Cult fans assemble. Sci fi crime thriller with for the time a fair sprinkling of nudity, and channelling psychedelic turns like Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1968) and one step up from the ultra-confident gals of Deadlier than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969). It would have helped if there was a decent plot, and not just a barrage of double-crossing halfway in, but you can’t have everything and director Jess Franco seems to believe that the presence of a tribe of women decked out in red capes, white knee-length boots and not necessarily much in between, goes some way to compensate.
Crook Jeff Sutton (Richard Stapley) holes up in Rio with $10 million in stolen cash, unaware that his presence has already been noted by gang boss Masius (George Sanders) and local ultra-feminist Sununda (Shirley Eaton). After hooking up with manicurist Lesley (Maria Rohm), Sutton is set upon by Masius’ henchmen but escapes in a plane to Femina, “the capital city of the world of women,” a female fortress along the lines of the Bulldog Drummond pictures.
Turns out Sununda is partial to men with piles of cash, kidnapping and torturing them until they hand it over. So she can’t believe her luck when millionaire Jeff walks into her lair. Except Jeff is a bit of a fibber, having made up the story about the ten million, and instead landing at Femina in order to rescue Ulla (Marta Reves).
The plot only really kicks in when he escapes. Masius agrees to help Jeff in return for the pretend-thief helping him hijack Sununda’s vault of gold. In reality, Masius is using Jeff as bait, to tempt Sununda down from the clouds, and then turn him over in exchange for just half her gold. And so it’s back to Femina for all concerned.
There’s no real pretence at the kind of sci-fi that enthralled Barbarella audiences and none of the slick campness of Danger:Diabolik, and most of the ideas seem still-born and occasionally contradictory – in order to enslave men women must first be taught how to be irresistible to them – torture is accomplished either by whispering or kissing, and the ray-guns employed looked like cast-offs from the 1950s, but the regiment of women, with spies infiltrating everywhere, led by the ruthless Sununda, have the makings of a warrior nation.
The movie has far better luck with Masius, a splendidly-drawn character who doodles on restaurant tablecloths, enjoys reading Popeye comic books, and – a bit of drawback for a man in his profession – can’t stand the sight of blood. While his sidekicks are mostly incompetent, they do drive around in hearses that resemble pagodas or dress in unnecessary masks and while his girlfriends appear docile they are in fact spies. And there’s a spot of waterboarding in case you ever wondered where the American secret services got the idea.
The source material was from Sax Rohmer but Sununda lacks the inherent obvious evil of the author’s more successful Fu Manchu series, Shirley Eaton no match for Christopher Lee, the most recent Fu Manchu, nor Richard Shapley on a par with Fu Manchu nemesis Nayland Smith, regardless of whether played by Nigel Green (The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965), Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) or Richard Greene (The Blood of Fu Manchu, 1968, and The Castle of Fu Manchu, 1969).
And anyone attracted to the picture by director Jess (Jesus) Franco is going to be disappointed by the lack of sleaziness he exhibited in pictures like Succubus (1968), 99 Women (1969) and Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) and there’s not enough style, though abundant campness, to make up. It’s hard to say quite why it did not have a harder edge, perhaps producer Harry Alan Towers, responsible for 99 Women, felt it should err in the softer direction of Fu Manchu than the overt sex-and-violence of the nascent women-in-prison genre.
Franco and Towers (24 Hours to Kill, 1965, and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) had collaborated on The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu as well as Venus in Furs (1969) and Marquis De Sade’s Justine so presumably knew how far they could go and decided that here it was better to rein in Franco’s tendencies. Whether a tougher-edged approach would have made much of a difference given the indifferent playing – neither Shirley Eaton (The Scorpio Letters, 1967) nor Richard Stapley (Two Guns and a Coward, 1968) bring much to the leading roles and George Sanders (Warning Shot, 1967) is not in it enough to save it. Maria Rohm, Franco’s wife, appeared in many of his films.
Towers appeared on surer ground in the likes of 24 Hours to Kill (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) and Five Golden Dragons (1967) when he could draw on a more interesting cast, better stories and more colourful locations. This was a sequel to The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) again with Shirley Eaton and plum role for Klaus kinski.
Despite the film’s potential, the director and George Sanders it does not fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category nor has enough going for it to be labelled a true cult film. But I could be wrong in both those assumptions.