The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) ****

The 1960s was awash with movie megalomaniacs, most courtesy of the spy vogue. You could also count on secret agents for trailing in their wake bevies of beauties. So no surprise then that criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has his own gang, his “brides,” although they are hardly volunteers, being the kidnapped daughters of top scientists. His plan for global domination this time consists of transmitting energy as sound waves, using miniaturization, a sonic death ray, with enough power to destroy a city.

The result is good hokum, a thriller set in the 1920s with a cracking pace, plenty of action, explosions, burgeoning romance, and  plot that gets more complicated by the minute as a tribe of worthies try out to outwit the evil genius. There is a terrific lair – where the disobedient end up in a snake pit – a passable laboratory, chases, truth serums (“the dust that loosens tongues”), hypnotism, bait-and-switch tricks and decent special effects.  Three stories race along in a parallel pell-mell: Manchu needs one more kidnapping to complete his complement of daughters; the good guys headed by Fu Manchu’s old adversary Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer) are trying to locate the bad guy’s secret location while at the same time attempting to find out where he will strike next. 

While Fu Manchu is indestructible – supposed dead after the previous film – his henchmen (and henchwomen) are all too human. It takes three attempts to kidnap Manchu’s next victim. They are easily identifiable by their giveaway cummerbunds and bandannas and their method of assault is not kung fu but brawling so a good solid British punch of the old-school soon sorts them out. Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) is a chip off the old block, delighted at any opportunity to torment the brides.  

The brides wear diaphanous gowns that might have been a job-lot from the set of She, but are far from compliant, even rebelling at one point, and employing vicious fight tactics. Fans of director Don Sharp will find him every bit as inventive as in The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead. It’s another Harry Alan Towers (written under his pseudonym Peter Welbeck) production so that means an international cast. Two television cops, British Rupert Davies (BBC’s Maigret) and German Heinz Drache (cop in a Francis Durbridge series), plus Francois Mitterand’s brother-in-law Roger Hanin, provide solid support. Not forgetting Burt Kwouk as a henchman. Brides of the Year include French Marie Versini (German western Winnetou, 1963) and Rhodesian Carole Gray (Curse of the Fly, 1965). The film did not prove much of a jumping-off point for other brides such as Ulla Berglin, Danielle Defrere and Anje Langstraat, for whom this debut was as far as their careers went.

Christopher Lee, despite the dodgy moustache, is resplendent, exuding evil, and with a gift for rising again (just like Dracula) as he would do for another three films in the series.

Note: The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead are reviewed on this blog.

The Skull (1965) *****

I have no idea why this masterpiece has not been acclaimed. For virtually half the picture, there is no dialogue, the entire focus on camerawork and reaction. Even Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) gave in to grand guignol and The Exorcist (1973) was filled with over-the-top scenes but here the psychological impact of possession remains confined.

Initially, it appears we are in familiar Hammer territory, a grave-robber detaching a skull from a corpse only to meet an untimely end. There is another flashback to the gothic where the presence of the skull drives an ordinary man to murder. But this is an Amicus production and set in contemporary times with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing once again in opposition, but this time only in an auction house bidding for demonic artefacts. Exposition is straightforward. A dealer (Patrick Wymark) sells Cushing a book about De Sade bound in human skin. Wymark may be a con man. He claims to possess the skull of the Marquis de Sade but his attitude towards it, kissing its head, plucking its nose socket, and the fact that he willing to halve his asking price, suggest otherwise. Lee, who once owned the skull, warns Cushing against it.

The rest of the film covers Cushing’s possession of the skull and the skull’s possession of him. There is a notable Kafkaesque sequence where Cushing is arrested, taken before a judge and forced three times to play Russian roulette before ending up in the house of the dealer where he steals the skull. What is less often commented upon is that this nigh-on 15-minute sequence including a 90-second taxi ride conducted in virtual silence, the camera mostly on Cushing’s face, that silence only broken by the feeding of bullets into the barrel of the gun and the barrel being rolled round. It is not long before Cushing commits his first murder.

There is a famous scene in the Last Tycoon (1976) in which Robert De Niro explains to a truculent word-obsessed British writer why dialogue is redundant in the movies. All you need is camera and reaction. That sets up The Skull’s greatest scene, a 17-minute dialogue-free climax, where Cushing is effectively preyed upon and consumed. The skull itself appears to have a point-of-view, various shots of Cushing through the skull’s eyes. The actual special effects are limited to what is imminently achievable, the skulls glows, it moves through the air. The impact of its presence is shown on Cushing’s face and by his action. It is just hypnotic.

Various directors have been anointed for the way they move their camera – Antonioni’s 360-degree turn in The Passenger (1975) comes to mind, large chunks of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the long wait for sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the lengthy shots of James Stewart driving a car in Vertigo (1958). But I have never seen anything as innovative as the silent sequences in The Skull which would be a waste of innovation were the sequences not so effective, especially on the small screen. Freddie Francis directed from a story by Robert Bloch. Equally innovative is the jarring music by avant-garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Gorgon (1964) ****

This impressive Hammer conspiracy-of-silence slow-burner, more thriller than horror, features the triumvirate of Christopher Lee (The Devil Ship Pirates, 1964), Peter Cushing (The Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 1960) in untypical roles. Lee and Cushing, of course, had locked horns before, namely in Hammer’s reimagining of the classic Dracula, with the former the charismatic fiend and the latter his nemesis.

