Tuesday, 15 April 2014

This Week’s Wheatley:
Dennis’s Mates.


 “The Reverend Montague Summers was a most interesting man. He was not only a great authority on witchcraft, werewolves and the rest, but also wrote a number of excellent books on Restoration theatre. He always dressed a clergyman, and, with the silvery locks that curled down on either side of his pale, aristocratic face, he was the very picture of a restoration bishop. But quite a number of people maintained that he had either been defrocked or had never taken holy orders at all.

I remember his telling me one evening of an exorcism he had performed in Ireland. The wife of a cottager was apparently possessed by a devil. When Summers arrived she was foaming at the mouth and had to be held down. With bell and book he performed the ceremony. A small black cloud issued from the woman’s mouth. She became quiet, the black cloud disappeared into a cold leg of mutton that had been put on the table ready for supper. A few minutes later, it was seen to be swarming with maggots.

Summers asked my wife and me to spend the weekend at his house in Arlesford. We motored down on the Friday afternoon. When we were taken round the garden, my wife spotted the most gigantic toad she had ever seen, and in the bedroom we were given there were a dozen enormous spiders.

On the Saturday morning my host took me into a room that was empty except for a pile of books. Picking up a small leather-bound volume, he said, ‘Look, this is just the thing for you. It is worth far more, but I’ll let you have it for fifty pounds.’ I did not want it and, anyhow, could not have afforded it. Much embarrassed, I said so. Never have I seen a man’s expression change so swiftly. From benevolent calm it suddenly became filled with demoniac fury. He threw down the book and flounced out of the room. An hour later I had sent myself a telegram. By Saturday evening my wife and I were home again in London. That was the last I saw of the ‘Reverend’ Montague Summers.”


“Rollo Ahmed was a very different character. He was an Egyptian by birth, and from his father’s family had acquired his initial knowledge of the ‘secret art’. However, his mother was a native of the West Indies and, while Rollo was still in his ‘teens, his parents decided to leave Egypt. For many years he lived with them in devil-ridden islands and the little-explored forests of Yucatan, Guiana and Brazil. In these places he acquired first hand knowledge not only of the primitive magic of the forest Indians, but also of Voodoo and the use of obeahs. Later he explored Europe and Asia for further knowledge of the mysteries and for a while lived in Burma, where he became a practitioner of Raja Yoga.

He was a small, slim man, neither bombastic nor subservient, with a most cheerful personality and a ready laugh, and he spoke English perfectly. Several times he dined with us in Queen’s Gate. On one occasion on a freezing night in mid-winter he arrived without a hat or overcoat, dressed in a thin summer suit. He had walked all the way from Clapham Common; yet his hands were glowing with warmth. This he declared was due to his practicing yoga, and he offered to teach my wife and me yoga breathing. We had a few lessons, but were too heavily engaged with other matters to follow it up.”

[…]

“From him I learned a great deal. Later I was told that he had slipped up in a ceremony and failed to master a demon, who had caused all his teeth to fall out. Soon after the opening of the war, I lost sight of him, as I had other things to think about.”



“I was introduced to Aleister Crowley by a friend of mine who was a very well-known journalist and later, as a Member of Parliament, became one of the leaders of the Socialist Party. I will therefore refer to him as Z. Crowley dined with my wife and me several times. He was a fascinating conversationalist and had an intellect of the first order.”

[…]

“Having had Crowley to dinner several times, I told my friend Z. that, although I found him intensely interesting, I was convinced he could not harm a rabbit.
‘Ah!’ Replied Z. ‘Not now, perhaps. But he was very different before that affair in Paris.’ The affair in Paris was as follows.
Crowley wanted to raise Pan. One of his disciples owned a small hotel on the Left Bank. Crowley, with his twelve disciples, took it over for the weekend and the servants were given a holiday. On Saturday night a big room at the top of the house was emptied of all its furniture, swept and garnished. Crowley and his principle disciple, MacAleister (son of Aleister), were to perform the ceremony there, while the other seven remained downstairs. He told them that, whatever noises they might hear, in no circumstances were they to enter the room before morning.
Down in the little restaurant a cold collation had been prepared. The eleven had supper and waited uneasily. They all had a great deal to drink, but got only stale-tight. By midnight the place had become intensely cold. They heard shouting and banging in the room upstairs, but obeyed orders not to go up. The door was locked and they could get no reply to their anxious calls, so they broke it down.
Crowley had raised Pan all right. MacAleister was dead and Crowley, stripped of his magician’s robes, a naked gibbering idiot crouching in a corner.
Before he was fit to go about again, he spent four months in a lunatic asylum. Z., who told me all this, had been one of the disciples, and an eye-witness to this party.”

----

All text from the chapter ‘Modern Occultists’ in Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Devil And All his Works’, pp. 256 – 261.

Photographs via the internet.

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
New Tale of Zatoichi
(Tokuzô Tanaka, 1963)


Hitting Japanese cinemas in March 1963, the third Zatoichi film saw the series moving to colour for the first time, with a suitably heroic new main theme from the legendary Akira Ifubuke pointing the way toward a new identity for the character as the star of a successful, ongoing franchise.

Brighter colours and rousing music haven’t done much to lighten the load of the emotional baggage we left our hero carrying at the end of the previous film however, and only five minutes into this one, he’s already weeping, having been forced to needlessly slay a gang of young warriors out to avenge the boss he killed in the last film, setting the scene for another tragedy-laden instalment, in which Zatoichi’s anguish about his past life choices and the unending cycle of violence in which he is caught up informs the whole of the narrative.

Drinking in an inn with a childhood friend (a poverty-stricken itinerant musician, on the road with his young family) shortly after this initial confrontation, Ichi is already rueing his decision to take up swordsmanship in the first place. “I did things I shouldn’t have done, cut those I shouldn’t have cut”, he muses, establishing a tone that is even more deeply melancholic than his previous adventures, if such a thing is possible.

