic Dakin, who's introduced giving someone a Glasgow Grin before going home to sweetly dote on his elderly mum (Cathleen Nesbitt).  Most of the film deals with the ramifications of a botched heist and the dogged efforts of detective Matthews (Nigel Davenport) to put Dakin and his crew out of business.  But there's also a subplot dealing with the homosexual Dakin's sadomasochistic relationship with bisexual small-time pimp and drug pusher Wolfe (Ian McShane).  Director Michael Tuchner (who went on to a long career in TV movies like 1983's ADAM) capably demonstrates it without getting explicit (apparently, Burton and McShane shot a sex scene that was cut prior to release), but for the time and the mindset of that era (and yet another case of a closeted homosexual being portrayed as a crazed, mother-fixated psycho), it's still pretty strange seeing the tough, strutting Burton pleading "I need you, Wolfie," and getting all bitchy and bellowing "Get out of here!  SLAG!"  when his time with "Wolfie" is interrupted by one of the latter's girls on the side (Fiona Lewis). The script was written mostly by the veteran team of Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement, who've worked together since the 1960s all the way up to recent films like ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) and Jason Statham's 1970s throwback film THE BANK JOB (2008), after they reworked a first script by, of all people, actor Al Lettieri, best known as Corleone rival Sollozzo in THE GODFATHER (Lettieri retains a separate "Adapted by" credit).  Also featuring the great British character actors Joss Ackland (LETHAL WEAPON 2) and T.P. McKenna (STRAW DOGS), VILLAIN is presented by Warner Archive in a 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer that's a bit worn-looking but overall perfectly acceptable.  (R, 98 mins)

(UK - 1972)

Another post-GET CARTER chronicle of British badassery, the practically forgotten SITTING TARGET, a semi-remake in some ways of John Boorman's 1967 classic POINT BLANK, has Oliver Reed, Ian McShane, and Freddie Jones busting out of prison after Reed loses his shit over long-suffering wife Jill St. John (looking great after her career-best work in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER but really struggling with a British accent) revealing she's pregnant by another man and wants a divorce.  Jones goes his separate way, and Reed's only reason for living is to get to St. John and kill her.  But longtime pal McShane suggests they track down their old boss Frank Finlay and get the money he owes them from a previous job, which sets in motion a chain of backstabbing and double-crosses.  A marvelously bleak and downbeat piece of work, SITTING TARGET is anchored by a searing performance by Reed, who rages through this thing like a man possessed.  Also featuring a great supporting cast populated by the likes of Edward Woodward, Robert Beatty, Tony Beckley, and Jill Townsend, SITTING TARGET is presented by Warner Archive in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that shows its age, but looks fine.  (R, 93 mins)

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