Here Cushing is a  doctor in a an unnamed European turn-of-the-twentieth-century police state who knows more than he is letting on about seven inexplicable deaths in five years and the possibility of a 2,000-year-old myth coming to life and taking on a human form. And with quite a human side, jealous when his assistant Steele falls for a younger man. Lee is a professor coming late in the day to investigate. Steele, a gentle beauty, initially introduced as merely the love interest, becomes central to the story but without sucking up all the available horror oxygen by over-acting.   

Director Terence Fisher, who had shepherded the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dr Jekyll franchises through the starting gate, builds up the atmosphere with full moons, haunting voices, fog, sudden sounds, drifting leaves and an abandoned castle forever in shadow. The camera is often a weapon of stealth. Shock is kept to a minimum, fleeting ghostly apparitions and a finger falling off a corpse. Given the limitations of special effects in this era, that was a smart move. Far better to concentrate on fear of impending doom, a man knowing he is turning to stone, a woman living in terror of being taken over by the phantom. The title gives away the story somewhat – even if you didn’t know the Gorgon was a mythical monster with a headful of snakes and the ability to turn people to stone, that is soon explained. 

Death remains the trigger for action, the suicide of an artist after he has apparently murdered his pregnant girlfriend bringing his father onto the scene and then his brother accompanied by Lee. But all investigation hits a wall of silence after police chief (Patrick Troughton) refuses to instigate detection. At the heart of all the relationships is betrayal. The artist leading his girlfriend on, Cushing willing to endanger Steele, whom he professes to love, rather than revealing the truth. Even Steele spies on the brother, with whom she is falling in love, in order to gather information for Cushing. 

Forgive the pun, but Steele steals the picture. An amnesiac, a victim and finally the lure, she remains enigmatic, a whisper of a woman. It is a haunting portrayal far removed from Hammer’s traditional cleavage queens. This is a very human character who nonetheless must stand guard over herself. Cushing embroiders his character with little touches, smoking a cigarette in a holder, for example, but Steele’s character, her distrust of herself, shows in every move she makes.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Marketing: Black Stamps

You might be tempted to fork out for the range of James Bond Commemorative Stamps being brought out to celebrate No Time to Die when it eventually sees the light of day on movie screens.

But stamps either as collector’s items or for trading purposes have been around since the silent era.  A line of movie commemorative stamps issued in America in 1944 sold 1.1 million first day covers, the second highest-ever at the time, and in the late 1950s Movie Stamps Inc set up a business that worked in the same way as the Green Stamps given away in supermarkets and gas stations. In this system, if you collected enough you won a gift, usually, in regards to the movie business, a couple of free tickets.

So Columbia Pictures looking for a way to sell its Hammer double bill The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) starring the lesser-known Terence Morgan revived the idea.

Horror specialist Hammer was one of the British film studios going through a production boom – over 100 movies were being made in that country in that year – with The Secret of Blood Island (1965) in the works for Universal and She for MGM. But horror was still a difficult sell and Hammer had ignored the advice of Variety that The Gorgon would work best if teamed with “a lively comedy.”

American International had expanded the horror market away from the Frankenstein/Dracula axis by exploiting the Edgar Allan Poe back catalog and William Castle had achieved some success in modern tales of terror such as Dementia 13 (1963) and The Night Stalker (1964). But Castle could call upon the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, players with substantial marquee status despite their lately diminished careers, for radio and television interviews.

For Hammer the obvious exploitation options were limited to a spread in the quarterly Castle of Frankenstein magazine which could be purchased for 35 cents at newsstands.

So the marketing honchos dusted off the old movie stamps idea. In some advertisements, the studio offered free stamps to the first 10,000 ticket-buyers but in the advertisement shown above they appeared to be given away free to everyone. The faces of the various monsters and characters featured in both films were imprinted on the stamps. However, on the debit side, there was no sign of any redemption for the collected cards. You couldn’t, should you be so inclined, collect ten and get a guest ticket in return. You could probably trade them and build up a collection. I’m not sure they did much for the movie judging by the box office accounts that exist but if anyone remembers seeing them or collecting them let me know.

Sources: “Film Industry New 3c Stamps Sets Record,” Variety, Nov 15, 1944, 1; “Tease-In Kids with Movie Star Stamps,” Variety, Aug 21, 1957, 20; “Premium Stamp Set Up,” Variety, Aug 20, 1958, 7; Review of The Gorgon, Variety, Aug 26, 1964, 6;  advert, Box Office, Nov 16, 1964, 2; “Film Plugs and Pluggers,” Variety, December 30, 1964, 21; Mark Thomas McGee, Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks, p125-131.