Before that though, we have at least a few moments of jollity and good cheer to enjoy. Settling into what was already becoming his best-loved role, Shintaro Katsu’s charisma is certainly firing on all cylinders here, in spite of his character’s remorseful mood. Visibly delighted at the chance to catch up with his old buddy, it’s only a matter of minutes before he grabs his friend’s shamisen and knocks out a few verses of what seems to be Zatoichi’s new theme song!

Suitably doleful in tone, the lyrics of this composition largely seem to concern his financial situation, but, somewhat in the manner of a delta blues singer, Katsu’s haunted, world weary delivery imbues the material with a heavy depth of meaning lurking just below the surface, earning Ichi an immediate round of applause from the Inn’s patrons… just before a gang of black-masked bandits burst in, and his cycle of troubles begins again.

Actually though, Ichi’s handling of this particular situation provides a good model for how he might begin to escape his blood-soaked wheel of karma. Mutely submitting to the robbers’ demands so as not to imperil his fellow drinkers, the next morning finds Ichi dragging the ne’erdowells out from their yakuza hideout like naughty school boys, publically shaming them for their conduct in front of their gang boss, who obliges them to return with interest the money they stole from the destitute travellers lodged at the inn. Thus, justice is served, villainy is punished, and Ichi’s credentials as a champion of the people are reasserted, without a drop of blood being spilled. If only it could always be that simple…

‘New Tale..’s main plot-line hoves into view shortly thereafter when another confrontation between Ichi and the would-be revengers on his tail is disrupted by the intervention of none other than Ichi’s *sensei*. Yes, that’s right, the man who taught our invincible hero all he knows about the way of the sword, no less.

Those who were a bit put out by the second film’s weight of back story will be further disconcerted here, as Ichi accompanies his teacher Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu) back to his training academy in Ichi’s hometown, where a warm welcome awaits him. (1) He even finds him to visit his grandmother, for goodness sake! But, as always, a mass of new trouble and moral dilemmas await him.

By this stage in the series, we know very well the value Zatoichi places on loyalty and friendship, and how fervently he respects those he considers his friends . But, unfortunately for our hero’s sensitive nature, it is gradually made clear to us viewers that the venerable Banno-san is actually a bit of an underhanded fellow on the quiet – a real jerk, you might even say. He is heavily involved with some sinister covert dealings involving large sums of money, a kidnapping scheme and a gang of renegade samurai, and… well in short, things aren’t looking too good at Ichi’s alma mater, to be honest.

Ignorant of these goings-on though, our hero is busy reacquainting himself with the sensei’s beautiful and demure young sister Yayoi (future series regular Mikiko Tsubouchi ), who of course throws herself at the blind man almost immediately, declaring her undying love for him in much the same manner that every pure-hearted woman he has thus far encountered in the series seems to have done. (2)

This time though, perhaps reflecting the longer time they have known each other, Ichi is sincerely moved by Yayoi’s feeling for him and agrees on the spot to marry her and settle down, furthermore vowing upon his life that he will forthwith become an honest and peaceful man, abandoning his ties to the yakuza lifestyle and rejecting the way of the sword. Katsu’s performance here is, as ever, is very affecting, but oh dear, given that there are still twenty-plus blind swordsman adventures yet to come, we can probably see where this is going, can’t we? Shall I start the clock to see how many minutes of screen-time his heartfelt oath of non-violence lasts..?

Well actually, he makes a pretty credible effort over the next half hour, in spite of the heavy odds laid against him. First off, when the mismatched couple announce their wedding plans to Yayoi’s brother, be proves to be a right sod about it, ranting and raving, revoking Ichi’s status as his star pupil and hurling all sorts of insults around re: the masseur’s lowly status, before throwing him out of his house for good and refusing to let him say goodbye to his betrothed.

Ichi’s vow of non-violence also holds firm through what to me is definitely the stand-out scene in this film- the wonderful (and indeed, bloodless) confrontation that ensues when Ichi and his future bride come face to face with the brother of that dead boss from the earlier film, still determined to get his revenge. I won’t bother outlining in words what transpires when, instead of drawing his sword, Ichi merely kneels before his attacker awaiting the death-blow, but it is a beautiful little scene that symbolises the very best of the ‘honour and humanity’ ethos embodied by these ninkyo yakuza films.

The more brutal logic of the martial arts / chanbara film is also very much in play though, and setting Zatoichi up in direct conflict with the guy who taught him his skills is of course a classic move within the genre; a fool-proof way of maintaining dramatic tension after two and a half films in which we’ve basically established that our hero’s near-superhuman abilities allow him to kill any regular opponent in three seconds flat. For all of this story’s more high-minded ideals, I’m sure the folks in the cheap seats were well-aware of what they paid their money for, and a suitably gruelling master vs. pupil showdown between Ichi and Banno is clearly on the cards.

Perhaps on this film’s original release there might have been at least some impressionable viewers still wondering whether Zatoichi would manage to uphold his vow and settle down to live a peaceful life with his young bride, but, fifty years down the line, modern viewers can well assume that they didn’t make another twenty movies about Shintaro Katsu hanging around his homestead growing cabbages, and I’m sure I won’t be spoiling anything by telling you that the film ends exactly as you’d expect it to, with a bereft Yayoi standing alone amid a forest clearing full of slain yakuza, her dead brother in the centre, as Zatoichi marches forlornly into the foggy night. “Miss, I guess I am just that kind of a man” he concludes before turning away in shame, resigned to his fate.

Another handsome looking production from Daiei studios, ‘New Tale..’ brings an earthy, subdued colour palette to the Zatoichi series that seems to emphasise the character’s lowly social standing, conveying a deeper feeling for rural Japanese life than many other period genre films, in spite of a few instances in which studio sets are clearly used as stand-ins for exterior locations.

Director Tanaka proves himself a solid hand on the tiller even if he doesn’t quite match the sense of visual drama that Mizumi and Mori brought to the proceedings, and overall the film is another highly entertaining business, lovely to look upon, always watchable, and well played, with Ifubuke‘s remarkable score adding a pretty epic feel in places.(3) It suffers somewhat in the script department however, with poor pacing and a lot of largely inconsequential toing and froing padding things out and rather diluting the central dramatic arc. Perhaps it could have benefited from a shorter run-time, ala film # 2, but nonetheless - during its best scenes at least, ‘New Tale..’ is a match for anything that came before, following the example of its predecessors in weighing down our poor hero with more emotional turmoil than a normal man could bear.

