Christopher Lee- a thespian whose career has more peaks and valleys than the Andes, and has sunken to deeper lows than the most hearty of sub-aquatic machinations. While the man is the undisputed reigning king of horror (Vincent Price passed that mantle on when he passed), it's hard to look back at the dozens upon dozens of films Lee has appeared in without noticing that the dogs outweigh the gems by ten to one. Of course, redemption has come at the twilight of the master's career, sporting meaty roles in both Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Star Wars Episodes V and IV, but, aside from his turns in many (most?) of Hammer's classics, Lee has been a journeyman of sorts, and, at some of the darker times, living from paycheque to paycheque by appearing in some questionable films. Lee's collaborations with Jesus Franco yielded some mixed results, the better of which are feature in the new Christopher Lee Collection from Blue Underground. While titles such as The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Bloody Judge may not bring to mind Lee's finest hours, happening upon them again, with the full benefit of the Blue Underground treatment behind them, turned out to be quite the pleasureable experience, and certainly more entertaining than Count Dooku!
Blue Underground presents three Lee collaborations with Franco; The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and the Bloody Judge , each available separately, as well as a special boxed set which features a fourth film exclusive to this collection, the vastly underappreciated Circus of Fear. For hardcore Lee fans, the boxed set is the way to go, and, to be quite honest, features the best film of the lot in Circus of Fear.
First up, The Blood of Fu Manchu: The fourth chapter of the highly popular series gets a Franco infusion, which, as Franco fans know, means a little more gore, a lot more nudity, and a trace of sado-masochism that is the hallmark of the director's style. This entry takes place in Brazil (although Lee's segments were shot entirely on a soundstage in Spain) and features more sub-plots than an episode of Murder She Wrote, almost negating Fu Manchu's rather late involvement in the proceedings. It's not a bad film, but it's so slap-dash that one can't help to wonder if Franco and co. worked from a script or just made it up as they went along.
Things get slightly worse in The Castle of Fu Manchu in which the Asian madman plots to freeze the Earth's oceans. Castle may be worse than Blood in terms of it being a "proper" film, but it's so side-splittingly bad and silly that it's a hoot, and worth a watch. Look for the stock footage scenes of destruction and marvel at Franco's ability to cut corners! I actually preffered this film, simply because it made me laugh out loud throughout. A priceless "bad movie" for bad movie lovers the world over.
The exclusive boxed-set only Circus of Fear is a very solid entry, and (surprise) the only one not marred by the presence of Franco. Director John Moxey combines the basic elements of a heist film with some prototypical slasher bits, and the results are an effective and enjoyable bit of British crime/drama. The film opens with a bank heist, and then follows the ill-gotten funds through a complex web of deciept and murder, until the cash ends up in the hands of a disgruntled lion tamer (Lee). Circus of Fear is good, solid fun, and a nice break from the low-budget rush-jobs of the Franco Fu Manchu films.
Now, as much as I like to slam ol' Jesus, I do have to admit that his The Bloody Judge is one of my favourites in his ouevre'. It's a bit of a hybrid of The Conqueror Worm (aka; Witchfinder General) and the typical Franco boobs and blood bath, but, in this case, Franco was given a decent budget and actual time to make the film. The results are quite impressive, and make me wonder what Franco could accomplish with a regular slate of mid-range budgeted films. Lee plays Lord George Jeffreys, a bloodthirsty witch hunter with a taste for torture. While the film holds back on the usually abundant amount of Franco sleaze, there are a few gratuitous moments in this uncut version that Franco fans will rejoice at their inclusion.
The Blue Underground Boxed Set is a completely loaded affair, and features scads of interviews, trailers, posters and stills galleries, and a commentary track by Moxey for Circus of Fear. The widescreen transfers are GORGEOUS, and simply pristine, which is always a plus, especially in Franco films which are usually shot on soundstages and dressed up colourfully in theatrical garb. The Dolby Mono soundtracks are servicable, although occasional distortion does foul up the mix in Circus of Fear, but, overall, things sound fairly clear. I'd suggest disabling any artificial surround sound systems, however, as that seemed to clean up the dialogue and balance the music better.
While these aren't the best offerings Blue Underground have sent our way, it's also important to note that I'm not the biggest fan of Jess Franco's stuff. While this may be called the Christopher Lee Collection, three quarters of it was helmed by Franco, and fans of the director should seek these titles out post-haste. They look fantastic, and, for the money, this extras-laden four DVD set is quite a bargain indeed.