Cast & Crew
Following the hold-up of an armored truck, some stolen bank notes show up at the winter quarters of Barberini's Circus, and Scotland Yard's Inspector Elliott is sent to investigate. The murdered body of one of the robbers is found, and a short time later Gina, a circus starlet, also is slain. The chief suspects are: Gregor, the lion tamer, who wears a black mask to conceal his disfigured face; Carl, the ringmaster, who believes his father was killed by Gregor's twin brother; Mario, the knife thrower, who was insanely jealous of the dead Gina's suitors; Mr. Big, a dwarf who is blackmailing Gregor; Eddie, the bookkeeper, who never realized his ambition of becoming a circus performer; and Natasha, Gregor's niece, the daughter of the man Carl is seeking. Eventually it is established that Gregor found the missing robbery money and hid it in a suitcase. He tries to escape with his loot but is murdered by a masked figure. Furthermore, it is revealed that Gregor is actually Natasha's father and that Carl's father died accidentally from a fall. Although this aspect of the mystery is solved, Inspector Elliott adheres to his belief that Gregor was not responsible for the two murders. Acting on a hunch, he arranges for Eddie to be given a chance to assist Mario in his knife-throwing act. When Mario switches weapons and uses knives identical to the ones used in the murders, Eddie breaks down and admits that his envy of the performers led him to commit the murders.
The Christopher Lee Collection
Three of the films in The Christopher Lee Collection are directed by Jess Franco, beginning with The Blood of Fu Manchu, the third entry in the series nobody wanted. Unlike the look of the financially strapped, shot-on-the-fly films he made in the post-70s, the two Fu Manchu features and The Bloody Judge show Franco working with a slightly higher budget, cast and crew than he's used to and the results are much closer to a mainstream commercial release than you'd ever expect from him. The downside is that these films also lack some of the unexpected wildness, perversity and artistic affectations of his best work (Eugenie (1970), Succubus, 1968, The Diabolical Dr. Z, 1966).
The Blood of Fu Manchu (first released in the U.S. in an edited form called Kiss and Kill) is arguably the weakest entry in the collection and comes across like one of those subpar James Bond imitations that flooded the film market in the early sixties. Filmed on location in Spain and Brazil, the movie does feature some stunning location work and has a great premise that is never fully realized - ten women are abducted and forced to serve as assassins for Fu Manchu's worst enemies. Their initiation isn't pretty; they are bitten by a poisonous snake and then transfer the snake's deadly venom to their victims by kissing. Absurd? You betcha. Unfortunately, there aren't nearly enough viper bites or poisonous kisses on display. There are way too many scenes of Fu's various female slaves literally "hanging around" their dank cells, suspended from their chains, and a subplot involving a sleazy revolutionary named Sancho Lopez is completely uninteresting. On the other hand, Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger, 1964) pops up unexpectedly in a brief cameo (listen to her comments about this in the featurette, "The Rise of Fu Manchu"!), Tsai Chin as Fu's evil daughter is amusing (though her performance mainly consists of slapping the hell out of the female extras), and there are moments of droll British humor. One favorite bit occurs when a bound English prisoner of Fu's complains, "My tea is in my thermos on my back and I can't get at it. It's getting cold and I need it." No matter how dire the circumstances, teatime must be observed at all costs!
A slight improvement over The Blood of Fu Manchu, though not by much, is The Castle of Fu Manchu which includes some nice location work in Istanbul and Barcelona and Eurotrash regular Rosalba Neri (Amuck, 1972) in a fun supporting role as a cross-dressing assassin for Fu who eventually becomes his prey. The storyline is a lot more outlandish in this fourth entry and details the arch villain's attempts to conquer the world with an invention that can turn water to ice. How this is supposed to bring every nation to its knees is never explained but we do get to see Fu sink a ship with a newly created iceberg; the destruction that follows are film clips lifted directly from the 1958 Titanic drama, A Night to Remember. Most of the film is a predictable game of cat and mouse between Fu and his nemesis, Scotland Yard inspector Nayland-Smith (Richard Greene), but the often inane, slapdash quality of it is redeemed by the striking day-glo colors (psychedelic greens and purples), cheesy special effects (the flooding of Fu's underground caves) and a cameo by Jess Franco himself as a Turkish police chief. Unfortunately, Lee, due to the very nature of the role and buried beneath mounds of makeup, is not a very threatening presence in manner or appearance and it's curious why he chose to continue in the series after the first one, The Face of Fu Manchu (1965).
A much more intriguing though minor role for him is Circus of Fear, where he plays a mysterious lion tamer (who remains hidden beneath a hood for most of the film!). Despite the lurid DVD packaging, this is a murder mystery, not a horror film, and the film opens with an armored car robbery and the criminal mastermind fleeing and taking refuge with a circus on winter hiatus. But life under the big top offers no safety net with various circus employees spying on, blackmailing and murdering each other. When a police inspector (Leo Genn) comes sniffing around in search of the stolen loot, the body count starts to go up. Overall, Circus of Fear is a fast paced, entertaining programmer that distinguishes itself from other carnival-based thrillers due to its eccentric casting, a fairly tense knife-throwing sequence and some colorful footage with live animal acts. Directed by John Moxey (The City of the Dead), the movie is certainly not an essential title in Lee's filmography but it's nice to see that Blue Underground has restored the color film to its original length and title after being exhibited for years on television in a black and white version called Psycho-Circus that runs only 65 minutes.
All of the above three titles are available for purchase individually but the final selection in The Christopher Lee Collection - The Bloody Judge - is only available with the purchase of the boxed set. Known in some quarters as Night of the Blood Monster (talk about a desperate attempt to attract audiences!) and distributed in various countries with three different endings, this is the fully restored, never-before-seen European version of Jess Franco's costume thriller based on the true exploits of Royal Judge Lord George Jeffreys (Christopher Lee). The latter was just as notorious as witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (played by Vincent Price in Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm, 1968) and was responsible for hundreds of British citizens being accused of witchcraft, put on trial and executed with their property confiscated. While lacking the violent intensity and tight pacing of Witchfinder General, Franco's film does present a grim view of 17th century England and Jeffreys' deluded political ambitions but it's a very uneven film, one that is often overwhelmed by purely exploitive scenes that are ploddingly dull when they mean to be salacious or sadistic. Case in point, the so-called notorious lesbian encounter between the beautiful Maria Rohm and a shackled prisoner; as Maria daintily licks the bloodied thighs of her cellmate she looks like a squeamish junior leaguer sampling some distasteful cuisine for the first time. On the plus side, Bruno Nicolai delivers a rich, melancholy score, there's a well-staged battle sequence in the second half and Lee dominates every scene he's in despite his rather one-dimensional character. Leo Genn also lends the film a touch of class in a supporting role and Howard Vernon (dressed like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, 1974) is completely over the top as the clubfooted executioner Jack Ketch.
If nothing else, The Christopher Lee Collection deserves an A for effort; the transfer quality is excellent, the extra features are fun and informative, and Tim Lucas's entertaining liner notes will make you feel like you're seeing some lost masterpiece. Then the reality kicks in - but there are still moments you'll want to replay again and again on each DVD, particularly for Christopher Lee fans.
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by Jeff Stafford
The Christopher Lee Collection
Location scenes filmed at Billy Smart's Circus Grounds in Winkfield, England. Released in Great Britain in Eastmancolor in November 1967 as Circus of Fear; running time: 83 min. Peter Welbeck is a pseudonym for Harry Alan Towers.