By the end of this instalment, Ichi has found and lost happiness, regained and destroyed his honour as a respectable citizen, and lost his respect for a friend father figure whom he has subsequent killed with his own hand. With all the grief and regret he has piled up over the past three films, it’s a wonder Ichi hasn’t packed it in and settled down with his cabbages by this point, wife or no wife. But whether he likes it or not, the franchise must roll on, and a mere five months later he was back in cinemas in ‘Zatoichi The Fugitive’, which seems appropriate.

---

(1) A prolific character actor and instantly recognisable ‘face’ for Japanese movie fans, some of Kawazu’s more notable credits include parts in ‘Mothra’, ‘Yojimbo’, Shôhei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’, Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Tattooed Life’, Kinji Fukasaku’s excellent ‘Japanese Criminal Gangs: Boss’ and Norifumi Suzuki’s astounding ‘Sex & Fury’.

(2) It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film either way I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely that the 50-something Banno would have an 18 year old sister, don’t you think? Wouldn’t it have been easier all round for the script to make her his daughter, or is there some sort of culture-specific element here that I’m missing..? If not, maybe we can just put it down to another example of the weird minor inconsistencies that seem to frequently pop up in these Zatoichi scripts…

(3) An extremely busy director of action and chanbara pictures throughout the ‘60s, Tanaka handled two more Zatoichis, a few ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ pictures and numerous sequels to Yasuzô Masumura’s 1965 yakuza/war film ‘Hoodlum Soldier’ (also starring Katsu), amongst others. In the ‘70s he moved over to TV, where he picked up a yet more work from Katsu-affiliated franchises, directing numerous episodes of both the ‘Zatoichi ‘and ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ TV series. He also made a pretty fun-sounding horror film – English title ‘The Haunted Castle’ – in 1969; now added to my “must track down” list.

Friday, 4 April 2014

This Week’s Wheatley:
The Devil And All His Works
(Book Club Associates, 1977 / first published 1971)


My history with Dennis Wheatley’s coffee-table opus ‘The Devil And All His Works’ goes back a long way. During my childhood, a copy used to sit on the ‘expensive hardbacks’ shelf behind the counter at a second hand bookshop I’d occasionally visit with my parents, and naturally I coveted it. Even then, the book’s appeal to me was based more on humour than an earnest desire to learn about the occult – I remember thinking how funny it would look on the shelf, and what a perfect volume it would be to be caught idly flicking through when the vicar called ‘round unexpectedly. But still, I knew I must have it.

My parents however disagreed, and decreed that I had better things to spend my pocket money on than big books about the devil. Fast forward to the present day, and when I saw a copy being sold for pennies recently in a charity book fair, I couldn’t help picking it up, just to celebrate the fact that I’m all grown up now and can buy whatever books I damn well please, ha ha ha. Of course, I won’t be laughing so hard when another one of my living room shelves collapses under the sheer weight of stupid books I’ll never read, but for the moment, let’s all enjoy a furtive tour through ‘The Devil And All His Works’.



Upon first glance, Dennis’s characteristically trenchant take on the scope of diabolism in the world history and culture is as grim as you’d fear, with “..All His Works” apparently incorporating such varied phenomena as hypnotism, pyramids, Aubrey Beardsley, “Mohammedanism”, yoga and Victorian fairy photography. But to give Wheatley his due, the book is actually fairly readable once you get stuck in, veering randomly from one subject to another in the best head-spinning ‘70s occult paperback tradition, and adopting an amiable and anecdotal “rambling old gent in a rural pub” kind of tone that’s actually quite enjoyable.

You could say Wheatley’s decision to summarise the entire history of human spiritual belief within the pages of a book entitled ‘The Devil And All His Works’, placing potted summaries of the world’s major religions in between loads of guff about table-tapping and the Salem witch trials, is questionable at best, horribly irresponsible at worst, but if you’re prepared to put such concerns aside and just go with the flow, he does at least manage to approach *most* subjects with a certain amount of surface level knowledge and respect.



P.66 - ‘Revelation of the black art to a neophyte by the fiend Asomvel’



Of course, the downside of listening to rambling old blokes in pubs is that it’s usually only a matter of time before they start busting out the racism and barmy OAP conspiracy theories, and such is the case here too, I'm afraid.

Even taking into account his age and era, the delight Wheatley appears to take in using the terms “Negroes” and “Asiatics” every few pages begins to grate after a while, and despite his general tone of curious acceptance of those foreigners and their funny ways, there are occasional lapses into outright offensiveness, the most deplorable and unpleasant of which is perhaps the chapter in which Wheatley gives us his views on ‘voodoo’, apparently whilst channelling Andre Morell in ‘The Plague of the Zombies’:

“This is one of the vilest, cruellest and most debased forms of worship ever devised by man. Its origins lay in darkest Africa, and the Negro has carried its foul practices with him to every part of the world which he inhabits; and now even, I am told on good authority, to several cities in England.”
[…]
“The Caribbean islands, Brazil and the Southern United States are all riddled with voodoo, but its heartland is the black Republic of Haiti. In 1908 Celestina, the daughter of the President, and a powerful mambo, was married to a goat. When it died it was buried with the rites of the Christian Church.”
[…]
“A Voodoo altar looks like a cheap jumble sale. One that I saw in Brazil had heaped on it pictures of the Virgin Mary and several saints, bottles of Coca-Cola, little pots of wilted flowers, shredded palm fronds, a dagger, a fly-whisk and flasks of rum. But so primitive still are some of these people that Voodoo ceremonies are held to appease spirits that they believe to live at the sources of rivers”
- pp. 261-262

Such views may be more or less what you’d expect of a staunchly conservative servant of the crown born in 1897, I suppose, but that still doesn’t make his sub-horror movie demonisation of pan-African belief systems any more palatable, especially given the Daily Mail-like note of panic about these “cruel and bestial practices” finding a home in “several cities in England”.




P.220 – ‘A witches’ altar high on the Yorkshire moors’

Subsequent to this, ‘The Devil And All His Works’ also finds time to give us a mammoth dose of Wheatley’s strident ‘good vs. evil’ cosmology and imperialist rhetoric, with some melodramatic tabloid scare-mongering thrown in for good measure.

Concluding his section on ‘The Black Art Today’, the author turns his attention to the emergence of the ‘permissive society’, and as you’d imagine, the results aren’t pretty. Likening young people’s apparent enthusiasm for “..the spilling of semen in lust without affection” to “..ringing a bell for The Devil”, he leaves us with some rather startling assertions on where “the practice of such perversions” may lead us;

“Assuming that I am right, and that such genuine black magicians as there are concern themselves very little with romps, but a great deal with bringing about disruption through causing conditions that lead to widespread labour unrest and (wherever possible) wars, this does not mean that covens run by frauds are harmless. Far from it. One does not have to know the secret rituals to attract the powers of darkness.”
[…]
“All these thousands of young people who have become initiates of covens are liable to become pawns of the Power of Darkness in its eternal war with the Power of Light. If this continues on an ever-increasing scale, the inevitable result will be a return to the brutal lawlessness, insecurity and poverty of the Dark Ages.”
- p. 272

In his concluding chapter, Wheatley hits us with The Way It Is:

“The lesson the great empires left us was that rulers should rule, and for the past two decades the governments of the Western World have failed to do so. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are a part of our inheritance; but not the right to destroy property, gun down the police and attack peaceful citizens, nor the right to form covens that call upon occult forces and send their members out to rob, rape and murder.”
[…]
“In every city in Europe and the United States malcontents create riots in which they smash the windows of embassies, ruin sports grounds, set fire to buildings and create outrages which no proper government would tolerate. Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?”
- p.276

No. Not really. But please, do go on…

“To stamp out Satanism entirely is, I believe, impossible. But the Roman Emperors kept it in check by forbidding sorcery, and in Britain, until 1951, the practicing of witchcraft was a crime. No civilised person would dream of initiating witch hunts such as those that took place in the seventeenth century. But I am most strongly of the opinion that to fight this evil, which is now a principal breeding ground for dope-addicts, anarchists and lawlessness, new legislation should be introduced.
Psychic investigation should be encouraged, but only under license; and persons participating in occult ceremonies other than those approved by a responsible body should be liable to prosecution.”
[…]
“What is the solution? Some argue for corporal punishment. Others believe in various methods of re-education. In recent times, in Britain, a vociferous minority of do-gooders have turned prisons into clubs where inmates enjoy excellent food, games, libraries, television and concerts. Surely, to be effective, prisons should not be merely houses of detention but correction. This might soon lead to their no longer being overcrowded.”

And so it goes on; you get the picture, I’m sure. Trying to end things on a more positive note, Wheatley spends his last few pages holding forth about reincarnation and the wheel of karma, the internal calm that comes from dedication to the powers of goodness, and other such hippy-friendly notions, but it all rings a bit hollow after the red-faced frothing that has preceded it.

So, in conclusion, I think my parents were probably quite wise to not let me buy this book. I mean, I’m sure I would have coped just fine with the etchings of the Spanish Inquisition and pictures of Maxine Sanders running around in the nude and so on, but the author’s editorial content on the other hand is the kind of thing that could have given a growing lad some right funny ideas.


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Franco Files:
The Blood of Fu Manchu
(1968)




AKA:

‘Fu Manchú y el Beso de la Muerte’ [Spain], ‘Der Todeskuss des Dr. Fu Manchu’ [“Dr. Fu Manchu’s Kiss of Death”, Germany], ‘Kiss & Kill’ [U.S.A.], ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Kiss of Death’ [U.S. video titles, according to IMDB?].

Context:

Having recently looked at one of the highlights of Jess Franco’s tenure with Harry Alan Towers, it seems only fitting that we should turn our attention to one of the flat-out stinkers… or at least, that’s how Franco’s two Fu Manchu movies usually seem to be viewed. Personally I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one, as we shall see below.

The Fu Manchu series was of course the flagship of Towers’ modest production empire through the mid/late 60s. He wrote the scripts for all of them under his ‘Peter Welbeck’ pseudonym, and whilst they’re certainly no classics, I think the earlier entries certainly stand up well as entertaining rainy afternoon type fare.(1) As the decade progressed though, the audience for these kind of old fashioned adventure movies was beginning to drift away, and I can only imagine that interest in the series (which was already pretty outmoded when it began, let’s face it) was fading fast.

So, enter Jess Franco! Put to work on the next Fu Manchu picture by his new paymaster, and lumbered with a characteristically daft ‘Welbeck’ script, Franco fans will recognise that such circumstances usually spell kryptonite for the director’s creativity, but hey, at least he got to shoot in Brazil and hang out with Christopher Lee, and… well, I think he probably made the best of a bad job, all things considered.

Content:

Rich with the kind of dazzling invention and realism that if the hallmark of Mr. Welbeck, the plot here concerns – what else? - Dr. Fu Manchu’s latest devious plan for world domination, which this time consists of hypnotising kidnapped slave girls and dispatching them to the homes of world leaders and sundry other important men, whereupon – get this – they will kiss them with their Cobra venom covered lips, resulting in blindness, coma and (eventually) death! Quite what advantages this plan has over, say, sending them letter bombs or something, I’m unsure, but y’know, it was the ‘60s - gotta make an effort.(2)

One of the first victims of this characteristically half-baked diabolical scheme is Fu Manchu’s dogged arch-nemesis, Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, who as a result is blinded and thus spends much of the film off-screen, wrestling with cobra-induced fever. Presumably this turn of events was written into the script after actor Douglas Wilmer, who played Nayland-Smith in the three earlier films, bailed on the series shortly before shooting began, leaving insufficient time for his replacement (Richard Greene) to step into the breach.

Nayland-Smith’s absence from proceedings is unfortunate, not least because it temporarily shifts the burden of heroism across to his ersatz-Watson sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford), who sadly is portrayed here as an utter buffoon, with practically every line of his dialogue reduced a weak joke about how much he misses rainy old blighty and wants to have a nice cup of tea – a fixation that seems to obsess him to such an extent that he should probably seek whatever equivalent of addiction counselling is available to one-dimensional movie characters (he’s even moaning about not being able to reach his Thermos whilst he’s chained up in Fu Manchu’s dungeons!). (3)

As Petrie blunders into the Amazon rainforest following rumours of Fu Manchu’s last known whereabouts, the hero vacuum is somewhat eased by the introduction of rugged jungle adventurer type Götz George (German production money ahoy!) and wandering medic Maria Rohm (producer’s girlfriend ahoy!), who have also stumbled onto the trail of the villainous mastermind for… well, I forget the reasons to be honest, but they are around, anyway.

Much faffing about and several long digressions follow, and during its middle half hour, the film takes everyone by surprise by suddenly turning into a kind of South American jungle-western! Here, veteran Spanish actor Ricardo Palacios spits out scenery and cackles with gusto as a quasi-revolutionary bandit chief named Sancho Lopez. Together with his gang of sombrero-wearing cut-throats (must have been a long ride down from old Mexico?), Lopez takes command of the remote village where Rohm’s character is based, staging bloody massacres and raucous, whore-filled parties with equal enthusiasm.

Just a hunch here, but do you get the feeling maybe Franco or Towers or somebody came back all fired up from an early screening of ‘The Wild Bunch’ just before they started making this one..? It’s all pretty good fun anyway, so if you like the idea of Jess Franco knocking out about thirty minutes of a pulpy south-of-the-border western, dig in.

For the final half hour we’re back in more familiar Fu Manchu territory, but to be honest nobody really seems to have their heart in it anymore, as Franco’s camera starts wondering off to look at foliage and the film’s shaky adventure movie syntax frays to breaking point, with only a nice waterfall, a few sloppily choreographed fight scenes and Christopher Lee’s patented “stand up straight / say the lines / collect the cheque” methodology saving things from collapse.


Kink:

Watching these Fu Manchu movies, I always find myself wondering who the hell they were aimed at, and who actually bought tickets to see them back when they were in cinemas. I mean, on the surface they’re pretty much just old-fashioned, kiddie-friendly adventure movies, very much in the spirit of the b-movie swashbucklers that Hammer used to knock out for the half-term holidays, but as the series progressed, they seemed to start throwing in all these vaguely kinky, Sadean sorta elements that seem squarely aimed at a more adult, horror/sexploitation audience – a stylistic disjuncture that leads to a pretty schizophrenic feel at times.(4)

I probably don’t need to tell you what effect hiring Jess Franco had vis-à-vis this trend, and right from the opening shots, things are amped up considerably here. The movie opens with scantily-clad slave girls being marched through the jungle in chains by whip-wielding henchmen, and before we know it, they’re being man-handled by a leather-masked torturer and suggestively mocked by Fu Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin). This kind of BDSM slave fantasy stuff was already bubbling under the surface in earlier instalments, but it’s pretty full-on here, becoming almost as sleazy as one of Franco’s Women In Prison films.

The implicitly erotic figure of Lin Tang plays a bigger role than usual here too, basically taking on the bulk of day-to-day evil-doing business from her father, as he largely scales back his involvement to just the all-important “standing around talking about the plans” element. In numerous scenes, she can be seen bossing around the female captives and behaving to all intent and purposes like one of the sapphic wardresses in Franco’s later WIP epics, whilst towards the end of the film, she’s even seen cackling to herself on her father’s throne, suggesting the possibility of a fun ‘Lin Tang takes over’ plot-line that I don’t think was ever fully realised in these films(?). Anyway, I like her a lot in this one - she’s pretty cool, and Chin seems to actually be having fun in the role for once too.

Elsewhere, this film’s stand-in for the obligatory Franco night-club scene arrives via a sequence in which one of Fu Manchu’s hypnotised slave-girls walks out of the darkness to perform a libidinous dance for Sancho Lopez during his gang’s victory celebration. Going on for far longer than it reasonably should in this sort of movie, this sequence proves to be surprisingly strong stuff, with only the thinnest of diaphanous gowns hiding her boobs from the full glare of whatever kind of mixed up crowd did actually go and see this movie as she rubs and writhes with abandon… before Lopez prematurely ends her performance by bloodily shooting her, which must have further delighted parents and moral guardians, I’m sure. (And yeah, they were definitely goofing on ‘The Wild Bunch’ here, weren’t they?)

For those still keeping score after that point, there are fully bared breasts to be seen on several other occasions, along with assorted whipping and dungeon bondage bits, as any remaining illusions about these movies being made for a juvenile audience go completely out of the window.

3/5

Creepitude:

Mildly gruesome tortures and a few bits Kensington gore keep things on a Hammer-esque “good ol’ blood-thirsty stuff for the kids” sort of level, whilst smoke and dungeons and skulls and cobras and so forth during the Fu Manchu hideout scenes all perpetuate that particular kind of pulpy horror-not-horror atmosphere that defines these kinda films, whilst mixed up bits of DNA from jungle adventure movies, euro-spy flicks and westerns further dilute the brew elsewhere.

2/5

Pulp Thrills:

“The moon is full… the moon of life. Let her taste the kiss… of DEATH!”

So, just to recap, we’re talking here about a motion picture in which Dr. Fu Manchu, as played by Christopher Lee, hangs around in a hidden citadel in the heart of the Amazon, hypnotising kidnapped girls and using ancient Inca rituals to impregnate them with deadly cobra venom, for the eventual purpose of wiping out world leaders and thus conquering the planet. Those trekking through the treacherous, unmapped jungle to oppose him include a dysfunctional Holmes and Watson-esque duo, a proto-Indiana Jones two-fisted archaeologist and an obese Mexican bandit chief who appears to be getting paid by the guffaw. If that ain’t pulp enough for you, I’d suggest a trip to the saw-mill.

5/5

Altered States:

This is far from the most far-out film Jess Franco made, but if you were approach it from the opposite direction, as an example of a low budget matinee adventure film gradually going off the rails, I think it would emerge as being at least moderately weird.

In between the aforementioned hi-jinks, there is much ‘down-time’, much wondering-camera foliage footage and many focus-blurring scene transitions. Much like a more regular Franco film, things soon settle down into a familiar pattern, mixing exciting / kinky set-pieces with segments of plodding, procedural drag that could soon have the casual viewer (and with a movie like this, is there gonna be any other kind?) snoring in vain.

A brief montage demonstrating the progress of Fu Manchu’s schemes around the world does briefly highlight a few bits of absolutely eye-popping, pop art production design – very much in the style of the same year’s astonishing ‘The Girl From Rio’ and, more than likely, probably spliced straight in from unused footage shot for that film.

Music by Franco’s favoured composer Daniel White meanwhile is sadly not much to shout about, dominated as it is by assorted variations on an insipid tune that sounds like a slight variation on ‘Que Sera Sera’, which seems to play incessantly through the film’s middle half hour.

2/5

Sight-seeing:

Most of the jungle footage here appears to have actually filmed in some corner of the Amazon rainforest, insofar as I can tell, and indeed, the locations used are very interesting and impressive, including some genuine stalactite filled caves, and a monolithic waterfall that adds greatly to the scope of the film’s otherwise rather uneventful conclusion.

Usually with these things, one tends to assume that all the locations used were probably just a quick bus ride from Rio, where Franco and Towers were based for the simultaneously shot ‘The Girl From Rio’, but, given that the Southern-most part of the Amazon basin is right over on the other side of Brazil, maybe they actually relcoated completely? Or, maybe there IS sufficiently Amazon-like terrain to be found within spitting distance of Rio? I dunno. If anyone can identify the surely-that-must-be-quite-famous dam/waterfall that appears in the film, maybe we can pinpoint it on our sadly non-existent Jess Franco Locations Map? (Obviously it would be a transparent map on a Perspex wall with flashing lights, like the one Fu Manchu always has knocking about in his hideouts..)

Meanwhile, all the scenes in the town besieged by the bandits and the colonial governor’s mansion where Götz George is kept prisoner look to have been filmed back in Spain, with distinctly familiar-looking grand interiors, and a few exterior shots that I *think* might match up with the complex of buildings memorably used a few years later in ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ and numerous of Franco’s other early ‘70s productions.

I’d have to run some of the films again to be sure, and I can’t be bothered to do that right now, but… someone should do a book about this stuff, y’know? Big coffee table hardback thing – “In The Footsteps of Franco” – combining the middle class travelogue market with the cult movie freaks, it should be a good seller. I’m game, if any publishers out there want to pay for the plane tickets.

Oh, and the Fu Manchu hideout stuff is largely done on sets that I’m guessing are redressed versions of the ones seen in ‘Brides..’, and god knows what else besides. (Hey, you need a dungeon? Give Harry a call.)

4/5

Conclusion:

‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ is not film that really gets much love, but I must say, I quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s sloppy, tedious, cynical and practically the dictionary definition of “a load of old rubbish”, but the sheer amount of stuff going on gives it a strangely epic flavour that few other Franco productions can really match, and, whilst fans of the director will have to accept that it explores his favoured themes and obsessions only in passing, taken as an example of a rainy Sunday pulp adventure movie that’s completely lost the plot and wondered off into unknown realms, I think it has a lot to recommend it. I’d definitely place it toward the top end of Franco’s catalogue of work-for-hire genre exercises.

‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ followed later the same year from Franco & Towers, and even commentators who hated ‘Blood..’ admit that it looks like Citizen Kane compared to that one, so…. that’s something to look forward to I suppose?

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(1)‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ (’65) and ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ (’66), both directed by Don Sharp, are quite a bit of fun (I reviewed ‘Brides..’ here). I’ve not seen the third instalment, ‘The Vengeance of Fu Manchu’ directed by Jeremy Summers, but I think I’m gonna walk not run on that one given that Summers also made the unspeakably bad ‘House of 1,000 Dolls’ for Towers.

(2) Which is more than Christopher Lee and the film’s make-up team are doing here incidentally – aside from the floppy moustache, Lee isn’t even trying to appear Asian by this point in the franchise… which, though a let-down for fans of casual movie racism, is probably for the best, all things considered.

(3) My favourite thing about Marion-Crawford’s performances in these movies is his habit of yelling “FU MANCHU!?” in moustache-ruffling, outraged surprise at least once per film.

(4)If you think about it, I guess Hammer were actually doing much the same thing too, as ‘The Swords of Sherwood Forest’ gave way to ‘Prehistoric Women’ and ‘The Viking Queen’, although these Towers films, being considerably closer to the margins, tended to get more sleazy more quickly. As I mentioned in my earlier review, ‘Brides of Fu Manchu’ has to be the most erotically charged movie ever to be granted a ‘U’ certificate by the BBFC, and I’ve subsequently seen evidence that they even shot some alternate nude sequences for it (“for the Japanese market”, no doubt).

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Contest Winners!

Well, the results are in from our fifth anniversary competition bonanza, and first off I feel I must apologise for making the questions so damn difficult. (I suppose it's quite hard to judge these things when you already know the answers?)

Nonetheless though, we have a winner, and Christopher Trowell of London came through just before the deadline with a frankly astonishing 6 out of 8 screen-grabs correctly identified! A veritable cornucopia of prizes are on their way to him. Volker C. Steiber of Winston-Salem, NC took second place with 2/8, which gives you some idea of the spread of scores received (sorry again). Some nice stuff is in the post to him too.

Thanks to both of them and to everyone who took part, and, to end the frustrations of anyone still racking their brains trying to place these mysterious images, answers are as follows;




03: Privilege (1967)

04: Devils of Darkness (1965)


06: Nightbirds (1968)


08:Wild Guitar (1962)


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Deathblog:
Věra Chytilová
(1929 – 2014)


Very sad to hear this week about the passing of Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová, who directed one of my all-time favourites ‘Sedmikrasky’ (‘Daisies’) in 1966.

In the unlikely event that anyone bothered to ask me, I’d be inclined to pick ‘Daisies’ (no pun intended) as one of the key works of ‘60s counter-cultural cinema, and I recall that Chytilová’s particular mixture of formal / political radicalism, raucous entertainment value and dream-like fantasy was very much on my mind vis-à-vis the kind of thing I wanted to look at when I started this blog, even though I never actually got around to writing about it.

Sadly, the notions of “ground-breaking feminist cinema” and “psychedelic slapstick mayhem” don’t coincide as often as perhaps they should, but ‘Daisies’ stands tall as a rare and joyous example of what can be achieved when things are done right – a unique, funny, bizarre, sexy, other-worldly, thought-provoking and staggeringly beautiful film that also represents a definitive example of one of my favourite imaginary sub-genres - “surrealistic movies about young women who have zany adventures, upset people and generally ferment anarchy for no good reason”, a category of films that would be just as numerous and popular as, say, kung-fu if I had my way. (Also see Smashing Time, Louis Malle’s ‘Zazie Dans Le Metro’, Jacques Rivette’s ‘Celine & Julie Go Boating’.)

Of course, Chytilová left a whole life’s worth of other film & art projects behind her too, and I daresay she’d be pretty pissed off at the 95% of casual obituary writers who have just concentrated on her ‘greatest hit’, but what can I say – laziness and lack of time has thus far denied me the opportunity to engage with her wider work, which, along with numerous other less heralded works of the Czech New Wave, is currently lost somewhere on my long-list of potential viewing priorities, but… one day, one day.

A more informative obit, along with a Vimeo window that allows you to watch the entirety of ‘Daisies’ (why, that can’t be allowed, surely?), can be found here.


Sunday, 16 March 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Tale of Zatoichi Continues
(Kazuo Mori, 1962)






It seems that the runaway success of Kenji Misumi‘s Tale of Zatoichi took executives at Daei studios by surprise back in 1962. When ‘Tale of Zatoichi Continues’ hit cinemas barely six months later, it clocked in at a mere 73 minutes, reusing many locations, sets and actors from the first film, and basically bearing all the hallmarks of a quickly rushed out sequel.

Despite the film’s brevity and sometimes obvious lack of resources and shooting time however, director Kazuo Mori nonetheless does a sterling job here, turning in a movie that, if perhaps not quite the equal of Misumi's film, still puts an original enough spin on the material to make for similarly rewarding viewing.(1)

For one thing, ‘..Continues’ is a far more frantic, action-packed adventure than its predecessor, and if it lacks something of the first film's elegiac tone, well, it also gets through more bloody sword battles in it’s opening ten minutes than 'Tale..' featured in its entire duration, so, y’know – swing and roundabouts.

That’s not to say that Mori simply falls back on violence to disguise a lack of depth however, and, aided by another script from Minoru Inuzuka, he deserves credit for taking what could have merely been a crowd-pleasing, chanbara slash ‘em up and investing it with an even more doomed and conflicted emotional weight than Misumi’s film.

Before all that gets underway though, we’ve got a lot of, well… shenanigans, more or less… to enjoy. The film begins with Zatoichi happily asleep in the prow of a ferryboat in his fetching old lady head-scarf, when the boat is unexpectedly commandeered by a gang of yakuza. Annoyed by this interruption, Ichi manages to silently steal their leader’s sword and slash his face with it before he is unceremoniously pushed into the river. Returning to his slumber as he dries out on the riverbank, he is saved from the gang’s subsequent wrath by the intervention of another fugitive swordsman with a strangely familiar look about him.

Wondering into the nearest town oblivious to the confrontation that went down whilst he was asleep, Ichi is engaged in his capacity as a masseur by an emissary of a high-ranking Edo aristocrat. When he gets to work on his new client however, it turns out that the man is clearly insane, or else has succumbed to some kind of chronic mental deficiency. Unperturbed, Ichi departs through the back entrance with his modest pay packet, only to immediately find himself challenged by a trio of well-dressed samurai. Turns out that the aristocrat’s retainers don’t much like the idea of a humble masseur spreading rumours about their master’s condition, and have sent the boys out to shut him up permanently. Well, Ichi reflects sadly as the samurai lie dead at his feet ten seconds later, if they wanted me to keep quiet, they could have just asked nicely. Instead they sent out the swordsmen, so what’s a guy to do?

Whereas in the first film, Ichi was reticent about engaging in conflict, and largely avoided being drawn into it, here he seems to get into trouble wherever he turns, and, with yakuza and samurai already turning the town upside down in search of him by the end of the first reel, he retreats to the comfort of a friendly inn, only to find his troubles deepening even further.

Whilst sipping his sake in a quiet corner, Ichi gets to know a working girl named Setsu (Yaeko Mizutani) who seems to have taken an immediate shine to him.(2) Entering into a mood of reverie, he declares that Setsu reminds him very much of a lady named Ochiyo, the former love of his life, who some years earlier was stolen away from him by another man, a rogue whose duplicity during their ensuing confrontation was responsible for causing Ichi's blindness.

Following this surprisingly casual info-dump of back story, things become tense – to say the least – when it becomes clear that the man who stole Ochiyo from Ichi is actually also present at the bar, and also competing for Setsu’s attentions. Yes, it’s that same mysterious warrior who protected Ichi back at the riverbank. Apparently he is a notorious bandit, on the run from the law along with a craven sidekick... and he does have a *very* familiar caste to his features.

From here, things begin to crossover with the events of the first film to a considerable extent, as it turns out that Ichi is returning to the district where the events of ‘Tale..’ took place, to visit the grave of the slain samurai Hirate a year after his death. Before long, the ever-multiplying mob of bad guys with a grudge against our hero have teamed up with the treacherous yakuza boss whose forces Ichi reluctantly led to victory in the first film, meaning his gang is consequently on his tail too. (This diversion also allows Otane (Masayo Banri), heroine of the first film, to reappear for a slightly pointless but nicely played cameo that sees her now engaged to a local carpenter, but still weeping over her missed chance with Ichi.(3))

As all interested parties proceed to converge upon the shrine where Ichi is busy paying his respects, an obligatory showdown seems inevitable, but, of course, the presence of that mysterious bandit will lend proceedings a far greater significance than that of our hero just swatting a few top-knotted flies...

Though a tad rushed, perhaps a bit more hit n’ miss it it’s cinematic style than it's predecessor, and riddled with minor inconsistencies, ‘..Continues’ nonetheless remains a powerful and involving business, elevated by a heavy dose of personal history and fateful conflict, and driven forward by excellent performances from Katsu, his real life brother Tomisaburô Wakayama (um.. spoiler-alert?), and Yaeko Mizutani, all of whom rise above the material at hand to deliver a substantial emotional wallop in places.(4)

All the action is a lot of fun too of course – effectively staged by Mori with much use of many intricately planned, low and high angle ‘battlefield overview’ type shots - but on the whole ‘..Continues’ remains a very downbeat film, low on comic relief and full of petty frustrations that boil over into a thoroughly doomed fugue by the time we reach the final reel. Ichi’s grief at the death of his brother (um.. double spoiler alert - sorry..) is genuinely harrowing, an incredible feat of physical acting from Katsu, but an extremely rushed ending with a confused, fatalistic tone rather dilutes the overall impact, leaving us feeling a bit disconnected from the apparently pointless pain and strife we’ve just witnessed, memories of the touching companionship we witnessed during Ichi’s scenes with Setsu long gone as our man ploughs on blankly through his allotted menu of carnage.

Far from the abstract, ‘Man With No Name’ type hero we might have naturally expected him to become, Zatoichi has actually acquired a pretty extensive back story by the end of this instalment, with a mysterious lost love, a tragically slain brother, several ongoing friendships, innumerable grudges and the continued affections of several living women all casting a shadow over his immediate future. The abrupt splice cut that prematurely ends the film doesn’t allow him his traditional ‘walking into the sunset’ moment, but even if it did, Ichi would still have exited this film as a man with a lot on his mind, the blood he has been obliged to spill over the course of the preceding seventy minutes having done little to resolve his troubles, or anyone else's for that matter.

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(1) Like Inuzuka and Misumi, Mori was another industry veteran, having directed his first film in 1937. Unlike his venerable colleagues however, he appears to have kept up a frantic film-making schedule through the sixties, turning in about 4 or 5 movies a year, including two further Zatoichi instalments, before slowing down (or at least moving to TV) at the start of the ‘70s.

(2) Though this was Mizutani’s only appearance in a Zatoichi film, her other credits include ‘Oban’s Dripping Contest’ (1961), ‘Hero of the Red Light District’ (1960) and ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death: Hell is a Woman’ (1965), all of which I mention solely because I enjoyed typing the titles so much.

(3) Could the apparent propensity of all women who cross Ichi’s path to fall head over heels for his charms be pointing the way toward an ongoing series of egocentric, Bond-style seductions in future instalments? Only time will tell, but I kinda hope not.

(4) Though he sits very much in his Katsu’s shadow here, Wakayama went on to match and arguably surpass his brother’s fame (in the West, at least) thanks to his starring role in the legendary ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series (1972-75) – a series that sits roughly midway through the actor's impressively vast catalogue of Japanese genre movie appearances, which stretches from 1955 right through to his death in 1992. He returned to the Zatoichi series once more, playing a different character (I assume?) in ‘Zatoichi And The Chest of Gold’ (1964).

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

This Week’s Wheatley:
To The Devil – A Daughter
(Arrow Books, 1960 / first published 1953)



To put it plainly, I’m not really a fan of Dennis Wheatley (1897 - 1977). Although “the prince of thriller writers” (as he is heralded on the inside cover of this paperback) wrote extensively on a number of subjects that greatly appeal to me – Satanic cults, adventure on the high seas, exploration of lost/ancient civilisations, and so on – the authorial voice and general tone of his prose makes it impossible for me to ever get very far with one of his books.

I don’t know enough about Wheatley’s personal life and proclivities to start throwing ‘-ist’ words at him, but… how best to put this? Trying to read a Wheatley book is a bit like being trapped in the back room of a private members club in Calcutta in the 1920s, being interminably lectured by a drunken British cavalry colonel. Not so much ‘old world’ as actively ploughing backwards into the past, it’s easy to imagine Wheatley snorting with derision at the work of his ‘modernist’ literary contemporaries, naturally assuming that his rip-roaring tales of melodramatic daring-do are infinitely superior works, just because, well, it’s bloody obvious, isn’t it? They've got STORIES, and such.

Even more distressingly, Wheatley seems to have combined his cheery advocacy of Victorian colonial imperialism with an adherence to a strict Manichean belief system that saw him banging on – apparently in earnest - about the eternal battle between good and evil at every possible opportunity… which can’t possibly be a healthy combination, I’m thinking.

Nonetheless though, given my interests in old horror films, pulp fiction and so on, a certain amount of Wheatley contamination is inevitable. As I’ve mentioned several times before on this blog, I absolutely love Hammer’s adaptation of ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (to some extent precisely because the pompous attitudes that render the novel unbearable become wonderfully entertaining when transferred to an 80 minute genre movie), and for one reason or another Dennis’s name crops up more frequently on my shelves than that of many an author who I actually like.

Case in point is this edition of ‘To the Devil a Daughter’, the cover of which provides such a knock-out bit of straight-down-the-line horror-pulp artistry, I just couldn’t say no. (Cover artist is uncredited as per usual, but signature in the bottom left corner reads ‘Sax’?)

Staring at this cover, and reading the equally evocative list of chapter headings, really makes me wish that Hammer had stuck to a similarly old school approach when they came to film this one, rather than belatedly turning in some kind of muddled, post-Omen ‘70s thriller type effort complete with creepy jailbait nudity and the worst “oh shit, we forgot to film an ending” ending in cinema history. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

(In fairness, it’s been a long time since I saw Hammer’s ‘To The Devil a Daughter’, and I know it has its supporters… maybe it’s about time I gave it another shot..?)

For no particular reason, several more Wheatley-related posts to come over the next few weeks!